On Wednesday, November 5, 2019 (Guy Fawkes Day) the Landmarks Preservation Board voted to allow the demolition of the Williams & Company potato chip factory at 1405 Elliott Avenue W. While Guy Fawkes failed to blow up the Parliament Building in London on this day in 1605, the landmarks board commemorated the day by denying the building’s nomination as a city landmark and paving the way for its likely demolition.
As we noted in our letter to the Landmarks Preservation Board, the potato chip factory meets designation criteria “D,” as it is a remarkable example of the industrial Art Deco/Zigzag style buildings constructed in Seattle as the city slid into the Great Depression. As one member of the Queen Anne Historical Society remarked, “this is so sad. Seattle has very few Art Deco buildings, and this is a very nice one indeed.”
We supported the nomination for several reasons. First, it is on Smith Cove, historically an extremely important site that documents how the filling of tidal flats constitutes one of most significant aspects of Seattle’s economic heritage. The building site is located on one of the most important land fill projects in the city’s history. The filling of Smith Cove and the elimination of its mud flats transformed the eastern edge of the cove into a major transportation corridor and the site of many nearby industrial buildings. Interbay’s industrial heritage is rapidly disappearing as the neighborhood changes to accommodate new uses.
Also relevant to criteria “D,” we pointed out to the Board that the Williams and Company building represents a creative use of malleable concrete as its sole material expression. With its stepped features and the delightful decorative elements of its central tower, The Williams & Company building is a remarkably expressive utilitarian building. Alas, the distinctive tower will soon be gone!
The 1925 Parisian International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts set off an explosion of new design parameters. It provided inexpensive and distinctive answers to the pomposity of the Beaux Arts movement and brought crisp lines, dynamic geometric designs and new fenestration patterns all of which, window alterations notwithstanding, are present here. The boom of the stock market and its crash in 1929 contribute to the significance of the Williams & Company building. It is one of the last buildings completed in Seattle prior to the construction hiatus during the Great Depression and compares well to the many Art Déco industrial buildings along Elliott Avenue and Art Déco buildings elsewhere in the city, e.g: the Meany Hotel, the Skinner Building, and the Armory at Seattle Center .
Also, as the document prepared for the nomination shows, this building met the criterion that the a building or site be the outstanding work of architect or designer. We contended that the Williams & Company potato chip factory is an outstanding design by George Wellington Stoddard who between 1920 and about 1960 is responsible for a large body of work in Seattle. Jeffrey Ochsner’s book, Shaping Seattle Architecture is peppered with references to his work. His 777 Thomas St. building is a simpler design that has been previously recognized as a Seattle landmark.
Jeffrey Murdock, a preservation advocate on the staff of Historic Seattle, attended the Landmarks Preservation Board’s discussion of the nomination and advocated for its preservation. He lamented that with so many public comments posted on the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection website once the land use sign was posted, none of these community members was present to speak in favor of the nomination.
Jeff’s email following up on the vote is compelling.
“The owners and attorneys introduced how the property is now a superfund site, and that the site must be cleared for remediation. I began by commenting that all buildings come before the board with some kind of back story, and that the only task before the board is to determine the property’s historic significance. The proposed demolition of a landmark should not enter the board’s consideration, according to the city’s landmarks ordinance.
“I focused on the exemplary level of concrete craft in the region during this period, which this building certainly conveys. I also commented how it is significant that this building, unlike other art deco buildings that usually rely on applied ornament like tile and metals, stands elegantly and convincingly in its proportion and form, crafted of humble concrete. What is significant about this building is that it is a well-designed example of the art deco, made much more significant by its material expression.
The vote was 3 in favor, 3 against. Those voting against said they just did not see that the building was significant.”
Jeff knows well the landmark process, having served for many years on the board. He recently completed a dissertation on Robert Reichert, the architect who designed one of Queen Anne’s mid-century gems at the corner of Smith Street and Third Avenue West.