Is tonight the last chance to save Sumner’s historic Ryan House?

Sep 26, 2023, 8:59 AM

sumner ryan house save...

The Ryan House in Sumner was built in the 1870s and 1880s before Washington became a state, and is one of the oldest publicly owned homes from the Territorial Era still standing; the Sumner City Council voted Monday, September 18 to demolish it. (Courtesy City of Sumner)

(Courtesy City of Sumner)

The City of Sumner has been working for the past few years to renovate and restore the historic Ryan House. The Victorian-style home on Main Street is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and includes sections that date to the 1870s and 1880s, before Washington even became a state.

Last week, those renovation and restoration plans abruptly changed. As of last Monday, the Ryan House could now be demolished as soon as this November.

Over the past few days, a Facebook page devoted to Sumner’s history has been flooded with posts and comments critical of the decision to demolish the house. That decision came via a vote by the Sumner City Council Monday, Sept. 18, but has yet to be widely reported by local media.

Those Facebook comments might come roaring to life Tuesday night, and city officials might get an earful from Sumner residents at a City Hall open house, which had already been scheduled before last week’s vote.

The Ryan House, which includes an original “settler cabin” built in 1875, was bequeathed to the city by its owner Lucy Ryan back in the 1920s. It served as the town library for 50 years and, more recently, was home to the Sumner Historical Society.

It was just a few years ago when the City of Sumner set out to raise money to restore and renovate the Ryan House and lined up hundreds of thousands of dollars of grants from Pierce County hotel/motel tax and from the State of Washington Heritage Capital program. That work had gotten underway in the past year.

In a grant application, a city document described the key role of the Ryan House in the city’s comprehensive plan.

“Like so many cities in Puget Sound/Washington, Sumner is growing rapidly with new housing and new residents,” the document reads. “Ryan House’s role just become even more important to help us keep our identity, to tell newcomers our story, and to quickly bring their personal stories in to blend as part of our collective community story.”

Carmen Palmer is the communications director for the city. She told KIRO Newsradio Monday that the project was moving full-speed ahead this spring. However, as engineers conducting a thorough assessment started removing interior walls, they discovered that the Ryan House was missing beams and other structural elements that now make it much more expensive to save than first thought, somewhere between $1 million and $2 million more, and perhaps may even be likely to collapse in on itself.

Once informed of the condition and the additional costs, the Sumner City Council voted last week to essentially “red tag” the building, and now it has to come down as soon as possible. That work, says Carmen Palmer, could begin as soon as November.

The decision to demolish has upset many Sumner residents, at least partly because it seems to have taken everyone by surprise. Carmen Palmer says that the dangerous structural issues were first discovered back in May and were discussed in committee meetings that were open to the public, but she acknowledges that most people only became aware last week after the council voted to demolish.

Palmer sounded frustrated that are Sumner people are only now saying how much they truly care about the Ryan House and think it’s worth saving.

“We have put it in multiple newsletters. We’ve put it out there,” Palmer said. “The project page has been up since 2019. Where was all this effort to save it, then? No one called me. No one called and offered assistance, funding [or said] ‘Hey, I love this house.’”

“So where was all of this when we were working to save it?” Palmer continued. “And I really wish we had seen this groundswell then. It was . . . in the media, but nothing.”

What’s been in the media over the past few years is that the city was working to save the Ryan House and that they were having success in raising money. There’s been nothing about the potential structural problems until after the city council voted to demolish, and the word was then further spread by social media.

But, for anyone interested in voicing their opinion or who might want to work to save the Ryan House, it just so happens the City of Sumner is holding one of its occasional public open houses tonight at City Hall from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

At the open house, Carmen Palmer expects that a lot of people who care about the Ryan House will be there tonight to voice their concerns, though she says there are plenty of other projects underway in Sumner that are also fair game for discussion.

Given the condition of the Ryan House and the vote last week to demolish it, is it too late for a group of citizens to organize themselves in order to line up more support and get the larger community to step up, not unlike what’s been happening over in the Pierce County community of Parkland with the old Parkland School?

“They would have to come not just with ideas; they’d have to come with a check,” Palmer said. “But I think if there’s someone listening to your report … who is sitting on an extra $2 million, please let us know right away.”

The City of Sumner Fall Open House will be held Tuesday in Council Chambers at City Hall, 1104 Maple Street, from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

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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