Fire reveals the challenges of historic preservation

  • By Tom Hoban Real Estate Markets
  • Wednesday, December 19, 2012 3:51pm

If you wandered into the Tontine Saloon along Everett’s rambunctious Hewitt Avenue in the early 1900s, you might have enjoyed a stiff whiskey shot on a bar carved from old-growth cedar. The smell of cigars filled the air as mustached gentlemen discussed business in the corner under a mounted moose head nicknamed Chilkoot Charlie. A piano played in the background. Behind the bar in a closed room was a gambling ring where men wrestled the black bear the saloon owner kept in a cage. Ladies of the evening waved from the third floor, inviting weary travelers to enter through a red door around back.

Today, that building is my office. I enter it on Hewitt through the same doorway that led to the upstairs brothel. Our reception desk sits where the bar once was and our accounting staff peck at computers where men wrestled bears for sport. Those stories and many others were part of what we got when we bought it six years ago.

In November, fire took a life and destroyed another historic building a few blocks east of us on Hewitt. Its story is very much like the stories of other historic buildings in downtown Everett, more than likely gone forever now as little of the brick and wood structure could be salvaged. While the cause of this particular fire may be accidental, it illustrates the challenges and opportunities involved in historic preservation.

Preservation happens best where there’s a robust user community paying enough rent to allow the building owner to do the extra upkeep these buildings require and still earn a profit that justifies their investment risk. Neglect and disrepair of these older buildings are rarely the product of greedy absentee landlords, although there are certainly some. Historic buildings in thriving historic areas like Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle or the Gas Lamp District in downtown San Diego enjoy close proximity to jobs centers, ball parks and the waterfront to drive rent rates and demand for space adequate to meet the landlord’s overall needs.

You can’t wrestle a bear in downtown Everett any more, but you can watch hockey, take in a car show, enjoy the arts, Village Theater, concerts and restaurants. With a hotel under construction, new apartments and these experiential draws, downtown Everett is very close to being its own unique experience. If it wants historic buildings to be maintained as part of that experience, the market will need to deliver enough rental demand for landlords to keep them up. They can be more expensive to maintain, but they can tell stories that suburban malls and casinos cannot. Those stories are what make them valuable.

Tom Hoban is CEO of The Coast Group of companies in Everett. Contact him at 425-339-3638, or