Opinion: Save the Jefferson Park Gatehouse

Jefferson Park Gatehouse a few years ago. Photo courtesy of Mark Holland and Mira Latoszek.
By Mark Holland and Mira Latoszek

The gatehouse at Jefferson Park is in imminent danger of destruction. After twelve years of neighborhood planning with the gatehouse in multiple versions of the Jefferson Park plan, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) and the Seattle Parks Department (DPR), suddenly announced they decided to “demolish the gatehouse,” just months before the grand opening. What happened?

This story is a textbook example of the worst result that can occur when SPU and Parks fail to work together.

Falling through the cracks of bureaucracy

In 2002, just after the first year-long Project Advisory Team (PAT) meetings ended, SPU began a demolition permit for the old reservoirs. Unknown to the PAT or the community, the gatehouse was part of that permit because SPU thought there might be a possibility it would need to be removed along with the reservoirs. At the same time, SPU submitted a draft landmark nomination for the gatehouse to the landmarks board in preparation for the possible demolition.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood and city continued planning Jefferson Park. In 2005-2006, there was another year long PAT. The 2006 plan shows the gatehouse restored as restrooms with a “gatehouse plaza” in front. The plan also called for the removal of the obscuring trees on the west side. Parks still has not removed those trees, making it nearly impossible to see the building. The community, the ProParks levy oversight committee, the board of Park commissioners, the mayor and the city council all reviewed and approved the 2006 plan. This is the plan Seattle voters gave fifteen million dollars to plan and build through two parks levies.

As construction began, Parks determined it would be impractical to convert the gatehouse into restrooms. As a result, the budget for the gatehouse went elsewhere. SPU avoided demolition. When SPU asked Parks if they wanted the gatehouse, Parks responded, “As stated at the meeting, Parks is not interested in taking over the building and utilizing it for any purpose.” (6/15/2009)

This left SPU with a dilemma. The gatehouse served Seattle’s water system from 1910 up until 2007 when it was decommissioned. SPU says that it cannot spend public money on the gatehouse because it is no longer a functioning part of Seattle’s’ water system. SPU insists Parks’ decision to abandon the gatehouse leaves SPU with no alternative but demolition. Parks, on the other hand, claims to have no money left out of the fifteen million they were given to save and maintain this tiny building with a century of Beacon Hill and Jefferson Park history in its walls.

Gatehouse history

The year is 1910. Seattle is reveling in an amazing feat of engineering known as the Cedar River Watershed and Pipeline, ending at the reservoirs in Jefferson Park. The gatehouse controlled the flow of the reservoirs to the city. The man behind the drive that got the job done was Reginald Heber Thomson, chief engineer for the city of Seattle. He overcame tremendous physical and political barriers to accomplish what many before him tried and failed: to build Seattle a safe, clean, and secure drinking water supply. Finally, Seattle would be a modern city and would no longer have to drink the “turbid waters of Lake Washington” (“Shaper of Seattle: Reginald Heber Thompson’s Pacific Northwest,” William H. Wilson 2009).

Historical research shows the name of Mr. Thomson appears on the final drawing for the gatehouse (Landscape Inventory of Jefferson Park, Historical Research Associates [HRA] 2001). The draft landmark nomination submitted by SPU (SPU/Sheridan Associates) in 2002 also notes that the name of R.H. Thomson is on the final drawings for the gatehouse. The recent landmark nomination from SPU makes no mention of Mr. Thomson’s name. They simply state it was designed by “Seattle Water Department staff”. The construction drawing in the SPU nomination does not show his name.

At the same time, a revolution in landscape design and urban planning known as the “Beautiful Cities Movement” had reached its peak with Daniel Burnham’s epic “Plan of Chicago,” released in 1909. Cities all over the world were clamoring to plan their own beautiful cities, inspired by the vision put forth in Chicago. Seattle hired the Olmsted brothers design firm to plan Seattle’s park system. The preliminary plan for Jefferson Park was done in 1912. John C. Olmsted surveyed the site in 1903 in preparation for the 1912 planning. He remarked on the extraordinary views and prepared for a design that would incorporate the reservoirs into the overall park plan. Most of the plan was never realized; only the 18-hole golf course and the gatehouse remain from this earliest period in the development of Jefferson Park. The views remain as spectacular as ever.

Gatehouse future

The elimination of the restroom conversion idea left the gatehouse without a function. Parks toyed with the idea of turning it into a maintenance shed, but that would require cutting a giant hole in the side for the installation of a roll up door. They simply had no better ideas and decided to abandon it instead.

“The Jefferson Park Gatehouse and History Plaza” is a project under review by the ProParks levy oversight committee’s “Opportunity Fund” program. This project idea proposes to use the gatehouse as a history display plaza and water resource education facility. This will be a complement to the water resource education theme of the soon to be built beacon mountain playground. the project is up against many other creative ideas competing for limited funds. there is no guarantee the history plaza idea will make it now, but that does not mean it could not be funded by other means at a later date.

The money

SPU released three different options with cost estimates for the gatehouse.

  1. Repair, Secure, and Maintain: $232,000. This will restore the building to a condition safe for use by the public.
  2. Mothball: $124,300. This will make the building safe, though not suitable for active use-just basic repairs.
  3. Deconstruction: $177,665. This is SPU and Parks’ preferred option. It will wipe out all traces of the gatehouse and the history it represents, except for a couple of the antique valves Parks says they will display on a concrete pad where the gatehouse once stood, as an “artifact” of the reservoirs.

As the estimates show, the cost to save this building in the short term by mothballing it is the cheapest route. It costs less to save the gatehouse than it does to destroy it.

How to save the gatehouse

This building does not deserve to die because of a lack of interest or concern on the part of the city employees we depend upon to implement Seattle’s neighborhood plans. The Jefferson Park gatehouse and the history it continues to represent belongs to the people of Seattle and Beacon Hill. It represents a direct connection to the past that shows Seattle once planned a great Olmsted Park for Beacon Hill. It took one hundred years to get us there, but now that vision has finally arrived, and Beacon Hill is going to get that “beautiful cities” park planned so long ago. Let’s not begin the next 100 years of history at Jefferson Park by erasing the only element left that links us to the last 100 years.

It is not necessary to landmark the gatehouse in order to save it. SPU and DPR need the landmarks board to declare the gatehouse ineligible for landmark status to begin deconstruction. It is absolutely necessary that Beacon Hill speak out now in support of the gatehouse in order to save it.

Here’s what everyone can do:

  1. Contact SPU (ray.hoffman@seattle.gov) and ask them to stop the demolition plans and withdraw the permit, regardless of the decision made by the landmarks board.
  2. Contact the Seattle Parks Department (christopher.williams@seattle.gov) and ask them to stick to the plan, accept responsibility for the gatehouse, and cut down the trees as planned so everyone can see the building.
  3. Contact the Chair of the City Council Parks committee, Sally Bagshaw (sally.bagshaw@seattle.gov), and the other city council members (tim.burgess@seattle.gov, sally.clark@seattle.gov, richard.conlin@seattle.gov, jean.godden@seattle.gov, bruce.harrell@seattle.gov, mike.obrien@seattle.gov, nick.licata@seattle.gov, tom.rasmussen@seattle.gov) and tell them Beacon Hill wants to see the gatehouse saved in the short term, and restored in the long term.
  4. Contact Mayor McGinn (mike.mcginn@seattle.gov) and ask him to save the gatehouse and tell SPU and Parks to stick to the neighborhood plan.
  5. Contact the Landmarks Preservation Board (beth.chave@seattle.gov) and tell them you want to see the gatehouse landmarked and preserved.
  6. Attend and testify at the Landmarks Preservation Board meeting on Wednesday, September 1, at 3:30 pm in the Seattle Municipal Tower, 700 Fifth Avenue, 40th floor, room 4060.
  7. Contact the Levy Oversight committee (susan.golub@seattle.gov) and ask them to fund the restoration of the gatehouse via the Opportunity fund .

The vision we see emerging at Jefferson Park is the direct result of Beacon Hill residents’ unwavering support for their neighborhood plan. The gatehouse is key to that vision. For the first time in 100 years, Beacon Hill can see a future with an Olmsted Park, the way it was meant to be. If you ever wrote or called in support of Jefferson Park in the past, now is the time to do so again. If you never got involved before, now is your chance to make a difference.

There is only one Jefferson Park Gatehouse. Now is the time to save it and the history it represents – for the next 100 years.

Thank you,
Mark Holland and Mira Latoszek

3 thoughts on “Opinion: Save the Jefferson Park Gatehouse”

  1. I’ll send emails in support of saving the gatehouse, at least in a mothballed state until something better can be done. It’s one of the few tangible remnants of Beacon Hill’s role in the history of Seattle at the beginning of the 20th Century. It may seem insignificant to many people, but the reason we have so few historical buildings in the neighborhood is precisely because they seemed insignificant. At some point, we have to decide to hold on to something that connects us to the past. With the gatehouse becoming accessible from the park, the time to hold on to it is now.

    I do regret that this is being presented as an argument for unwavering support of every aspect of an 11 year-old neighborhood plan. The neighborhood changes, the city changes, the world changes. Good plans need to be evaluated in response to change or they risk becoming bad plans.

  2. The Landmarks Board voted to support the landmark nomination of the Jefferson Park Gatehouse. This begins the process, it does not certify it as a landmark. They essentially said that there is merit in considering the issue. They will discuss and vote in about a month.

    The motion that passed was to consider and discuss both the interior and exterior of the building in the landmark process. They decided that the exterior of the building had enough integrity for consideration under the guidelines that are used. The interior of the building with the gate valves was called out as having considerable integrity as an example of an industrial utility site.

    Brook: the park plan was developed over 11 or so years, but it has been changing and evolving over that time. The latest version of it and the basis for construction is from November 2009. You can look at the various stages of refinement of the plan at: http://seattle.gov/parks/ProParks/projects/JeffersonPark.htm and even earlier versions at: http://www.seattle.gov/parks/parkspaces/jeffparksiteplan.htm.

  3. The gatehouse is worthy of landmark status because it is one of the few survivors of Seattle’s early gravity water system based on the Cedar River. The river itself and Cedar Lake are much changed from those days. Reservoirs have been rebuilt, and standpipes (pressure pipes) demolished. Water is a blessing that we now largely take for granted, which we wouldn’t do if we lived in the pre-gravity days. In those days we’d draw our water from Lake Washington, which also served as the sink for much of Seattle’s sewage. A suitable plaque on the building would remind us of the benefits of the gravity system.

Comments are closed.