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December 7, 2017

Larry Kreisman retiring, but he won't stop trying to save historic buildings

Journal Staff Reporter

Larry Kreisman is retiring from Historic Seattle Dec. 28, ending a run that started in the mid-1970s when he joined the organization as a volunteer.

Kreisman, now 70, was hired in 1997 as program director of the public development authority, which the city established to preserve and protect Seattle's built heritage through restorations, education and advocacy.

He is an architectural historian, author and preservation consultant, with a bachelor's degree in English and fine arts from The City College of New York, a master's in English literature from the University of Chicago and a master's in architecture from the University of Washington.


To honor Kreisman, Historic Seattle recently launched a fund for education programs that has already reached it $25,000 goal. Also, the city declared May 31 (his birthday) Lawrence Kreisman Day.

Liz Johnson is Historic Seattle's new program manager. She has experience in program management, public engagement and educational programming, and holds a master's in urban planning from the University of Washington.

The DJC spoke with Kreisman. His comments have been edited for length.

What's the value of historic buildings to Seattle?

They are more important than ever as the city undergoes major expansion that favors higher, denser development. The most obvious inroads are being made downtown and in South Lake Union, taking with them many buildings under five stories that tell the story of the city's earlier development.

While most are not protected landmarks, they served important purposes and will be missed. In some cases, owners and developers purposely removed historic materials to disqualify them from being city landmarks — to free up the land for development. The same is happening on arterials that were the major neighborhood shopping centers of our streetcar suburbs. The traditional character of these commercial streets is disappearing.

Is it enough to keep the facade of an old building?

A “facadectomy” doesn't save a building — it simply saves a partial facade behind new construction that is not of the same scale or materials as the building that took up the site. It is a visual reminder of what was there, but does not respect our historic architecture.

Property owners want to maximize their return, but I wish developers would target vacant land, parking lots or poorly designed old structures with no viable use left to develop their apartments and office towers.

Utilitarian buildings that were handsome and useful in their time — laundries, automobile showrooms, one-and two-story commercial buildings — can be beautifully restored and adapted for myriad uses if owners asked, “What can I do with this building to add value to the community and provide some return on my investment?” rather than, “How can I fill the building envelope allowed by the zoning on this spot and maximize my profit?”

Would requiring seismic upgrades mean more old buildings get demolished?

There is always that danger. Some property owners are invested in the land, and not the building. My hope is that most owners of an older building are invested in the character-defining features of their building and how it helps keep the neighborhood vital, so they will invest in its longevity. Historic Seattle believes that preserving a building rather than sending it to landfill is, by itself, an important environmental plus. And having it continue to be useful and income-producing should be the goal of stewardship.

With Seattle changing so fast, do you sometimes not know where you are?

Yes, especially in South Lake Union. Reorienting Mercer Street and Westlake to two-way traffic and closing or shifting directional streets frustrate those of us who used to know our way around — and the shortcuts. And while light rail stations are important, they have also meant demolition of valuable historic commercial and residential buildings, particularly on and near Broadway and Northeast 65th Street. Frankly, the replacements are not distinctive.

Are there new buildings in Seattle or Bellevue that will be worth saving?

I am not a contemporary architecture expert and can't predict what will win favor. However, I am critical of many of the quickly built apartment buildings in residential neighborhoods that use flat roofs, a multitude of facade materials, and segmental forms to “break up” their bulk but without creating a harmonious whole, or relating to the older nearby buildings.

However, architectural qualities are only one factor in long-term worth of a building. Others are the way in which the community accepts it, favors it and uses it.

What's your favorite building and style of architecture?

Late 19th and early 20th century design. I am drawn to buildings of the Art Nouveau and Austrian/German Secession period in Europe, and of the Arts & Crafts period in Great Britain and America. My favorite building style is the emerging skyscraper and its European ornamental vocabulary that powerfully expressed America's progressive metropolitan pep.

No building in the Northwest does that more successfully than the 27-story Northern Life Tower (now Seattle Tower). Designed in 1928 by A.H. Albertson, Joseph Wilson and Paul Richardson, it explores the richness of regional design motifs. It is no coincidence that Albertson, who sat on the planning commission that developed this city's setback ordinance in 1923, was also instrumental in the design of Seattle's finest setback skyscraper.

Any regrets about things you would have done differently?

I have created unique educational experiences and helped develop support for built heritage and design, along with writing and doing exhibitions about the region's importance in architecture and applied arts.

I would not have done anything differently, but I think we must do a better job of reaching elementary and secondary school students, who function in a virtual world of devices rather than experience the built environment they walk through.

Education must focus more on the importance of buildings and neighborhoods in our collective memory, or young people will not be invested in preserving those reminders of an earlier time.

Also, we should engage college students in a “young preservationist” circle, much as museums use activities to get younger people involved in art and design, and develop a speakers' bureau to better tap into youth with a compelling preservation message.

What was the best Historic Seattle program during your tenure?

The annual Bungalow Fair and Arts & Crafts lecture series of 1998 to 2011. It educated people on the values of design reform, hand-craftsmanship and the rich heritage of bungalows and craftsman buildings in the city, and let them meet with antique dealers and cottage industries.

Your plans?

I will continue to support Historic Seattle in its increasingly important mission of preserving our built heritage, and there may be another book or exhibition to fill the gap in our understanding of the talented people and businesses that worked here, produced significant design legacies, and have not been acknowledged.


Lynn Porter can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.

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