A leaky drain spout waters a shock of ferns that clings to the southern wall of Washington Hall, a century-old building at the corner of 14th Avenue and Fir Street, and one of the last remaining mid-sized performance venues in Seattle. The roof leaks. The plumbing is failing. The boiler hasn't worked for years.
"The thought of it going through another winter with the roof leaking and deteriorating is kind of sad," says Mark Blatter, real-estate development director for the preservation nonprofit Historic Seattle.
After widespread speculation that Washington Hall would be demolished to make way for condos, Historic Seattle is now negotiating with the owners, an African-American Masonic group called Sons of Haiti, to buy the building.
"We have yet to agree on a price," says Blatter, who notes there are some logistical challenges to negotiating with the Sons of Haiti, whose members must vote to ratify decisions. But, he says, "I can't imagine that they won't cooperate in resolving those issues." Sons of Haiti did not return calls for comment.
Back in the spring of 2007, when Seattle's real-estate market was still strong, Washington Hall appeared to be doomed. A condo developer reportedly offered $2 million for the building. But when the recession hit, the developer withdrew his bid, and neighbors—noting the building's history of hosting African-American performers like Billie Holiday and Jimi Hendrix—nominated it as a historic landmark.
The hall, which can hold 450 people on two floors, is one of the last performance-art spaces of its size in Seattle. From the 1970s to the '90s, it was home to On the Boards, and in recent years it has been a weekend venue for dance performances and raves.
"Those are exactly the kinds of spaces we have lost over the last few years in the real-estate market," says Jim Kelly, executive director of 4Culture, a nonprofit that supports arts groups in King County. For example, when a developer purchased Odd Fellows Hall on Capitol Hill, a rent hike pushed out Velocity Dance Center and Freehold Theatre.
If all goes well, Historic Seattle plans to rent the building to a couple of arts and humanities production companies, including the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas, which currently holds some of its performances on Capitol Hill. "When we need a space, we spend a tremendous amount of time negotiating locations and rents," says CD Forum director Stephanie Ellis-Smith. "We are reclaiming the African-American heritage for the Central District."
Before it is ready for tenants, Historic Seattle says the building will need about $8 million in seismic retrofits and restorations.
The city's Landmark Preservation Board gave an initial nod to the neighbors' preservation request in November and will hold a public hearing on Wednesday, January 7, at 3:30 p.m. in Room 4060 of the Seattle Municipal Tower.