The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume I, Number 1, Pages 19-20
Winter, 1976

Historical Preservation in Washington

By David Nicandri

"Gambrel" House

Puget Sound Indian Dwelling

Until very recently, the preservation of historic sites in Washington State has never quite measured up to the national standard of accomplishment. But there are signs now that the situation may soon change. The previous difficulties were the result of several factors.

One reason that stands out among many is that in terms of American settlement, as differentiated from original tribal habitation, the state is quite new. Even the oldest towns in Washington - Vancouver, Walla Walla, and Tumwater - have only existed approximately 120 years, in contrast with the eastern seaboard where architectural remnants more than 300 years old are still standing. Paradoxically, because our past in Washington is so near it does not seem venerable and hence the concept of preserving our antiquities is just starting to take hold.

Another reason historic preservation has lagged in Washington compared to other regions is because the historical importance of the buildings and sites is not always apparent. Eastern activists have traditionally had the advantage in preservation because that region has been the cockpit of much of the American national experience. Washington State and the West have no Faneuil or Independence Halls, Lee or Carter Mansions, Yorktown or Gettysburg battlefields. Usually, American history has been learned, both in academia and popularly, in terms of the great men and cataclysmic events. American history after the Civil War, with the exception of westward migration, has almost invariably been interpreted as a storm of political and presidential events swirling around Washington, D.C. Subsequently; the social history of whole states and regions was partially neglected because it was not part of the political and intellectual mainstream of the east coast. Until the 1960's, except for the hagiography of early pioneers, not much social history had been written in Washington, and certainly few buildings were deemed worth preserving. While Monticello, Mount Vernon and Hyde Park were turned into shrines, a generation of Washington sites occupied by the great and small were swept aside, the victims of progress.

Of course, times have changed, especially in the last 10 years. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, charged the National Park Service to begin keeping a "Register of Historic Places" in every state and territory. Each state was encouraged, with the inevitable federal funds, to establish a body to review nominations to the Register and to start its own historic preservation office. In Washington, this program was installed in the State Parks and Recreation department. After several slow and halting steps, the operation of this preservation program has improved, but it still is no match for the best efforts in some other states.

In the City of Seattle, however, great strides have been taken in historic preservation. The restoration of Pioneer Square has become a preservation model around the rest of the country. The latest burst of preservation activity in Seattle centers around the Pike Place Market. The elements of success in the Seattle story include the active support of the political establishment, segments of the business community, interested citizens, architects and able administration.

Regarding the latter, the appointment of Art Skolnik, former City Conservator for Seattle, to the position of chief historic preservation officer for the State of Washington, bodes well for the preservation movement. Skolnik, an architect, is the first full-time professional preservationist to hold his present position. Under his direction the state's efforts are sure to become more comprehensive.

Not all-historic preservation activity in Washington is taking place within the realm of government. A private group of citizens has formed the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. This new organization is headquartered now at the Jefferson County Historical Society in Port Townsend and was modeled after the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Like the National Trust, the Washington Trust hopes to serve as an educator and lobbyist on preservation matters, and perhaps one day, buy, operate, and sell historic properties.

Historic preservation in Washington is gaining momentum. On the whole, prospects for future accomplishments are good. Nevertheless, some philosophical problems regarding preservation remain, a proper subject for a future article.

David Nicandri

Olympia, Washington