40 for 40: King County
The Battle for Fort Lawton

By Kathryn Krafftprevious story | next story | all stories

In 1978, some 127 acres of Fort Lawton were transferred from the federal government to the City of Seattle and added to Discovery Park, established in 1972 in the Magnolia neighborhood. Included were 13 of 25 distinctive military buildings built between 1899 and 1908 clustered around an historic oval parade ground; the other buildings remained in federal ownership to serve as U.S. Navy housing. As part of the transfer, the City, U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and the SHPO entered into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) obligating the City to provide for the protection and management of the City-owned properties. The process included the nomination of the district to the National Register (listed August 1978) and Historic American Buildings Survey documentation -- completed in 1981.

The Seattle Parks Department (backed by the Friends of Discovery Park and the Magnolia Community Club) strongly opposed the retention of the historic buildings based on the belief that they were incompatible with the City Council’s “urban wilderness park” plan. The WTHP, however, strongly believed that some of the buildings could accommodate low-impact arts, education, and community uses that would complement park goals.

After a decade of preservation skirmishes, the WTHP was forced to file a federal lawsuit in November 1987 against the City and the DOI over the proposed demolition of Fort Lawton. The suit challenged the City Council decision to demolish 10 of the 12 City–owned buildings located within the historic district. WTHP attorney Peter Eglick argued that the City had not adhered to the MOA and also argued that the City had no authority to set aside a compromise plan calling for preservation of at least six buildings endorsed by Mayor Charles Royer and the Landmarks Preservation and Parks boards. Instead, Council voted to allow the Parks Department to proceed with demolitions as the City Attorney argued that the compromise was only advisory and that the Council was not obligated to adhere to the MOA.

In February 1988, U.S. District Court Judge John C. Coughenor granted a preliminary injunction to the WTHP preventing any further demolition and ordered the City to demonstrate that full consideration of preservation options had been undertaken. With the trial date set for early June, the WTHP (led by President Les Tonkin) began to actively lobby City Council to reconsider its prior decision and the compromise approach. In early May, a public hearing was held where the Council heard testimony from over 50 preservationists and representatives of the National Trust as well as the demolition proponents.

By a very narrow margin, the Council voted in June 1988 to follow the terms of the compromise plan and retain six of the City-owned buildings with the stipulation that only exteriors could be preserved and the buildings remain unused. Later that year the local Fort Lawton Historic District was designated by the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board, and the City secured State funding for stabilization, exterior painting, and mothballing of the six buildings, while the Parks Department proceeded with the demolition of several contributing buildings within the district. [In 2006, a WWII-era chapel that still remained within the district boundaries was designated a City Landmark.] Unfortunately, the Parks Department-owned buildings that the WTHP fought to preserve remain unused and in deteriorating condition. In recent years, however, the remaining historic NCO and Officers’ Quarters buildings were transferred to the City and sold to a private developer. They are currently being rehabilitated and sold to private home owners with strict covenants and design guidelines to preserve their character and setting.

Fort Lawton Post Exchange and Gymnasium [HABS, WASH, 17-SEAT, 7-S]. Historic American Building Survey documentation measured drawing prepared in 1981. The documentation includes measured drawings, photographs and a Fort Lawton History. The full HABS documentation records are available via the Library of Congress.

Fort Lawton Quartermaster Stables [HABS, WASH, 17-SEAT, 7-V]. Historic American Building Survey documentation prepared in 1981. The documentation includes measured drawings, photographs and a Fort Lawton History. The full HABS documentation records are available via the Library of Congress.

This story is part of a series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. Please consider making a special gift to the Washington Trust in honor of our accomplishments as we celebrate this year together! Continuous stewardship is needed to protect that irreplaceable legacy for future generations – we appreciate and look forward to your ongoing participation and support.

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