What Price Facadism? Authenticity and Integrity in Historic Preservation

By Eugenia Woo

From the issue feature, “Authenticity: Navigating the Real in Cities, Design and Art.”

seattle union facadism

Seattle Union facadism

New project incorporating facades of a former auto-row era building at E Union Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, Pike/Pine. Photos: Eugenia Woo

If you were to visit Seattle’s South Lake Union and Pike/Pine neighborhoods these days, chances are you’d encounter several development projects, completed or under construction, that are odd juxtapositions of design—the Transformers of architecture. For these projects, developers and their architects retain only the primary facades of smaller, historic buildings originally on a site while erecting new, larger structures behind them. Dubbed “facadism” by its critics, this strange meshing of old and new is often motivated by requirements to save the facades of older buildings for regulatory reasons—a building is a designated landmark so permission for full demolition is difficult to obtain, or a building is in a conservation overlay district that incentivizes this sort of design in an attempt to maintain neighborhood character while increasing density through building height.

In rapidly growing Seattle, development pressure in recent years has resulted in a rash of facadectomies, in which only an older building’s main facades are saved during redevelopment. Despite what seem to be good intentions, if you are disturbed by acts of facadism, you are not alone. Urban planning and design can effectively manage the evolution of older neighborhoods, but facadism gives in to market-driven development, failing to promote 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. Everything is new inside—nothing is reused. Instead, a new structure is added on, which may be set back and sometimes cantilevered over what was the roof level of the mostly demolished older building. When its defining features are mostly removed and no longer part of an integrated whole, a building no longer demonstrates its authentic self. Further, the scale and massing of the new building change the rhythm and feel of a block and neighborhood.

We all know Seattle’s population is increasing and will only continue to grow. Smart planning accommodates this growth, but it must do so without destroying the authentic fabric and community character that make this a desirable, livable city.

One might argue that at least facade “preservation” is better than nothing. But is it? Wouldn’t it be better to see new projects that are well designed, perhaps the landmarks of tomorrow, cohesively knitted into the streetscape? Instead, we get the illusion of preservation with the pastiche of the old unsuccessfully jumbled with the new. While not outright demolition, facadism is less preservation and more a begrudging compromise between the past and the future. Walk through the Capitol Hill neighborhood (particularly East Pike Street between Belmont and Harvard or East Union Street between 10th and 11th) to experience the impact and absurdity of facadism.

Seattle facadism

Seattle facadism
Remains of the south and east facades of the former Phil Smart Mercedes-Benz dealership building and the new project incorporating them, 600 E Pike Street, Pike/Pine. Photo: Eugenia Woo

Adaptive Reuse Versus Facadism

Many of the solidly constructed buildings that have fallen prey to facadism were for decades adaptively reused structures, retaining the patina of time while providing flexible spaces for renovation.

In contrast to facadism, adaptive reuse projects rehabilitate historic structures, a widely accepted, good preservation practice. As defined by the National Park Service in its guidelines for the treatment of historic properties, rehabilitation is “the act or process of making possible a compatible use for a property through repair, alterations and additions while preserving those portions or features which convey its historical, cultural or architectural values.” Guided by the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, this approach upholds a building’s integrity as it evolves.

Often, rehabilitating an older, existing building involves changing its original use to accommodate current needs. In Seattle, a typical building might have started out as a 1920s auto showroom that turned into a print shop and is now a restaurant or store. This is a practical preservation solution to achieve economic impact and contribute to community vitality. In this way, adaptive reuse also promotes environmental stewardship and sustainability—it’s the ultimate in recycling. For example, Melrose Market, the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room and the Elliott Bay Book Company, all in Pike/Pine, and the Terry Avenue and Supply Laundry Buildings, both in South Lake Union, are successful adaptive reuse projects that promote preservation and bring new life into old buildings for their respective communities.

In contrast, we have facadism: slap a 15-story LEED Platinum building onto a 1910s, one-story brick or terra-cotta facade and we get an odd amalgam of design. No amount of greenwashing will mitigate the demolition of the original building.

Historic Districts and Zoning

Among the most authentic historic communities in Seattle today are designated historic districts, such as Pioneer Square, Ballard and Columbia City, which are protected by a preservation ordinance, design guidelines and review processes. There is more to these districts than just facades; they’ve experienced revitalization through rehabilitation and the adaptive reuse of spaces. In addition, new construction in these built-up districts is more sensitive infill (the development of vacant or underused parcels), adding to the evolution of the neighborhoods while becoming part of the community’s historic narrative.

In most other areas of Seattle, existing zoning, land use regulations and planning goals do not protect neighborhood character. Instead, they support increased density at the cost of community character, which modestly sized historic buildings embody, without recognizing that density doesn’t always equal height. Density is better achieved through more human-scale urbanism by varying height, scale and massing and integrating existing neighborhood elements. For example, take South Lake Union, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, where facadism is especially jarring. The area is seen by developers and the City as nothing more than a wasteland of low industrial and commercial buildings on big sites prime for large-scale development rather than creative adaptive reuse. The City’s recent rezone to raise allowable heights has increased the pressure to further redevelop not only older character buildings but also designated Seattle landmarks.

But even before the rezone, facadectomies were occurring. Now under construction in South Lake Union is one of the most blatant examples of facadism: the project incorporating the former Troy Laundry and Boren Investment Company buildings. They’ve been demolished—except, naturally, for their primary facades—and replaced by two 12- and 13-story towers, set back and hovering over remnants of these historic buildings. That the original buildings are designated landmarks makes this even more of a head-scratcher because landmarks have added protection; this facadism implies that we’re only interested in the outward character of these buildings, and even then, only a very small part. But why facadism happened in this case is more complex. Project proponents asserted that the city-block site was two-thirds contaminated from the Troy Laundry Building, necessitating remediation through extensive site excavation and that only the primary facades of the two landmarks be saved. The Landmarks Preservation Board approved the project after considerable review. Facadism is not always so black-and-white, but it elicits strong reactions because only the end result is visible. These two landmarks took up a fraction of the overall lot area; preservation advocates supported adaptive reuse of the buildings, which could have anchored the new project. Another developer may have approached the project differently, proposing a preservation solution.

Troy Laundry Seattle facadism


Troy Laundry Seattle facadism
Top: Troy Laundry Building, 1937. Photo: Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Region Branch Bottom: South facade of the Seattle Landmark Troy Laundry Block, Fairview Avenue N and Thomas Street, South Lake Union. Photo: Eugenia Woo.

Many existing, older neighborhoods are already dense and contain a mixture of uses. They are already pedestrian friendly and located near public transportation. Older neighborhoods with lower-scale buildings are not impediments to “progress” but places with creative potential. Preservationists understand that not every older building should be saved and that well-designed new construction (often taller and larger) can contribute positively to a neighborhood’s character. The City of Seattle is currently updating its comprehensive plan and has an opportunity to better plan for growth that’s more balanced and enhances the livability of our city. Preservation planning should be an integral part of this discussion.

The National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab study Older, Smaller, Better: Measuring How the Character of Buildings and Blocks Influences Urban Vitality demonstrates the value of historic neighborhoods and older buildings. According to the Green Lab:

“All across America, blocks of older, smaller buildings are quietly contributing to robust local economies and distinctive livable communities. Buildings of diverse vintage and small scale provide flexible, affordable space for entrepreneurs launching new businesses and serve as attractive settings for new restaurants and locally owned shops. They offer diverse housing choices that attract younger residents and create human-scaled places for walking, shopping and social interaction. These modest, often-overlooked buildings are irreplaceable assets for America’s new urban age.”

Development pressure in Seattle’s neighborhoods in the last 10 to 15 years has greatly changed the urban landscape, whether facadism is involved or not. Around the world, preservationists, developers, architects, city leaders, planners and communities all struggle with issues of preservation and facadism, particularly in older cities experiencing population and economic growth. Building a vital city does not mean only looking to the future but also considering how preservation contributes to an authenticity of place and enhances livability. 

Eugenia Woo is an advocate for historic preservation; she develops and implements preservation policies and initiatives, provides technical assistance to the public, engages in community outreach and coordinates advocacy efforts in Seattle. Eugenia has a BA in political science from the University of California at Berkeley and a Master of Urban Planning and Preservation Planning certificate from the University of Washington. She is the director of preservation services at Historic Seattle and is a cofounder and board member of Docomomo WEWA.