House of Tomorrow demolition plan has a ‘yesterday’ feel

Jun 7, 2023, 8:55 AM | Updated: Jun 8, 2023, 7:49 am

The House of Tomorrow was built in 1940 near Puyallup and is in a floodplain; when it's demolished,...

The House of Tomorrow was built in 1940 near Puyallup and is in a floodplain; when it's demolished, preservationists want assurances the vintage wood and other architectural elements won't all end up in a landfill. (Courtesy Pierce County)

(Courtesy Pierce County)

In Pierce County just east of Tacoma, the House of Tomorrow will soon become just a memory of yesterday – now that FEMA is funding a buyout and demolition of the historic home because it sits in the floodplain.

The House of Tomorrow was designed and built around 1940 by a Tacoma man named Bert Smyser, who should be much better known than he is. Smyser, who initially worked as a designer of department store window displays, lived in the House of Tomorrow for many years.

Smyser, who was not a trained architect, designed a number of Pierce County buildings, including what’s now the Java Jive on South Tacoma Way – the restaurant shaped like a giant coffee pot. Among other things, Smyser also lobbied for the 1962 World’s Fair to be held in Auburn rather than Seattle. Bert Smyser, who obviously had a lot of ideas, passed away in 1987 at age 93.

It was revealed recently that the House of Tomorrow is officially doomed. The structure sits in a floodplain along Clarks Creek just south of the Puyallup River, and it has been damaged by floods multiple times over the years. Thus, FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Agency – is providing grant funding so that Pierce County can buy the home from its owner and eliminate a chronic flood risk. This means the House of Tomorrow will likely be demolished sometime next year.

And that, says Michael Lafreniere of the non-profit group Historic Tacoma, is a shame.

“The House of Tomorrow had a particularly interesting design style that [Bert Smyser] was somewhat known for the style known as Streamlined Modern,” Lafreniere told KIRO Newsradio. “It was modernistic for its day, [with] curved corners and other elements of design that made it futuristic looking in some ways.”

News of the FEMA decision to demolish the House of Tomorrow came as a big surprise to Michael Sullivan, a historic preservation consultant, and historian in Tacoma.

This process with FEMA and Pierce County – to draft and finalize a “Memorandum of Agreement” or MOA – goes back about five years. Michael Sullivan was under the impression for most of that time that the House of Tomorrow was going to be moved out of the floodplain and preserved.

In light of the recent news – which came via the public release of the MOA – Sullivan says that, for some reason, the demolition plan for the House of Tomorrow has been a well-kept secret.

“I must say they did not do a good faith effort to make people aware of what the plan was to demolish the building,” Sullivan told KIRO Newsradio earlier this week. “I mean, I pay attention to this stuff, and I didn’t even know about it. I’m on the Governor’s Advisory Council, where we’re supposed to review memorandums of agreement, and it didn’t come before us anywhere.”

“All of a sudden, here’s the final report that was offered up as mitigation for the demolition,” Sullivan continued. “And it’s going to be gone. It was already decided.”

By “mitigation,” Sullivan means a series of steps outlined in the MOA to, essentially, compensate for the loss of the House of Tomorrow – including photo documentation, a public open house before it’s demolished, a YouTube video, and an effort to preserve some of the architectural elements.

Still, says Sullivan, the demolition plan seems to have come out of nowhere.

Science Kilner is with FEMA. She’s the Region 10 Environmental Officer, which means she works on FEMA’s various grant programs, including buyouts of homes in the floodplain. Kilner says that Pierce County spent a lot of time and resources investigating the potential of moving the House of Tomorrow and adding up all the estimated costs.

“And ultimately, it became very cost prohibitive,” Kilner told KIRO Newsradio on Tuesday. “And one of the things that FEMA requires when we move a building is a benefit-cost analysis, and unfortunately, the numbers just were not favorable.”

The price tag that Pierce County came up with for an estimated cost to move the House of Tomorrow – and build a new foundation reconnect to utilities, etc. – was $1.2 million. Based on that estimate, FEMA rejected the move and settled on demolition instead.

Michael Sullivan feels blindsided by the decision to demolish. However, there’s one other significant aspect of the “mitigation” that irks him, too, and which feels decidedly “yesterday” in terms of tackling climate change.

Sullivan says that with the House of Tomorrow now set to be demolished, there are no provisions in the MOA that require any of the building materials – the chrome and mahogany interior elements, tight-grain old-growth timbers such as studs and joists and beams – to be saved from being taken straight to the dump.

“If they were going to step back from that move, how did we skip over – especially in a building like this with so much artifact value – how did we skip over redirecting parts of the building away from a landfill?” Sullivan said.

Sullivan isn’t the only one who feels this way about the House of Tomorrow MOA.

Chris Moore, director of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, is actually someone whose group signed off on the FEMA MOA. In an email Tuesday, Moore told KIRO Newsradio he wishes now that the Washington Trust had pushed for what he calls a “more robust salvage plan” and a requirement that there be careful, systematic “deconstruction” of the house so that the materials could be more readily reused. Moore says the timing of the FEMA process and the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a less-than-ideal process and outcome.

In an email late Tuesday, a FEMA spokesperson clarified the agency’s policy around waste generated by demolition projects their funds support.

“The program requirements and the MOA does not stipulate how the sub-applicant, Pierce County, disposes of demo debris, it is up to the subapplicant how they want to dispose of it,” the spokesperson wrote. “FEMA does not have any issue with Pierce County choosing to recycle or salvage material. The grant is conditioned on disposal at an appropriately approved/licensed solid waste facility.”

What the FEMA agreement does say is that, at their own expense, the non-profit Puyallup Historical Society can take some materials in order to preserve elements of the House of Tomorrow (after the owner is allowed first pick to take architectural items). The MOA also says that Pierce County must make a “good faith effort” to identify building salvage companies willing, at their own expense, to dismantle any or all of the House of Tomorrow in order to recycle the old-growth timbers and other reusable elements.

But, says Michael Sullivan and Chris Moore – and Science Kilner of FEMA – there are no resources available to help any group with the costs associated with preservation or with deconstruction and removal.

“The way that works is those entities have to come in and remove those elements themselves,” Science Kilner said. “The county is not going to do that for them.”

Bottom line, Michael Sullivan believes the FEMA agreement should have at least a modest amount of financial resources devoted to carefully deconstructing the building so that the materials would be more easily preserved or reused and less likely to end up in a landfill.

Randy Brake of Pierce County Planning and Public Works is the project manager for the House of Tomorrow buyout.

KIRO Newsradio asked Brake if that “good faith effort” requirement to salvage materials from the House of Tomorrow doesn’t succeed in locating a salvage company willing to do the deconstruction work, isn’t it true that 100% of the House of Tomorrow could end up as waste?

“If none of those entities are interested in anything there,” Brake said, that’s exactly what could happen.

After KIRO Newsradio’s story aired Wednesday morning, a Pierce County spokesperson reached out with an additional detail regarding a portion of the waste which will be generated by the demolition, writing that “concrete material (house foundation, walls, etc.) is hauled to a recycling facility.” This is not specified in the MOA, and Pierce County is not required by FEMA to take this step.

Beyond this single residence in Pierce County, Michael Sullivan is concerned that the lack of a requirement to address the climate-related aspects of the House of Tomorrow is inconsistent with other government efforts to address climate change and is like a canary in the historic preservation coal mine. Sullivan says there are only going to be more and more instances of historic or even just vintage buildings demolished because of climate change, which means even more potential waste is headed to landfills everywhere.

“For those of us in the historic preservation world, sea level rise and climate change are crashing into the fact that in our part of the world, most of our earliest construction and, consequently, our historic buildings are along our shorelines,” Sullivan said. “And they’re in the first line of threat from climate change.”

“I see this as an example of what we’re going to see a lot of in the future,” Sullivan said.

While it may be too late for the House of Tomorrow, Sullivan’s dissatisfaction with the House of Tomorrow MOA does point to possible policy changes that might be pursued at the state and federal levels. Given how climate change is informing more and more state and federal policies these days, perhaps if FEMA or other government funds are used to purchase and demolish a structure in the floodplain, the lead agency should be required to recycle the materials rather than just make a good-faith effort.

Allyson Brooks is the State Historic Preservation Officer for Washington and, in this capacity, also signed the FEMA MOA for the House of Tomorrow on behalf of the agency she leads, the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. Brooks agrees that new policies at the state and federal level to address situations like the House of Tomorrow are a good idea.

“How can we better achieve deconstruction in state and federal policy? That is part of climate change because taking all this material to the landfill is not good for emissions,” Brooks told KIRO Newsradio on Tuesday. “It’s not helping the situation, and we would be better off recycling material.”

“And there’s always the old line that’s so true,” Brooks continued. “’The greenest thing you can do is recycle a historic building.’”

Randy Brake of Pierce County says next up for his agency is negotiating with the owner of the House of Tomorrow to complete a purchase agreement and then commencing the mitigation activities – photo and video documentation, a public open house (perhaps as early as sometime this year) and then demolition – including, hopefully, some kind of deconstruction and redirection of the materials somewhere other than a landfill – sometime in 2024.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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House of Tomorrow demolition plan has a ‘yesterday’ feel