By Erica C. Barnett
In an unusual move for a group that has tended to prioritize preserving old buildings over new housing, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted against landmarking the two-story wood-framed Wilshire Building on Capitol Hill, commonly known as the Jai Thai building for its most recent anchor tenant. A city staff report also recommended against landmarking the building, saying it failed or probably failed to meet the two most likely criteria for landmarking.
Low-income housing developer TAP Collaborative bought the building at the corner of Thomas St. and Broadway Ave. E in 2018 with the intention of tearing down the old building and replacing it with a seven-story building that would be 100 percent affordable to people making 60 percent or less of the Seattle area median income, currently around $54,000. In 2022, that works out to rents between $1,350 and $1,450 a month for a studio, and one-bedroom, respectively. Earlier this year, City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda announced that the project would be among the first recipients of affordable housing funds from the JumpStart payroll tax.
The current building plan includes 26 studios, 69 one-bedrooms, five larger live/work units, plus retail space on the ground floor and parking spaces for 90 bikes (and zero cars). Landmark status would have almost certainly scuttled those plans.
“[Broadway] is becoming a canyon of modern buildings. So here’s a chance to preserve the exterior of one of the old ones.”—Landmarks board member Harriett Wasserman, one of two members who voted to preserve the Jai Thai building
The developer nominated the building for landmark status, a common move to get the process underway and to preempt landmark applications by preservationists, whose aim is to preserve old buildings. Historic Seattle, for example, weighed in earlier this year to suggest that the developer could both save the building and build affordable housing on site, although they did not offer any suggestions for building new apartments in or around the existing building, which is not up to seismic standards and does not have a separate façade that might be preserved as part of a new development.
“The building has long surpassed its economic useful life, given the decision at the time of construction to use inexpensive materials,” TAP Collaborative principal Rebecca Ralston told PubliCola. “When we acquired the building, we knew we were not dealing with a heavy timber or masonry structure so we had not anticipated the landmarking process. However, I cannot say it took us entirely by surprise, given its age.”
To be eligible for landmark status in Seattle, a building has to be at least 25 years old (in current terms, built before 1998) and meet one of six criteria. Three of the criteria have to do with the historical significance of the site (for example, if it was the site of a major historical event); the other three are about the building itself—whether it “embodies” an architectural style or is a distinctive work by a major architect, for example.
The building on Broadway Ave. East, designed by Seattle architect Henry Dozier and completed in 1903, has housed a number of typical neighborhood businesses over the years, including drug stores, groceries, restaurants, and a maternity home for young women where young women with unwanted pregnancies were “sent away.”
Visually, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the Jai Thai building, which looks like what it is— an old, slightly run-down brick-clad wooden structure with small businesses, including the Mud Bay pet supply store and a hair salon, on both floors. But Seattle is a young city, with few buildings more than 100 years old, and local preservationists have a habit of clinging to old buildings based entirely or primarily on their age.
“The lack of a specific architectural style, the lack of a notable patron, the lack of a celebrated architect, the lack of a documented historic event—these are the criteria by which a historic building should be evaluated, not whether or not one thinks it is charming and adds character to the neighborhood.”—Affordable housing developer Rebecca Ralston
At Wednesday’s landmarks board meeting, two advocates for landmarking the building—architectural historian Ian MacLeod and retired college IT director Harriett Wasserman—called out some of its distinctive features, like the arched windows on the second floor. They also made the case that Seattle’s history is “disappearing” as the city permits new buildings to replace old ones; Wasserman said the overall feel of Broadway has changed, and that preserving a low-rise commercial building, “even if it’s not as pretty as it once was,” would help stem the tide of modernity.
“The street is becoming a canyon of modern buildings,” Wasserman said. “So here’s a chance to preserve the exterior of one of the old ones.” Buildings on Broadway, like most “urban villages” around the city, can’t be taller than seven stories.
Dozier, the building’s architect, had a checkered history. Consultant Ellen Mirro, who prepared the landmark nomination, described Dozier on Wednesday as a “terrible” person who abandoned his mentally ill wife and nine children in Colorado in 1896—a story the local press covered breathlessly at the time. Dozier was also a virulent racist and early proponent of eugenics who wrote poems and letters to the editor of the Seattle Times denouncing Japanese Americans living in Seattle.
Although landmarks board members didn’t dwell on Dozier’s personal history, several were very interested in the building’s use as a maternity home, history Mirro’s firm, Studio TJP, uncovered in their research. Several board members suggested that this previously unknown history might be a basis for landmarking the building; MacLeod, for example, called the “maternity ward aspect of the history… really interesting and really unique” and suggested the “marginalized women” who used the maternity services might present a “parallel narrative” to the “LGBT history of Capitol Hill.”
Using theoretical marginalized women from the past to justify preserving the Jai Thai building today could prevent the construction of apartments for marginalized women who are currently living.
The landmark application goes deep into this history, which is indeed fascinating; it also notes that residential wards for young women with unwanted pregnancies proliferated across the country during the 1930s and ’40s, before abortion was legal. Preserving a building based on the previously unknown presence of a maternity ward, in other words, would be like preserving a structure because it once housed a patent medicine salesman—a part of medical history, for sure, but one that was common all over the city, the way barre studios and tattoo parlors are today.
Ralston said Thursday that she was “grateful” for the landmarks board’s decision. “We believe the presentation allowed the facts to speak for themselves. The lack of a specific architectural style, the lack of a notable patron, the lack of a celebrated architect, the lack of a documented historic event—these are the criteria by which a historic building should be evaluated, not whether or not one thinks it is charming and adds character to the neighborhood, [which] is completely subjective and open to much debate.”