By Kji Kelly
Editor's note: In November 2017, Washington Hall was presented with a Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Award at PastForward in Chicago.
As Seattle’s only citywide public development authority, Historic Seattle has worked since 1974 to foster a more livable environment through advocacy, education, and preservation of buildings and cultural landscapes. Our unique, three-pronged approach directly touches the lives of Seattle’s residents and visitors. We collaboratively work to shape a livable city that values and protects its collective history.
When Washington Hall, a local arts venue and gathering space, was listed for sale in 2007, we knew this important building was in danger. It was in disrepair, and five potential buyers indicated an interest in demolishing it to construct condominiums. These plans could not have been more at odds with the spirit of the “hall for all,” a welcoming place where people have gathered to create and celebrate since it was built in 1908 by the Danish Brotherhood. The hall has been an affordable home for many people including those in the Filipino, African American, Korean, and Eritrean communities. It has also been a popular performing arts venue—a “hall for notables”—hosting musicians such as Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Jimi Hendrix. These, and many other famous performers, came to the hall because it was one of a few venues in Seattle that would allow people of color to perform.
Saving a Community Treasure
To save Washington Hall, Historic Seattle secured landmark protection for the building from the city. In June 2009 we purchased the property for $1.5 million with plans for a five-phase, $8.4 million restoration.
Once the sale closed, Historic Seattle began our initial work, including upgrades to life safety systems and restrooms, corrections of structural deficiencies, and construction of an apartment unit for an onsite caretaker. Fundraising brought in $700,000, which allowed us to begin the second phase of rehabilitation in September 2012. The scope included roof replacement, correction of additional structural deficiencies, and a complete rebuild of the masonry on the south elevation.
The third, largest, and most significant phase of the project was financed with New Markets Tax Credits in partnership with U.S. Bancorp and the city of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development. The tax credit equity, combined with additional fundraising efforts, yielded $3.5 million. These funds were directed toward seismic and finish upgrades; sprinkler and elevator installations; and the creation of a commercial kitchen, café, and classroom as well as meeting rooms. Following the installation of new electrical, seismic, plumbing, and sprinklers, we carefully deconstructed and reassembled historic features—including original seating in the balcony, flooring, wainscot, and stage proscenium.
In November 2015, to underwrite the final two phases of the project, we obtained a $986,000 grant from 4Culture, King County’s cultural funding agency for arts, heritage, preservation, and public art. These funds allowed us to create a community recording studio and additional classrooms and offices, as well as restore original windows and the decorative parapet on the east elevation. The project team cut the ribbon on June 1, 2016, and returned Washington Hall back to its original, community-centric roots as the “hall for all, hall for notables.”
The rehabilitation of Washington Hall went far beyond the basics of a standard rehabilitation project. It was based on earned appreciation, trust, and respect for and between people from diverse backgrounds. The traditional real estate concepts of “landlord” and “tenant” do not capture the relationship Historic Seattle shares with our anchor partners at Washington Hall. Though Historic Seattle restored the bones of the property, it is our partners—206 Zulu, Hidmo Cypher, and Voices Rising—that continue to give the building its heart and soul.
These partners all focus on arts, culture, and social justice for people of color in Seattle’s Central Area. 206 Zulu is a nonprofit community organization that uses hip hop culture as a platform for engagement, education, and community empowerment. At Hidmo Cypher, anti-oppression work grounded in community solutions, creativity, and authentic self-expression takes the forms of art, food, and culture. Voices Rising creates a safe, nurturing space for LGBTQ artists of color and empowers them to strengthen the entire community.
We engaged these community-based organizations soon after purchasing the hall, and for six years, they assisted Historic Seattle with fundraising for the building’s rehabilitation. These anchor partners ultimately executed master leases with Historic Seattle for a majority of the space at well-below-market rates. Our lease arrangement shifts responsibility for the building’s rental program and allows all associated revenue to go to enabling these partners’ mission-related work. They also retain decision-making power regarding rental rates and building use, ensuring that the community’s need for affordable performance, gathering, and meeting space can be met.
Each anchor partner lease also addresses the undeniable reality of gentrification and community group displacement. We hope to empower the organizations that bring the heart and soul to Washington Hall to be successful for as long as possible, which is why every anchor partner received 18 months of free or discounted rent, allowing them to gradually build their operational capacity. Each organization also has a flexible 15-year lease with prescribed, modest rent increases. At the conclusion of those leases, the anchor partners will have the right of first refusal to purchase Washington Hall. To assist with this potential purchase, Historic Seattle has agreed that the sum of the rent paid during their leases will be deducted from the purchase prices.
Washington Hall’s mission, crafted by Historic Seattle and the anchor partners, is “to create a transformative space in Seattle’s Central District that honors the history of Washington Hall and is a home for arts and culture that reflects its legacy,” and that vision has guided the project. The building remains true to its original use as a vibrant home for all of Seattle. The project was successful because we took the time to meet, encouraged dialogue, respectfully listen to each other, and make compromises. It is important to recognize that this progressive, unique operating model, built on strong relationships, requires consistent care, attention, and stewardship. Those of us in the field of historic preservation must continue to re-imagine and reuse our historic built environment as a tangible reminder of our past and a meaningful vessel for cohesion and community.
Kji Kelly is the executive director of Historic Seattle.