SAH Blog

  • Washington State Slept Here: SAH Archipedia and the Question of Significance

    By
    J. Philip Gruen
     |
    Feb 24, 2015

    A couple of months ago I was asked what seemed, to me, an interesting question. As many readers of this blog likely know, SAH is well on its way to completing the first major stage of its SAH Archipedia project, SAH Archipedia Classic Buildings, where all fifty states will feature online entries of its 100 most “representative” buildings. I’ve signed on, along with my former student and now-colleague Robert Franklin, to co-coordinate the SAH Archipedia project for the state of Washington. Hardly claiming to be authorities on the architecture of the state—we chose to marshal several scholars, preservation consultants, professors, graduate students, and even the state architectural historian to help draft most of the entries rather than attempting to do all of them ourselves. 

    Marcus Whitman Hotel, Walla Walla, Washington (photo courtesy of Robert Franklin)

    Marcus Whitman Hotel, Walla Walla, Washington (photo courtesy of Robert Franklin) 

    But that wasn’t the question. The question came about during an email exchange with a potential contributor recommended to me by a colleague.  Having asked the potential contributor whether s/he would be interested in crafting entries from a list of the state’s 100 most “significant” buildings (quotations in the original), I received the following question:

    Also, are there any particular project specific criteria for determining which candidates for inclusion are the most "significant?"

    The question took me somewhat by surprise. I put the notion of significance in quotes in my email largely because I assumed it was common knowledge that “significance” is hotly-contested terrain, and that even hard-line preservationists holding tightly to vestiges of the “fifty-year rule” would understand that the notion of significance can be sliced many different ways—nearly all of which make sense depending upon the narrative. I avoided the term “representative” because—perhaps mistakenly—I assumed that “representative buildings” would raise more immediate questions or concerns, especially because one could easily interpret a “representative” list to focus upon a “one of each” sort of thing, where all eras or styles would be represented no matter what.  

    Still, the question puzzled me. Maybe I assumed that we are well past the point where we need to explain why a single room occupancy hotel once housing Japanese immigrants prior to internment might be just as significant as a fancy, architecturally-detailed commercial building designed by a megafirm in the heart of a metropolis. Of course, to an SAH crowd or even most preservationists these days, the importance of a cultural landscape approach—which brings to the fore several oft-overlooked or understudied aspects that provide a far fuller picture of the built environment than one might have found in more conventional analyses of the previous century—goes without saying.  But to everyone else? 

    This is by no means intended to suggest that the writer of that question was unaware of such an approach or was critical of ours; indeed, s/he was simply asking the question.  As I had neither divulged our criteria for significance nor provided our working list of the 100 most significant buildings in the state of Washington in my initial email, perhaps s/he would have been less enthusiastic to join a growing cadre of writers had s/he known that the criteria was limited to buildings before 1950, or that all buildings had to be high-style affairs, or that a site needed to be immortalized by a significant event or person in the state’s history—the famous “George Washington Slept Here” mantra. I don’t know.  I never asked.

    But the question did give me pause. Maybe the notion of “significance” remains unclear. Maybe, as architectural historians, we are still talking mostly to ourselves, and the word isn’t getting “out” to a less specialized public that may adhere to other impressions of significance. Maybe we are still in the midst of a long paradigm shift towards a more catholic understanding of significance and a broader acceptance of all building types, periods, and design conditions as worthy of recognition—one that may have begun in the 1960s with the build-up to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.  

    So I decided to respond, and my response grew from one paragraph into a couple of pages. I’ve revised it slightly since my original response, but the gist remains. As I began crafting my response, I quickly realized I was probably writing something that could be applicable for any state—with some exceptions, of course (not every state features the mid-century modernist timber houses of the Pacific Northwest). But I have no authority to suggest it is a template—SAH Archipedia editors Gabrielle Esperdy and Catherine Erkkila would be the ones to consult for that, although their flexibility and wide-ranging perspectives on the built environment indicates that a similar approach elsewhere would not be unacceptable. 

    In the meantime, I remain curious. Do we need to explain what constitutes something such as “significance?” Are we dealing with a moment when such notions have shifted for academics, but not practitioners or the general public?Should we consider more succinct definitions? I don’t have an answer, but I’ve enjoyed contemplating these questions as I’ve ventured into the extraordinarily challenging task of selected the 100 most significant buildings in the state—a challenge I suspect I share with every other colleague coodinating SAH Archipedia projects across the country. Our working list of buildings is available here and our criteria for significance is below. We now send these to every new writer who joins our project. We realize they are problematic, potentially riddled with contradictions, and only partly representative of the types of structures on our current list. But perhaps that is just the point. 

    What do you think?

    -------------------------------------------

    Dear Washington SAH Archipedia writer:

    Thank you for your interest in contributing to this endeavor. As you have had the opportunity to peruse the list of 100 sites, logically you might have some questions. What are the criteria for “architectural significance?” Why did some sites make the list and not others? Why are some areas, building types, or architects represented and not others? 

    The truth is that we don’t have a perfectly satisfactory answer to that question, other than to say 1) the list is still somewhat in flux (every time we look at it, it seems, we remove one site and add in a different one) and 2) limiting this to just 100 sites is the most difficult thing about this project. But it’s also the most exciting and interesting aspect as well.

    As background, the first version of this list was compiled by Professor Jeffrey Ochsner of the University of Washington. He was initially—and logically—asked to coordinate the project (he has vastly more expertise than we do), but he was unable to oversee it. However, he did share his initial list with us and made a number of recommendations, and our current list of 100 builds upon his. One particular feature of Professor Ochsner’s initial list was an excellent geographical balance, as he worked to include a satisfactory number of sites from the far corners of the state. 

    There is some logic to the current list. We are not experts on any of these sites and many we have not yet seen in person, but at this point we’ve at least looked into all of them and tried to understand them within a broad picture of Washington’s history. In general, however, this 100 list (which is not numbered from best to worst—it’s just trying to keep track of how many we have) is trying to present a story, or several stories, of the state through the built environment. We are less interested in cherry-picking buildings simply for their form, accolades, or notable designers and trying to craft stories around them. 

    To that end, one could argue that there is more of a cultural landscape approach to the Washington SAH Archipedia—it is less a guidebook to spectacular works of architecture. We are hoping that the individual entries we receive—while always keeping the built environment as the centerpiece and, if necessary, telling interesting stories about the designers—will not be a “bird book” type of entry that one is likely find in most architectural guidebooks. One still needs to be careful—the architectural details must be incorporated into each entry, including names, dates, materials, and important additions and alterations. Admittedly, in some cases, the “significance” is mostly an architectural one. And, yes, there are a few targeted examples that might say more about architecture or style than about the state or its history.

    We are aware that the geographical distribution of sites is not perfect, but in general it mirrors a proportional population balance (perhaps more so prior to World War Two than today, when there was a larger rural to urban population). For a state list, too, one ought to try to cover the state. Still, we recognize that there are fewer examples on this list in eastern and central Washington than west of the Cascades. Granted, the examples from eastern Washington might not be considered as aesthetically extravagant as equivalent sites elsewhere, but we did wish to maintain a broad geographical coverage.

    There was also the effort to understand the built environment in its widest possible sense. This meant the inclusion of everything from historic districts; works of engineering; industry; landscape architecture; and building types associated with particular ethnic groups to ordinary and vernacular examples including a campsite, a lighthouse, coke ovens, and a grange hall. This meant that the “famous architect” would not always be a criteria for inclusion, despite this being an online architectural encyclopedia. The vast majority of Washington’s built environment is comprised of works not designed by famous architects—both today and in the past—so we wished to provide more ordinary and non-monumental examples than one might expect to find in a list such as this. Even so, we know this list tends to feature the more extraordinary examples of the ordinary and vernacular. And even more still, there isn’t enough of the vernacular! One easily could look at the list and find a majority of buildings designed by notable architects and well-known historic districts and not nearly enough housing types, barns, diners, drive-ins, or motels, for example. Or in some cases, any at all. But we are not adverse to altering the list should there be a compelling rationale to do so, and we have made several changes to the list since it began.

    Chuckanut Drive, near Bellingham, Washington (photo courtesy of Lynette Felber)

    Chuckanut Drive, near Bellingham, Washington (photo courtesy of Lynette Felber)

    We also tried to include buildings from a variety of different time periods, but to those of a more traditional persuasion there are perhaps more than the fair share of buildings from the recent past on the list. This has more to do with preference: we believe more people associate the Pacific Northwest with a particular architecture that has been best articulated from the mid-twentieth-century onward (although there are perhaps earlier precedents that led to this architecture). Put simply, this relates mostly to an aesthetic that features timber; free-flowing space (both interior and exterior); prominent roof-lines; an overall emphasis on structure; and an attention to the surrounding—usually natural—environment. This overall aesthetic or process can be found most prominently in residential design and perhaps broadly (if stereotypically) wrapped up in the term “sustainable” design. It’s a particular kind of sustainability, however—one that incorporates the various building systems within that Northwest look. And, I think, this is what people imagine when they think of the architecture of the Pacific Northwest—and perhaps that of Washington state more than anywhere else. If there is a theme that runs through the Washington SAH Archipedia, perhaps it is that. 

    But it’s hardly representative of the only type of architecture one will discover on the list. There is plenty here from 1870-1940, even if we might argue that one would be hard-pressed to define much unique about Washington architecture during the time period—save for some vernacular examples of barn types; perhaps more company towns than many states; and maybe the preponderance of big engineering works (although that was not necessarily unique, either). Much of the rest of the architecture seemed to be keeping up with national trends, but not necessarily providing their most spectacular or representative examples. (We recognize that this may engender some debate.) Yet we’ve included several examples of non-unique building types: there is the Carnegie Library, for example, as well as the New Deal-era courthouse, the Gothic Revival church, the Art Deco skyscraper, and the historic district notable for its many examples from the Victorian period. These continue to hold plenty of interest, and the public may raise considerable eyebrows if there were no examples of these types.

    But we are not intending the Washington SAH Archipedia to be a call-to-arms; we did not intentionally include those buildings that are threatened with development pressure or in desperate need of repair; if such examples are on this list, it is because we deemed them significant for other reasons (building type, designers, geographical balance, etc.) However, if SAH Archipedia has the spin-off effect of garnering more attention to help preserve some of these buildings and spaces, then certainly that would be a benefit. But it was not a criterion.

    On a related note, we do not intend this list to be a “memory” piece per se; while we certainly hope that our writers will include earlier versions or no-longer-visible histories of the sites they are assigned, we tried not to choose any sites that have been demolished, are slated for demolition, or are altered practically beyond recognition—unless we determined the alterations themselves to be significant. Thus, sites such as Northgate Mall and Yesler Terrace in Seattle—very significant for different reasons initially and both part of our original list—have been removed. Northgate Mall’s original design has been altered beyond recognition and Yesler Terrace is undergoing major changes to make it arguably less significant as an architectural ensemble (although it could certainly be argued that its significance was not “architectural” to begin with). The Alaskan Way Viaduct—one of the most significant aspects of the built environment in twentieth-century Seattle (albeit not one of the most beloved)—is slated for demolition and might be gone altogether within a few years of Washington SAH Archipedia’s projected “go live” date in 2016. Still, we hope that the Washington SAH Archipedia will have another effect of encouraging the public to go out and explore these sites and to be able to recapture some of the important stories the writers are discussing in their essays—hence the reason for coordinates and maps.     

    We also wanted to include a broad range of design styles—although we know we ended up leaving some out. Sometimes this can be accomplished by just covering a series of time periods, but not always. So if you are curious as to why we might have included something such as the Thurston County Courthouse in Olympia (New Deal era stripped-down classical), or the Lake Quinault Lodge near Olympic National Park (“rustic”-style lodge characteristic of national and state park development in the early part of the twentieth century), it’s because we really had few other examples of the style. Could they be switched out with other examples? Yes—if there is a compelling rationale for doing so.

    You might wonder why there seem to be few single-family residences on this list, save for a few well-known examples (Cutter’s Glover House in Spokane, for example, or those houses included within districts, such as the Hilltop neighborhood in Bellevue or the Alphabet Houses in Richland). Perhaps it’s particularly ironic given that we might consider the “Pacific Northwest” style to have emerged out of residential design more than anything. Beyond trying to balance the list, however, it is important for SAH Archipedia that these buildings be clearly visible from a public right-of-way—particularly for the purposes of photography. We are trying as best as possible to avoid any copyright challenges or hassles, and we should not be encouraging the public to illegally access these sites or trespass. This is certainly not to suggest that many houses are not worthy of making this list.    

    Finally, there are some works on here which are perhaps far more interesting because of their “landscapes” in a broad sense, be that landscape political, cultural, or geologic (Teapot Dome; Panama Hotel; Mt. St. Helens visitor centers).

    So… what is “architecturally significant” about this 100 list? That’s difficult to say. We could have made this a much tighter exercise: picking only works in Seattle, or only the top designers, or only eight or so works per decade, or even holding tight to the fifty-year rule and/or criteria A, B, or C on the secretary of the interior’s standards, but such boundaries might have been even more puzzling to folks later clicking through the site who may never venture to gain a broad sense of what is included and why. So if this list looks a little bit messy and seems to lack cohesion, well, that’s entirely intentional. 

    But it also means that the list is still malleable. Already it has been shaped by suggestions, and that too is representative of significance; obviously, we historians, writers, consultants, preservationists, architects, independent scholars, and critics are part of a larger community of folks who help shape “significance”—the buildings don’t have too much significance on their own.  Since everyone seems to have a different opinion about the notion of significance, to have a smattering of opinions represented here, I think, is representative of significance in the mid-2010s! 

    Another good thing is that because this will be online, the first 100 is just that:  the first 100. There will be room to expand over time—something much easier than publishing this in print. If you look at our list on page two, you’ll see the beginnings of the “next 100,” also divided by region. Some of these are sites that were initially on the list and then were removed from it. Some also have moved back, and might do so again as we continue to learn more about them, and as others continue to chime in.

    Thanks again for your interest in this project. We are looking forward to working with you.

    Yours,

    Phil and Robert

     

     

    Phil-web-bio-pic-300x300Phil Gruen is Associate Professor and Interim Director of the School of Design and Construction at Washington State University. Gruen’s principal research involves American architecture and urbanism. He is particularly interested in the tug-of-war between the presentation of the built environment and its experience in human action and memory. His book manuscript, Manifest Destinations: Tourist Encounters in the Late-Nineteenth Century Urban American West, published in September 2014 (University of Oklahoma Press), explores this issue with respect to boosters and visitors in San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Chicago. Gruen’s work also has appeared in Montana: The Magazine of Western History (2011) as well as in textbooks, anthologies, and encyclopedias on subjects ranging from monumental urban architecture in the United States to the planning and design of Disneyland in Anaheim, California. He has provided the introductory essay for Architectura: Elements of Architectural Style (Barron’s Educational Series, 2008). He chaired a session on architectural tourism for the Society of Architectural Historians’ conference in 2014, led the “Legacy of Daniel Burnham; Architect and City Planner” study tour for SAH in August of 2009, and serves on the board of directors for the Marion Dean Ross/Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians.

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