Preserving Integrity: an International Comparison

My recent visiting to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia,in August 2016, brought to light important questions about architectural integrity and preservation particularly as façadism gains favor in Seattle. Both Paul Allen’s classic example of façadism at his eponymous institute at 615 Westlake between Mercer and Valley or the struggle to preserve the Space Needle have recently shown, Seattle folks and Queen Anne neighbors alike are just beginning to grapple with the issues.

Estonia is the northernmost of the three Baltic states. Along with Lithuania and Latvia, it has had a long history of occupations by Danes, Russians, Swedes, Germans and just about all the conquering peoples of northern Europe including the Vikings. Tallinn, across from Helsinki on the Strait of Finland, has a few excavated bits of Viking history in its museums. More dramatically though, it has real examples of 13th, 14th and 15th century buildings surviving in appropriate contexts exactly where they were first built.

Three Sisters, Tallinn, Estonia. 15th c. warehouses
Three Sisters, Tallinn, Estonia, 2016

It would be great to attribute the survival of these three 15th c. buildings (and they are not the only ones to survive) shown here to some fanciful Estonian historic preservation gene. Such fabrications disregard wars, history and cultural change. Tallinn first became rich as an important transshipment point and member of the Hanseatic League which dominated trade on the Baltic Sea from about 1300 to 1700. These three buildings served as warehouses, offices and homes for the merchants who ran them.

In recent history, Tallinn was horribly dismembered during a March 1944 bombing by the Soviets. After the World War II, the occupying Russians, trying to gain local support, dedicated themselves here as in many Northern European cities (e.g.: Warsaw, St. Petersburg) to rebuilding the historic city. What we see today is a city center that suffered major damage (Wikipedia, “Bombing of Tallinn in World War II”) and whose destroyed parts have been largely rebuilt to look much as they did before the war.

I don’t know to what extent these late Gothic warehouses, now known as the Three Sisters, were damaged. It is noteworthy though that they have been combined into a single hotel. Consequently, little of the historic interiors of the buildings survive, and the exteriors have been largely rebuilt or repaired to look practically new. Indeed, the stone quoins on the nearest and far ‘sister’ and the windows and doors openings may be the only original features on the buildings’ exterior to survive. Especially noteworthy is the Gothic entrance to the nearest sister.

Most dramatically, the rebuilding and saving of these once functional warehouses has respected the colors, massing and scale of the historic city. Unlike the restored terra cotta of the former dealership on Westlake, there is no tall building looming just a few feet behind their historic façades. The scale of the buildings matches those of their neighbors. Respecting the historic fabric of the Hanseatic city has trumped some developer’s need to make an extra euro.

It would have made no difference to Paul Allen’s bottom line had Vulcan (his real estate arm) respected the integrity of the two car dealerships on Westlake and fought SDOT to rebuild them in situ.

Allen Institute, 2016

SDOT adjusted Mercer Street to meet such a need across the street where it saved Washington Natural Gas’s former headquarters, now UW Medicine.  As it is, the buildings have been shifted nine feet to the north of their original site.

Just as the 1944 bombing wrecked Tallinn, so the William O. McKay Lincoln and Ford dealerships on Westlake had been wrecked by earthquakes, but the restoration of the Three Sisters, unlike the work done at Westlake, contributed to the preservation of old city’s historic integrity. This is not to say that the restoration of the terra cotta on the Lincoln and Ford dealership is not among the best ever done; nor does it deny the accurate and sensitive work on the interior of the Lincoln showroom on the corner of Westlake and Mercer. My point is that unlike Vulcan’s work in Seattle, every aspect of the exteriors of the refurbished Three Sisters respects their original shape, color and massing which in turn assures their integration into the historic city that surrounds them. They set a standard that Seattle needs to adopt.

We know, of course, that too much has changed here for any part of Seattle to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site like Tallinn, but there is no good reason why we can’t strive to preserve the mass and scale of those contributing buildings that define the historic character of our cherished neighborhoods.