City council rules exterior of Treat mansion historical: Owners may appeal to Superior Court

The Seattle City Council voted 8-1 March 5 to designate the exterior of the turn-of-the-century Treat mansion on Queen Anne Hill as historical.

It was a decision cheered by the Queen Anne Historical Society and condemned as unfair by owners who wanted to sell the building to a development company, which in turn wanted to tear the place down and construct 55 housing units.

The council vote was a culmination of two earlier rulings: the first by the city's Landmarks Preservation Board, which called for preserving the exterior, the lobby, a staircase and an inside callbox used in the old days to summon the Queen Anne Counterbalance trolley.

That ruling was appealed to a city Hearing Examiner, which dropped calls for preserving the interior elements but reaffirmed the landmarks board's decision to give historic status to the exterior.

"We are very pleased with the (city council) ruling," said John Hennes from the Queen Anne Historical Society. A consultant speaking before the Hearing Examiner said that dropping the interior preservation would allow for a condo conversion and provided "a significant return on the owners' investment," he said. "To me, the next step is finding a buyer willing to deal with a landmarked building."

That's going to be easier said than done, according to Art Skolnik, the state's first historic preservationist and the man representing the owners of the Treat mansion.

Under the city's scenario, 10 condo-conversion units could be built, along with parking at the rear of the building, he said. But that doesn't pencil out as a reasonable return on the original investment of around $2 million more than a decade ago, Skolnik added.

What made eminently more sense, he said, was an offer on the table for $8.75 million from a developer who wanted to tear the building down and replace it with 55 condos with sweeping views. "Of course, that offer went away (with the landmark status)."

Economics aside, Skolnik questions the accuracy of the landmark status for the building. The National Registry of Historic Places, he said, refused to give the building landmark status when the owners nominated it.

That was significant because tax incentives would be included, and those tax breaks could soften the financial blow of preserving the building, Skolnik noted. The city, on the other hand, offers no tax incentives, he added.

Beyond that, Skolnik said, the Treat mansion bears little resemblance to the original home, which was built in 1905. The interior has been converted to "15 units of low-income housing in a building that's falling apart," he said.

The exterior has been changed over the years as well. The original building was covered in wooden shingles that were replaced by "typical cheap brick" in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Skolnik said.

Fake tulip windows were added in the 1970s by a previous owner, new dormers were added to the roof, and double-hug windows at the rear of the building were replaced by sheet glass, he added.

It doesn't matter that changes were made to the exterior, counters Hennes from the neighborhood historical society. "Even the brick fa├žade has become part of the historic district," he said.

To be sure, according to preservation rules, landmark status can be granted to a building as young as 25 years old as long as it fits at least one of six criteria.

Skolnik noted that two criteria were used in the nomination process for the Treat mansion, which was built for Henry Whitney Treat. One is that the building is "associated in a significant way with the life of a person important in the history of the city, state or nation," according to the landmarks board Web site. "We disagree he's as prominent as he's made out to be," Skolnik said of Mr. Treat.

The other criteria used, he said, was that the mansion was worthy of landmark status because of "its prominence of spatial location, contrasts of siting, age or scale, it is an easily identifiable visual feature of its neighborhood or the city and contributes to the distinctive quality or identity of such neighborhood or city." However, Skolnik described that criteria as a catchall phrase that is "grossly misused."

The owners of the building were still mulling over whether to appeal the council vote in Superior Court, Skolnik said in a March 11 telephone interview.

"We felt the city designation was arbitrary and capricious," he said, noting that the designation itself could not be appealed. The only things that can be appealed are so-called controls and incentives that can block demolition of a building, Skolnik added.

However, a case in Superior Court could delve into more rarified legal territory. "We may be talking about the constitutionality of the landmarks process," he said.

And if the owners of the Treat mansion prevail in Superior Court, all landmark designations in the city could be called into question, according to Skolnik.Staff reporter-at-large Russ Zabel can be reached at rzabel@nwlink.com of 461-1309.[[In-content Ad]]