Remembering the Washington Trust’s own when celebrating women’s history
By Holly Chamberlain, Washington Trust for Historic Preservation Board President

Tacoma was never the same after preservation architect Valerie Sivinski adopted it as her hometown in 1988. Her work in architectural conservation shaped the city she loved and left a remarkable and enduring professional and personal legacy there and nationally.

Although extraordinarily technically accomplished in her field, Val was dedicated to opening the circle of preservation and architecture to all and helping people understand them. She could tell you what an ogee arch is, how it works structurally, its history and typical building materials, the right way to preserve one, the regulations ensuring that, and why they had to be enforced. But she shared her specialized knowledge in a way that included rather than excluded. Val welcomed people into connection with architecture and history and what they mean to a community.

Born in Nebraska and raised in New Mexico, she obtained an architecture degree from the University of New Mexico and studied architectural conservation at the University of York in England. She passed on her expertise by teaching preservation methods at the University of Washington, was an author and lecturer, and served as an encouraging mentor to many younger professionals.

An exemplar of walking the talk, Val performed hands-on preservation work at the Orr House in Steilacoom and also helped the volunteer group rehabilitating it to write grants and obtain media attention. She worked with her own North Slope neighborhood in Tacoma to create a historic district, and, as a remembrance in the neighborhood newsletter noted, she taught the residents about their “place in Tacoma’s history…the value of [the] neighborhood as a chronicle of the lives of real people in Tacoma from the 1880s to the 1950s…. Think of Valerie as you walk along our streets and appreciate what she saw in all the old houses we are fortunate to call home.”

Prior to her move to Tacoma, she worked for the Architect of the Capitol in Washington, DC. From 1991 to 1998, she served vigorously as Tacoma City Historic Preservation Officer during a time of major rehabilitation projects such as the Sprague Building, Masonic Temple, Rialto Theatre, and the adaptive transformation of Union Station into a federal courthouse. In 1998, Val fulfilled a dream in forming Artifacts Architectural Consulting with her husband Tim McDonald and friend Michael Sullivan as partners. The firm, which still exists today, has managed many of the most significant preservation projects in the state, including work on the Washington State Capitol Building.

A multi-faceted and outstanding person, Val brought her intelligence, practicality, and creativity into her long-time, effective volunteer work with the Washington Trust. Problem: no staff. Solution: work hard as a volunteer board member and president but also lead a team of people to write a grant to the National Trust to fund a professional position. Outcome: full-time staff. Problem: no money. Solution: encourage everyone around the state to eat a lot of cookies. Outcome: the largest grant ever given by the LU Cookie Company went toward preserving the round Leonard Barn in Pullman. Problem: Trust quarterly newsletter needs an editor. Solution: be the editor. Outcome: preservation news disseminated throughout the state.

Val’s death in October of 2000 at age 49 occurred at work as she photographed an historic building in downtown Tacoma. Sadly, she was struck by a truck and died at the scene. The Trust’s Valerie Sivinski Fund grants are named in her memory. The grant program (thank you to Feliks Banel for the idea), originally titled the Washington Preserves Grants, fittingly was created during a Trust meeting in Tacoma, and Val was one of the first donors. The memorial re-naming was thoughtfully suggested by Eugenia Woo.

By virtue of her lasting preservation projects which still stand today and the grant program which bears her name, her impact is ongoing. The many friends and colleagues who remember Valerie remain grateful for her generous, well-lived life.

The Valerie Sivinski Fund provides grants of up to $2,000 to organizations and community groups engaged in historic preservation across Washington. The goal of the fund is to support historic preservation where it really happens: at the community level. Applications for the 2021 Valerie Sivinski Fund grants are currently open with updated criteria and are due October 14, 2020.

Portrait of Valerie Sivinski around 2000 by Tim McDonald. Photo from Tim McDonald and Kathleen Brooker.

Valerie Sivinski and Tim McDonald on a lift inspecting the stone on one of the Capitol Campus Buildings in Olympia while Valerie was the Capitol Campus Conservator. Photo from Tim McDonald and Kathleen Brooker.

Top Photo: Valerie Sivinski atop the roof of the Union Station in Tacoma in the late 1980s during its restoration. Valerie was hired as the preservation architect for the project. Photo from Tim McDonald and Kathleen Brooker.