Center for Preservation and Adaptive Reuse

August 8, 2016

Mimi Sheridan speaks about the UW Campus Survey Project

Canoe House_WebThis summer, CPAR spoke with Mimi Sheridan about her career in historic preservation as well as her current project conducting research and cataloging of historic buildings on the University of Washington Campus through the Campus Survey Project.

July 21, 2016

Can you tell me a little about the campus survey project that you’re doing right now with students.

For many years the city has been interested in having a campus survey done and so this came out of the fact that, as you know WSDOT is building a bridge out here, so this is being paid for by mitigation money.  It’s being managed by the city, so there’s an advisory committee with the city preservation program,  the Office of the Campus Architect, and the State Preservation Office. UW came up with a list and we’re doing a survey form on about 200 buildings. There are four of us working on it, plus support staff.

We have two students as well: one is really helping with the landscapes, and another with buildings.  We have four people actually doing the survey part and then support staff for data entry and GIS and stuff like that.  Also  a landscape architect to help with that.  

We have two parts:  I’m focused right now on the survey part for obvious reasons, but we’re also doing a context statement, which is like a history of the university, looking at the built environment, how the university evolved. And we’re just starting to work on that.

The products are these forms that go into the database, but then we’ll also be doing a report based on the individual buildings, a cultural resources report. And so it includes not just buildings but key landscape elements, like the Quad and Rainer vista; there may be twenty of those.  The more problematic parts are artworks.

Oh, like the sculptures.

Right. Yes.  Like the big sculptures make sense, like the statue of George Washington, but the list has small pieces as well. I’ve had fun. I found this one on our list, although both the name of the sculpture and the name of the artist were both badly misspelled on the list.

So what exactly does the survey entail overall. A general architectural survey?

For each building we do a little history and that has taken a lot of time.  Do you know Norm Johnston’s book on the campus?  We pretty much take the architect’s name and we write a little bit about the architect and do a description of the building – one or two paragraphs, depending on how complicated it is.  Then when it was built, if there have been any changes or alterations to the building.  To some extent we look at past uses.  

The information we were given said it was built in 1927, but I knew right away that was wrong.  It turns out it was built as the Home Management House in 1947, not 1927.  When you look at the plans it was actually designed by the Dean of Home Economics.

What I’m doing now are these little buildings, these wood buildings right behind Architecture Hall.   They are part of the psychology department.  One of them I’ve already studied, and again this was fun.  The information we were given said it was built in 1927, but I knew right away that was wrong.  It turns out it was built as the Home Management House in 1947, not 1927.  When you look at the plans it was actually designed by the Dean of Home Economics. Her name is written on the plans and the architect stamped it, but her name is on the plans.  So Home Ec. students would spend some time there learning how to manage a house, which was very common –  all Home Ec. programs had this.  The building looks like a house. The other three were built in 1918 and I don’t know about those yet.

So what we’re doing is sort of putting together some of this history but we don’t have time to do anything really in-depth.  One of my group of buildings is the cyclotron, over above University Village.  And the nuclear accelerator.

How long have you been working on this project?

Oh, it took us a long time to get started. I think we’ve been doing this about six weeks.  We just turned in our first batch of buildings.  I finished on Monday my first twenty.   It’s really hard to get started.  I have most of the Gothic buildings.  I’m not used to describing Gothic buildings so it took me a long time to do that first description.  I did Art, Raitt and Mary Gates Hall.  

Where’s Mary Gates?

Mary Gates Hall is very interesting. It was the old physics building; when they built the new physics building, the Gates family donated a lot of money to make it an undergraduate center.  They duplicated the façade, so it all looks like an old building, but the East half is new.  Look at it when you go there, west of Suzzallo.  It has an entrance with three doors: that entrance and everything east of it is new.  They duplicated the cast stone and the brick and everything.  Mary Gates herself was on the board of regents for 18 years.

Well I think that if people want to become advocates they need to become involved.  Historic Seattle and the Washington Trust are really key to our advocacy efforts here. And I think people need to join.

Do you have any thoughts or advice for prospective students who are interested in becoming preservationists or want to become advocates?

Well I think that if people want to become advocates they need to become involved.  Historic Seattle and the Washington Trust are really key to our advocacy efforts here. And I think people need to join.  I joined both of those groups when I was a student. They don’t cost much to join. I think you really need to become informed and understand what’s going on.  Some of the things I’m talking about here are both at the state level and local level.  And I think if you want a job in preservation that’s also helpful.  I started out as a volunteer.  Not everyone can do that, but maybe you end up with one job you don’t particularly like but then you can volunteer in preservation, that way you meet people. To me that’s the key thing.

Maybe I’ve overdone the volunteering bit, but I think that’s the way to be both a good advocate and if you want to work in preservation.  I was just at a Historic Seattle event recently talking to a student, he’s interning at Historic Seattle and his interest is audio and history of sound, something different, so he’s working with the radio stations, a couple radio stations on their libraries but he’s interested in preservation, a different kind of preservation.  But that’s just an example, these places have roles for people who are interested. And you can develop what you want to do, if you want to be an intern in advocacy, you can write little papers, the white papers. There’s really a lot that can be done while you’re a student or while you’re working somewhere else.  That’s the way to get involved.  They always need people, for instance, to write comment letters or to testify in City Council.  They can help you testify for city council.

Is there anything else you want to add?

I have an answer to a question you asked a little while ago.  I was at a conference in San Francisco recently, the California Preservation Conference.   I went on a number of tours and sessions with the San Francisco planning people, and, in San Francisco, they have twenty people who work on preservation planning for the city.

I don’t know if that’s a large number of people or small.

We have zero devoted to preservation planning. So, I’m not sure if it’s large or small either.  But here in Seattle we have the Preservation Office in the Department of Neighborhoods and they administer the Landmarks Program and  the historic districts which is largely Pioneer Square and the International District(although Columbia City and Ballard have some activity also).    They  review EIS’ , but there’s no one in the Preservation Program or in Planning  who is dedicated to preservation and planning.  Some people are more aware than others, so there’s no real connection.  

When I was in San Francisco, for instance, we toured a residential area where the city had been doing public outreach and had developed a historic district, in one of the more suburban areas of the city.  They told us how they did that, all the community involvement, their meetings and everything.  We don’t have any of that here.  So there are twenty people in their planning office who do mostly preservation related stuff.  

One important point is there is an academic study of old buildings, or historic buildings, art history, architectural history, but most preservation happens through regulation.

 There are only two ways things get preserved. One is if there’s somebody, a property owner who really is interested in preserving it and wants to put the money into it.  And that’s great but the problem is that it may only last for that person’s lifetime.  The other way is that there are regulations, like landmarking or history districts, section 106, Federal regulations, different types of controls. And those are how you get things preserved in the long run.  

People don’t, by and large, save buildings because they like them.  There are lots of owners that do that, but when their children inherit the property or when they sell the property unless they put a control – and the owner can put a control on it to a deed restriction – but in the long run, when we talked about Pike Pine, in the long run it’s regulation that preserves things.  This means limiting private property rights, in the belief that the general public benefits, but there has to be a strong process of law and procedure, procedural due process, so it means it’s a long process to get things controlled.  This is how preservation happens.  And a lot of people don’t want to hear that.

Even in historic Pioneer square they’re making changes that aren’t really in character with the square, with the district.  I also served in the south downtown planning committee.  So there we don’t have the planning and preservation connection here.  One of the best examples is generally considered to be Charleston, where they have a really long history [of preservation].  

Actually they were the first historic district.  But here our PR thing is growth and big buildings, right now, and not history or Pioneer Square.  The Pike Place Market  is a major attraction related to history. They’re making a major addition to the market, which is good – I’m not against that.

But I think you’re right, it does have to start with the individuals.  And people not just taking responsibility but having sense of pride in where they are, in the buildings, the environment, in what’s old and valuing that.

I think having more historic districts would help. It’s difficult with all the new people moving in they don’t have that feeling.

There’s no connection. The way things are going they’re not really encouraging people to have that connection anymore, which is unfortunate. 

You can’t have generalized historic preservation.  It comes down to places. 

I first got involved in community stuff when Mayor Royer was elected in 1978 when I was at Seattle City Light.  Now, they want different groups to have input, but you have to have some kind of geographic basis as well, it’s not either-or, because most things like transportation and preservation, are place based. You can’t have generalized historic preservation.  It comes down to places.  There seems to be a movement happening to prevent that or not encourage that.

Early on, and this was before my time, the historic districts were in many cases researched and established by the city. Because in those days there was federal money to do that sort of stuff, and that’s one reason we don’t have many historic districts.  Because we never made that jump to either have more city money to do that, or find money to encourage and support people and neighborhoods who want to do that.  They sort of make efforts at it, and I think the preservation office has some interest in that, but there’s no city support right now.

It sounds like it’d be completely dependent on the people in the community themselves.

I think if they wanted to do it they could get help. For one thing there are neighborhood grants.  So I think that could happen.  But it hasn’t yet.  That’s where it has to be.



To hear more from Mimi about her career in historic preservation in the first half of our interview with her.