In December 2013, Bill’s Off Broadway, the legendary Capitol Hill pizza joint and bar closed. Its building at Harvard Avenue and East Pine Street was to be replaced by a fancy, new mixed-use development. 

Now, Bill’s is back. It’s got the same owners, much of the same staff and the same menus. It’s got the same interior color scheme. It’s at the same corner. 

But it’s not the same place, and it’s not in the same space. Only the street-facing outer brick walls remain from the old building. Everything else, including Bill’s interior, is all new. 

Above the brick front, modern steel and glass construction rises six stories up. This sort of thing is going on all over Pike, Pine and Union streets in Capitol Hill. Everything from printing plants to luxury-car dealerships has been removed except for the skins. A few blocks away, even the beloved Harvard Exit Theatre is being razed-and-rebuilt like this. 

It’s going on all over South Lake Union. The massive Troy Laundry building has already been hollowed out. The former Seattle Times building — its interior recently defaced by squatters — will probably also vanish, except for its art-deco frontage. 

In these and other places around town, you can see forlorn exterior walls of brick and terra cotta, artificially braced up, standing in front of nothing but construction holes. 

 

‘Façadism’

In the frontier towns of the Old West (including pioneer Seattle), main streets were full of “false front” architecture. Grand, pompous storefronts stood proudly as signs of civic ambition, drawing people into the little one- or two-story stick structures hiding behind them. 

Today’s “façadism” (yes, that’s a term some people use for this phenomenon) attempts an opposite aesthetic goal. It seeks to mask the harsh, brutal, hyper-efficient modernity of a structure by offering a make-believe connection to the funky, old building it replaced. Longtime residents can drive past it and imagine that the historic old building is still there, as long as they don’t look too closely. 

But that’s about all it does. It doesn’t preserve the spaces within or their past diverse uses. 

Eugenia Woo, a local historic-preservation advocate and current director of preservation for Historic Seattle, writes about “What Price Façadism?” in the latest issue of Arcade, the local architectural/design journal. Woo decries the practice, as an aesthetic travesty that fails to preserve the old buildings’ “authenticity”: “Stripped of everything but its facade, a building loses its integrity and significance, rendering it an architectural ornament with no relation to its history, function, use, construction method or cultural heritage. With only its primary facades saved, the original structure is gone, including the roof, interior features and volume of space.… Further, the scale and massing of the new building change the rhythm and feel of a block and neighborhood.”

Crosscut.com’s Knute Berger recently noted that property owners have sometimes manipulated the façades they’re supposedly preserving. Berger writes that preservation advocates “have accused developers of damaging the historic integrity of building exteriors to ensure their building won’t be made a landmark, yet preserving the building’s skin as a ploy to win approval for more height for a new project. In other words, façade protections could actually be undercutting true preservation.” 

Berger also notes that, at least in the Pike/Pine corridor, current regulations have the effect of encouraging façadism instead of true preservation: “If an old building’s exterior is deemed to have architectural and contextual character, a developer can get additional height for a new structure in exchange for saving the façade. In other words, extra density and square-footage is dangled as an incentive to save an original exterior.” 

 

Keeping built history alive

The current tech-office boom, a legacy of city officials promoting urban development at almost any price (except in “single-family” zones) and popular trends that see urban life as more attractive than suburban life have combined to create a “perfect storm” of development fever. This has put pressure on the continued existence of old commercial and industrial buildings throughout Seattle. 

Growth, say pro-development “urbanists,” is inevitable. But façadism needn’t be. 

There are other ways to keep Seattle’s built history alive, while accommodating new residents and new uses. Instead of false façades, Woo would rather see a form of “smart planning” that either preserves historic buildings whole or replaces them whole with “new projects that are well-designed, perhaps the landmarks of tomorrow, cohesively knitted into the streetscape.”

CLARK HUMPHREY is the author of “Walking Seattle” and “Vanishing Seattle.” He also writes a blog at miscmedia.com. To comment on this column, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com.