The time has come to say goodbye to one of the oldest houses in Wedgwood, the Big Green House at 7321 35th Ave NE which became hemmed in by the surrounding business district. From its vantage point looming high above Wedgwood’s main arterial of 35th Ave NE, the Big Green House watched Wedgwood grow from a thinly populated area outside of the city limits into one of the most popular residential neighborhoods of northeast Seattle. A developer bought the Big Green House in 2002 with plans to tear down the house and replace it with a commercial structure. Demolition finally occurred on February 17, 2015.
Although we don’t know the exact build date due to the lack of an original construction permit, other property records indicate that the Big Green House was built around 1910-1915. Information about the house has been gathered from deeds and property tax records, the census, probate records of the original owner and interviews with his descendants.
In the early 1900s a German immigrant, William Voss, came to Seattle after living in Illinois, California, and eastern Washington. After living for a time in the University District, Voss spent the last twenty years of his life in the house he built at 7321 35th Ave NE. No one knows why Voss chose this location or why he built such a big house which was then out in the middle of nowhere. The house would have been the largest structure in the area at that time. Family descendants have told that the house was difficult to heat in winter and they used to retreat to a smaller, snugger house which Voss built nearby at 7318 34th Ave NE. More of the story of William Voss and his Big Green House can be found in another article on this blog.
Old houses in Wedgwood
Many of Seattle’s older neighborhoods such as Queen Anne and Capitol Hill have any number of houses of an age of one hundred years or more, but such a thing is rare in Wedgwood. Prior to the 1920s there were very few people living in Wedgwood and their houses tended to be small. One of the main reasons for this was that there was no electricity or city water supply in Wedgwood prior to the 1920s. Houses were heated by a centrally-located wood or coal stove, so a house might have only a front and back room in order to be reached by the heat.
Later, after city water and electricity became available in Wedgwood, there was a tendency to tear down the old houses or even to use them as chicken houses, while homeowners built themselves a new residence with wiring and plumbing. I know of several sites in Wedgwood where people lived around the year 1910, but sometimes owners built a new house around the old one, enclosing and expanding it, so technically it is not the same original structure.
Wedgwood did have a growing population in the 1920s and those early residents built some of the Craftsman-style houses which still stand in the neighborhood and are approaching one hundred years of age. But Wedgwood is known primarily as a post-war neighborhood because it acquired its identity through developer Albert Balch’s 1940s and 1950s building program. The name of the first plat filed by Balch, “Wedgwood,” eventually caught on as the name of the entire neighborhood.
What kinds of buildings are eligible for historic preservation in Seattle?
The loss of an old, highly visible house, the Big Green House at 7321 35th Ave NE, brings up questions of how sites in Seattle are evaluated for historic preservation and whether the Big Green House represents an essential aspect of Wedgwood’s heritage from an earlier era.
The City of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods has a Historic Preservation program. Seattle’s commitment to historic preservation and the legal protections for it began in the 1960s. At that time an Urban Renewal movement called for the clearing away of Pioneer Square and the Pike Place Market so that these deteriorating districts could be replaced with new buildings. Other renewal drives led to the building of Seattle Center which was to be permanent after the Century 21 World’s Fair of 1962, and to the building of the freeway in the 1960s. The I-5 freeway corridor has been in existence for more than fifty years now and few of us remember what Seattle was like before the freeway was constructed. It must be noted that entire neighborhoods were torn down to create the vast canyon for cars that we presently have. Wedgwood has at least one house that I know of which was moved out of the path of the freeway; a new site was found for it in Wedgwood in 1959.
The Urban Renewal movement of the 1950s and 1960s was well-organized and they presented convincing arguments that it was best to sweep away the old and replace it with the new, such as the modern era of freeway construction for cars. But the wholesale destruction of neighborhoods, housing stock and historic commercial structures was so horrifying that opponents finally got organized and fought back. People didn’t seem to be aware of the potential historic losses until the possibility of tearing down Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market was proposed. In reaction, the preservation movement in Seattle led to legislation for historic landmarking which could include houses as well as commercial buildings.
After a long struggle, in 1970 the Seattle City Council made Pioneer Square the city’s first Historic Preservation District. Two years later, Seattle voters approved money for the preservation of Pike Place Market. In 1973 the Seattle City Council adopted a Landmarks Preservation Ordinance and began the process of setting standards for historic designation. Over time other historic districts were established: Ballard Avenue, Columbia City, Fort Lawton, Harvard-Belmont, and the International District. In 2011 the former Sand Point Naval Air Station property was designated as Seattle’s newest historic district.
What is a historic landmark?
Some of the properties in northeast Seattle which have been designated as historic landmarks include Bryant Elementary School at 3311 NE 60th Street (built in 1926) Nathan Eckstein Middle School at 3003 NE 75th Street (built in 1950), the Northeast Branch Library at 6801 35th Ave NE (built in 1954 and has had an addition) and the Theodora (built in 1965, the Theodora is under new ownership in 2015 with conversion to an apartment building called The Mod.)
At a May 2012 meeting of the Landmarks Board, plans were presented to build new portable classrooms on the campus of Eckstein Middle School. An architect appeared before the Landmarks Board with schematic drawings to show that the placement of the portables would ensure that they were not visible from the street, and thus the historic façade of the building would not be marred. This presentation was typical for a “landmarked” building which must apply for approval of some kinds of changes.
The Seattle Landmark Ordinance provides that a building, object or structure may be eligible to be listed as a historic landmark if it is more than twenty-five years old and meets one of six criteria. A house, commercial building or structure (such as a bridge or a fire station) must meet criteria showing that it has has been associated with a significant aspect of the cultural heritage of the community, or that the building itself is so distinctive that it should be preserved for its outstanding quality. It is much more difficult for a private home to qualify for landmarking, unless it can be proven that the house was the site of an important event in Seattle history or is the outstanding work of a particular architect.
Houses which qualified for historic landmarking in Seattle
At the Seattle Landmarks Board meeting on November 7, 2012 a nomination report for a house built in 1910 in the Mt. Baker neighborhood, was presented for consideration. The house was built by C.P. Dose, a noted businessman and developer in early Seattle. The nomination of his house was based on several criteria: that C.P. Dose was important in the history of the city and that the house itself is worthy of preservation based upon architectural standards. After the nomination report was given, the Landmarks Board agreed that the house met the criteria. The second hearing before the Board, with the final decision called designation, took place on December 19, 2012, and the board voted unanimously to designate the Dose house as a historic landmark. The current owner of the house is not related to the original owner and builder, but he requested the historic nomination to preserve the house in its original condition.
One of the biggest fights ever to come before the Seattle Landmarks Board was over the nomination of the George Carmack house at 1522 E. Jefferson Street in the Squire Park neighborhood. Proponents of landmarking included the National Park Service which operates the Klondike Gold Rush Museum in downtown Seattle. George Carmack was the man credited with filing the first gold claim which set off the Yukon Gold Rush in 1897 and changed the history of Seattle. Seattle began advertising itself as “Gateway to the Yukon.” Thousands of people came through Seattle and bought supplies for travel to the gold fields, which dynamited the city out of the economic depression it had been in since 1893. At the Landmarks Board hearing in April 2009, those not in favor of landmarking George Carmack’s Seattle house said that he was a fake; probably his Tagish native brother-in-law, Skookum Jim, was the one who had discovered the gold. Opponents also said that Carmack’s house in Seattle was not architecturally outstanding in and of itself.
These arguments about the significance of the Carmack house and the people associated with it help illustrate the problems of assessing the historic and cultural value of Wedgwood’s Big Green House. Although the Big Green House was distinctive in Wedgwood, it didn’t rise to the level of significance needed for a historic landmark in Seattle, because of its lack of specific architecture or association with people or events in the context of the history of the city.
Learning from the story of the Big Green House
Beginning in 2007 when I first began to study the Big Green House at 7321 35th Ave NE, many people have helped me with house-history research. Librarians, architects, archivists, history and property-research experts have contributed their expertise. They have looked at the house and its property records, and have reviewed the records according to historic preservation standards. Others have wondered, along with me, about the life story of the original owner, William Voss.
I am most greatly indebted to John LaMont and Jeannette Voiland, librarians of the Seattle Room of the downtown Seattle Public Library, for their guidance. They started me out on the path of research into property records and referred me to other researchers in Seattle history and architecture. Now the time has come to say goodbye to the Green House, but the education I received through its study will help me continue to write about the history of the Wedgwood neighborhood.
UPDATE: The George Carmack house at 1522 E. Jefferson Street was torn down on April 28, 2015. Here is what Crosscut writer Knute Berger wrote in 2009 about the landmarking controversy over the house. Despite having been voted for designation by Seattle’s Landmarks Board, the owners resisted the process and let the house deteriorate so that ultimately there was no way to preserve it. Here is what Knute Berger wrote in May 2015 on reflection of the loss of the Carmack house.