‘Defense attorney seeking defendant’s execution’: Memorial Stadium landmark process bizarre, twisted

Aug 18, 2023, 2:27 PM | Updated: Aug 21, 2023, 8:16 am

memorial stadium landmark...

Seattle High School Memorial Stadium hosted numerous events during the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, including the opening ceremonies on April 21, 1962. (Photo: Public domain)

(Photo: Public domain)

In an 8-to-1 vote Wednesday, the City of Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board took a big step toward designating Seattle High School Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center as a city landmark.

However, the meeting was weird, and the preservation of the threatened structure is still far from guaranteed.

The landmark designation process has a reputation for being weird in Seattle, and Memorial Stadium is apparently no exception. One local preservationist told KIRO Newsradio that the process can be “like having a defense attorney working to get the defendant executed.”

This is especially true when the owner of the potential landmark does not want it to be designated as a landmark, which is the case with Seattle Public Schools and Memorial Stadium. The “execution” part of the metaphor comes from the fact that no one formally involved in the process — not the building owner, and not the Landmarks Board staff — is actually advocating for the structure to be designated a landmark.

In June, KIRO Newsradio reported Seattle Public Schools had “preemptively” submitted a landmark nomination for the stadium as part of the run-up to seeking a demolition permit, a move which had been anticipated since 2021. Back in June, a City of Seattle spokesperson described the process as “wonky” and “a bit complicated.”

Seattle High School Memorial Stadium was originally built in 1947 and was dedicated as a monument to nearly 800 alumni who died in World War II. Nearly 76 years after Memorial Stadium first opened to the public in honor of those Seattle alumni who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of liberty and democracy, the facility remains, for the most part, gloriously unaltered from its original appearance.

For historic preservation advocates who pay attention to these things, the original structure is so unaltered it offers a chance to examine and understand rare design and construction techniques that were revolutionary at the time when Memorial Stadium was built. For those advocating an approach to Memorial Stadium similar to what was done to the old Seattle Center Coliseum (aka Key Arena) to create Climate Pledge Arena, the possibilities for renovation and upgrades – which would preserve the shell of the original memorial structure – are intriguing and exciting.

However, for unknown reasons, Climate Pledge Arena-like options, which are also less impactful environmentally than new construction, aren’t on the table at the moment.

Seattle Public Schools has made it clear that they do not want Memorial Stadium to be designated as a landmark because they want to tear down the stadium – though they say they want landmark designation for the neglected and derelict Memorial Wall of names of World War II dead, which was added in 1951.

As KIRO Newsradio also reported in June, the landmark nomination prepared by consultants Seattle Public Schools hired was missing much of the social and cultural history of the stadium, what historians and historic preservation professionals look for when trying to understand the role of a particular structure and why it may or may not be worth preserving. The 128-page document downplayed or completely ignored the role of Memorial Stadium in sports and community events, especially its role during the World’s Fair in 1962 and as a place for concerts in more recent decades.

Based on some earlier landmark nomination processes in Seattle, a few preservationists have come up with their own derisive nicknames for the landmark documents prepared when the owner of the building wants to tear it down.

“Anti-nomination” is one of those terms. It exists because, rather than create a rich narrative that communicates the history, design, engineering, context and significance of a particular structure to advocate for its designation, these landmark nominations do the bare minimum to communicate the history and rarely aim to flesh out the compelling narratives.

And there’s no way to call the story of Memorial Stadium, or really the many stories of Memorial Stadium, anything less than compelling when it comes to a potential landmark designation.

There are several criteria for the Landmarks Preservation Board consider for a structure to be designated a landmark in Seattle. For Memorial Stadium, two of these really pop. One is a “significant association with a significant historical event,” such as the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair; another is a “significant association with a significant aspect of the cultural, political or economic heritage of the community.”

For the 1962 fair, arguably the most significant historical event which ever took place in Seattle, Memorial Stadium was front and center. Opening ceremonies were held there, with dignitaries and elected officials such as Governor Al Rosellini, performing artists such as singer John Raitt (Bonnie’s dad), future Mariners owner Danny Kaye, and even President John F. Kennedy giving live remarks via telephone. It has all been captured in archival footage of compelling local TV coverage available on YouTube.

During the fair, Memorial Stadium hosted events daily, including a waterskiing show in a temporary plywood “moat” called the Aquadrome (featuring locally made speedboats from Pacific Mariner and sponsored by Olympia Beer) and other special performances by a team of Mexican motorcyclists, the Berlin Circus and something called the Canadian Tattoo (a mind-blowing display of military regalia, along with Mounties and pipers and drummers).

None of these details was included in the landmark nomination; some were mentioned during a supplemental PowerPoint presentation the consultants gave Wednesday.

Still, among the most head-scratching aspect of history left out of the landmark nomination was any mention of the hundreds of concerts held in Memorial Stadium, from Heart in 1977 (for which there is rare film footage with audio on YouTube) to Soundgarden in 1994 (which The Seattle Times called in a review headline a “Crash-And-Burn Home Performance Many Will Recall For Years”) and many others.

The total absence of Memorial Stadium concerts in the document seems like bizarre oversight in a city whose “soft power” around the world for the past 30 years has come largely from its music and whose residents have enthusiastically attended live shows performed by local heroes and out-of-town all-stars for as long as anyone can remember.

During the Landmarks Preservation Board meeting Wednesday, Susan Boyle, one of the consultants the school district hired to write the nomination, tried to make up for this oversight with a PowerPoint slide that listed about a dozen Memorial Stadium concerts and which mentioned Bumbershoot with a single line.

“The list I have on the left starts in 1978 and goes through 2000,” Boyle told the board members. “These were all of the concerts that I could find by looking at different websites about concerts and venues in Seattle.”

Still missing from Boyle’s list was the 1977 Heart show, Soundgarden’s 1994 “crash-and-burn home performance” and dozens of other concerts by local and national artists.

Boyle tried to explain how her team had missed the concert aspect of Memorial Stadium in the written landmark nomination.

“I appreciate people having brought this up to us because in looking back at the more established history of the original building and what gave rise to it, we did, in fact, overlook this part in the nomination report,” Boyle said.

Also missing from the nomination was most of the history of Memorial Stadium acting as an “incubator” for new sports and new teams, such as the beloved Seattle Sounders playing their first two seasons at Memorial Stadium in 1974 and 1975.

A mention of the stunning variety of other sports and community events that happened there also was missing. From the Seattle Rangers semi-pro football team to what The Seattle Times described as “a march estimated at 10,000 people” that “made its way to Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center on April 7, 1968, for a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., three days after the civil-rights leader was killed.”

Right before the board voted on whether or not to formally review Memorial Stadium as a landmark, architect and board member Becca Pheasant-Reis expressed frustration about the missing history.

“Honestly, at this point, I feel like I don’t know enough about what has happened at the stadium and all of the different things to be able to make any sort of distinct determination on that just because that information wasn’t fully fleshed out,” Pheasant-Reis said. “For example, a lot more of the information was provided in the PowerPoint, but in the nomination, there wasn’t notice of what types of special events may have happened here for different sports outside of football, the sports (and the) names of the teams that played here.”

“I know they added in that the older version of the Sounders was here,” Pheasant-Reis continued. “But just in case there are any more of those items that just haven’t been included if it goes through the nomination and comes back for designation, I would like to see that information, as well as any presidents that came through and talked and everything else.”
Another perplexing item informing the proceedings Wednesday was a confusing report from the Department of Neighborhoods’ staff which told the Landmarks Preservation Board members the “Landmarks Board Coordinator acknowledges the cultural history associated with this site, as a gathering space for community events … as Memorial Stadium (but) the coordinator believes this significance may not be embodied in the 1947 stadium structure itself.”

KIRO Newsradio reached out on the morning of the Landmarks Preservation Board meeting to Department of Neighborhoods’ landmarks staff members Erin Doherty and Sarah Sodt for clarification on this point – how it would be possible for a structure which has hosted thousands of meaningful community events over a heady period of 76 years and not embody significance – but they declined to elaborate.

“It is the Board’s work to determine if the property meets the designation standards and has the ability to convey its significance,” wrote City of Seattle Historic Preservation Officer Sarah Sodt in an email response Wednesday, “and the Board’s determination of whether to nominate the property will take place during the public meeting of the Board this afternoon.”

The staff report, preparation of which was at least likely overseen by Sodt, is something of a roadmap for Landmark Preservation Board members; for the staff report to assert, without any clarification, that a structure doesn’t convey significance of the events held there doesn’t appear to be helpful information for making a decision in a complex process.
The staff report also suggested two options for the board to consider: to choose to pursue nomination of the entire 1947 Seattle High School Memorial stadium (not including interior areas) or choose to pursue nomination of only the 1951 wall of names.

Part of the presentation also included remarks by Jessie Clawson, a land use attorney from McCullough Hill, a Seattle law firm that often is engaged by clients to oppose efforts to designate landmarks in Seattle and King County.

Clawson told the board she was going to “give a statement on behalf of the Seattle School District.”

“We know the board does not consider future plans for a site and a nomination, and we’re not asking you to do that,” Clawson said. “But we want to make clear some of the history and intent behind the district’s plans for the stadium and memorial wall.”

At this point, if Memorial Stadium truly had a defense attorney making its case to be designated as a landmark and not seeking its “execution,” that member of the bar would have jumped up and objected to this information being presented this way in this forum, which is only supposed to consider a potential landmark on its landmark criteria, not what the owner’s attorney says the owner wants to replace it with.

“Plans also include renovation and restoration of the Memorial Wall as a designated landmark that restores it to the place of honor that it should have,” Clawson also said.

That same defense attorney might have jumped up at this point and said that no ordinance or other measure has prevented the district from restoring or honoring the Memorial Wall in the past or doing so now. In 2017, a district official acknowledged the decades of neglect and told KIRO Newsradio that lack of maintenance (and the fountains and lights which once graced the wall having been inoperable for decades) was a budget issue.

As the board deliberated prior to their vote, a member named Ian Macleod expressed his support for considering the entire structure designated a city landmark.

“I agree with the argument…that this was not only a major part of the World’s Fair site, but the idea of it as a living memorial is really interesting,” Macleod said, referring to the national movement as World War II was ending to create practical facilities including the stadiums, highways, swimming pools, etc. as “living memorials” to war dead, rather than simply build ornamental statues. KIRO Newsradio explored this aspect of Memorial Stadium in March.

“(There are) a lot of buildings named after people in memorials for various wars, historical figures, and what have you, and I know that this is not unique, there’s plenty of other stadiums that are memorials to something,” Macleod continued. “But it seems unique in the city.”

Despite the staff report and the remarks by Seattle Public Schools’ land use attorney, the City of Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted 8-to-1 to formally review Memorial Stadium for landmark designation at their Oct. 4, 2023 meeting.

However, while an overwhelming majority voted to consider the entire structure, this doesn’t mean those eight board members will all support the designation in October. There are still a lot of unanswered questions, mixed messages to sort out and more materials the consultants need to produce.

Either way, the vote in favor of considering all of Seattle High School Memorial Stadium is not what Seattle Public Schools wanted to happen on Wednesday.

KIRO Newsradio reached out to school district communications staff for a reaction to Wednesday’s meeting and received a written statement attributed to “Seattle Public Schools and City of Seattle,” which read:

“A thorough review by the Landmarks Preservation Board is standard practice and, given the age of the stadium, is necessary to undertake any redevelopment of the site or any element within the site. As partners in the stadium’s future, we understand the Landmarks Board’s need for a comprehensive review regarding landmark status for the various components of the stadium. We wholeheartedly support the preservation of Memorial Wall, but the stadium structure has reached the end of its useful life, and we don’t believe that it – or the site – meets the landmark preservation criteria. As the discussions continue, we offer our full support in providing additional information the board may find helpful.”

In two follow-up emails to Seattle Public Schools Thursday afternoon, KIRO Newsradio asked for documentation to support the assertion by Seattle Public Schools and the City of Seattle that the stadium has “reached the end of its useful life.” Earlier engineering reports commissioned by Seattle Public Schools included no such conclusion.

Seattle Public Schools did not respond, and no documentation has been forthcoming; the stadium remains open and in use for a variety of events and is expected to remain this way for the foreseeable future. If Seattle Public Schools does provide KIRO Newsradio with proof that Memorial Stadium has “reached the end of its useful life,” this story will be updated.

KIRO Newsradio also reached out to Historic Seattle, the local non-profit preservation advocacy group, for their reaction to Wednesday’s meeting.

Jeff Murdock, Preservation Advocacy Manager, shared a written statement.

“As reflected in our public comments, Historic Seattle believes that all of Seattle Center’s Memorial Stadium is significant, not just the 1951 Memorial Wall addition,” Murdock wrote. “The applicant tried to make the case that there are two separate structures, but it is all one Memorial Stadium, a living memorial first constructed in 1947, with a continuous history. It’s impossible to disconnect the property from its long history as a civic gathering place and its meaningful association with the 1962 World’s Fair. Its role as a sports incubator (for the Seattle Sounders, among other teams), a mid-size stadium for emerging musical artists, and its unique structural and architectural design should not be diminished.”

“We are glad that the Board asked for additional information from the applicant about the social and cultural history, as well as about the stadium’s distinctive design,” Murdock continued. “We hope that including this new information will allow the Board to understand the indelible cultural imprint this Stadium (not just the Memorial Wall) has on our city’s collective memory. The Landmarks Board deliberated extensively on how best to record, honor, and preserve the longtime civic history tied to this property. We believe the only way to do so is to designate the entire stadium. Future use of the property is not in the Landmarks Board’s purview, and as one Board member noted, there’s no guarantee that a glossy new stadium will be built on the site after this one is demolished.”

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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