Frustration in Sumner over city’s rush to demolish historic Ryan House

Sep 27, 2023, 10:02 AM | Updated: 12:09 pm

ryan house demolish rush...

Brian Massey grew up in Sumner and believes the City of Sumner should cancel demolition plans for the Ryan House and re-start the restoration and renovation process. “Once history is gone, it’s gone,” Massey told KIRO Newsradio outside the house Tuesday night. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

(Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

The City of Sumner held a public open house Tuesday night for residents to learn more about various civic projects and initiatives underway in the Pierce County community. One of the hottest topics was the Ryan House, a 19th-century home owned by the city, which the Sumner City Council last week voted to demolish.

As KIRO Newsradio reported earlier this week, the Ryan House, a Victorian home on Main Street in Sumner, built in the 1870s and 1880s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is now targeted for demolition as soon as November following the council vote last week.

That vote took many, if not most, of Sumner residents by surprise and has caused what might be described as civic whiplash because the city had been raising money and working on restoring the Ryan House for the past few years.

Plans were to address longstanding issues common in any 19th-century structure and to bring the facility up to various codes so that it could be used for public gatherings and other civic purposes.

Sumner officials now say they discovered serious structural issues with the home back in the spring that they say make it too expensive to fix and too dangerous to allow to be left standing. Estimates for the additional restoration costs provided by city officials have varied between $1 million and $2 million.

Brian Massey is in his 60s. He grew up in Sumner and still lives nearby. He attended the open house Tuesday and then walked with a reporter the two blocks or so from City Hall to take a closer look at the Ryan House.

“This is the back corner of it, right here,” Massey said, pointing to a two-story Victorian house on a modest-sized lot fronting on Sumner’s Main Street. “All the wood siding can be redone … they should be in there putting up temporary walls up to keep it.

“But this was our first library,” Massey continued, leading the tour around the outside of the nearly 150-year-old home that he clearly treasures and which he is obviously proud of. “This is where a lot of people came and studied, and it’s on Main Street; that’s why it’s so popular.

“They did a thing to take this tree down, I forgot what year they did that,” Massey continued, pointing to the landscaping in the front yard. “But this is the house.”

Meanwhile, back at City Hall, the event was well attended and included tables staffed by various city officials and augmented by graphic display boards balanced on tripod stands. Many of the attendees gathered were holding flyers that said “SAVE THE RYAN HOUSE!” on one side and that listed the email addresses of council members and the mayor on the other.

The most common response from the many people KIRO Newsradio spoke with at the event was disappointment or frustration that the City of Sumner didn’t make more of an effort to let people know back in the spring when the city says they first discovered serious problems with the Ryan House.

Randall Adams of Sumner is the 68-year-old real estate broker who made those Ryan House flyers and started handing them out in Sumner on Saturday.

What does he think the city should have said when they found those additional structural issues back in May?

“‘We ran into some things that are considerably more than what we thought,'” Adams said in the imagined voice of a city official. “‘And we don’t have the funds to do all of this. We’re going to need some assistance. We’re going to need to have the community rally around this effort.

“They didn’t say that,” Adams said, now almost fuming. “They just chopped the legs off.”

City Administrator Jason Wilson doesn’t necessarily believe that informing citizens months ago would have made much of a difference.

“You know, hindsight is always 20-20,” Wilson told KIRO Newsradio. “We put all of our meetings out on our website. We’ve had a project page [and] it’s been updated real-time with everything that we learned.

“Providing additional time for the public to participate in the process may have resulted in a delayed vote,” Wilson continued. “But I don’t know that it would have changed the vote at the end of the day.”

Randall Adams doesn’t quite see it that way. His comments echoed a lot of what was being repeated by other Sumner residents at the meeting and on social media. Many say they were taken completely by surprise by the Sept. 18 demolition vote.

“That’s why we’re upset,” Adams said. “Because for three [or] four years, we’ve been told it’s going along, it’s getting good. We’re getting closer, it’s all there,” he continued, referring to the multi-year and very successful effort made by the City of Sumner to raise money in support of the renovation of the Ryan House.

“And then, bam! It’s being torn down,” Adams said.

“And, they had a window where they could have included the citizens of Sumner to help them,” Adams added. “And they chose to be omnipotent and not do so.”

Since the event Tuesday night was just an open house — not a regular council meeting — no decisions were made, and no votes were taken on any issues before the body.

If a citizens group were to coalesce and ask for more time to organize and raise money to do the restoration as originally planned, would the City of Sumner be amenable to hitting the pause button on that November demolition?

Jason Wilson was non-committal.

“You know, it’s really a council decision at this time because it’s a policy decision that the council made,” Wilson said. “And if they wanted to revisit their decision, they’d certainly be more than welcome to.”

“I think the bigger challenge, though, is really the funding,” Wilson continued. “It’s not [a lack of] will; everybody wants to save the Ryan House, but the funding gap just continues to grow. And our grants also have finite timelines, so they also expire.”

KIRO Newsradio checked with at least one of the major funders of the Ryan House restoration, the Washington State Heritage Capital Projects program, which is administered by the Washington State Historical Society (WSHS).

As it turns out, they have a fair amount of flexibility on their timeline.

“The City of Sumner received a grant in the amount of $315,000 from the State of Washington through our Heritage Capital Projects (HCP) program for the rehabilitation of the Ryan House,” wrote Jay Mortensen Baersten of WSHS in an email. “This money has been legislatively appropriated, and because the budget is on a biennial basis, those funds are currently guaranteed to the project through June 30, 2025.”

“That said, because unknown conditions and various delays sometimes happen with capital projects—especially those involving historic buildings—we do allow grantees to request reappropriation of their grant funds into future biennia, up to two times,” Mortensen Baersten continued.

Just making a request doesn’t guarantee an extension will be granted, she wrote, but “the timeline of these funds could potentially be extended out to June 30, 2029.”

As for the City Council being willing to demonstrate that same kind of flexibility with the demolition timeline, lifelong Sumner resident Candy Book wasn’t too optimistic.

“Oh, sure, we can ask,” Book said. “But we can barely get them to give us three minutes at a council meeting, let alone give us even a month.”

“They want to tear that down in the first week of November,” Book continued. “We don’t have time.”

City Administrator Jason Wilson says the next regular Sumner City Council meeting isn’t until Monday, Oct. 16, which is awfully close to November, the month when city officials say demolition could get underway.

Even with the public outcry over the surprise vote – and clear support for re-starting the restoration project – and in spite of the long gap between now and the next council meeting, Wilson described some recent steps that make it sound as if city staff are not exactly slow-walking the demolition process.

“We’ve been working on a demolition package for a number of weeks now, knowing that this decision was likely,” Wilson said, referring to a bid process to identify a demolition contractor. “So we do anticipate putting it out for [bid] in a couple of weeks.”

The absence of a proactive effort to let Sumner residents know what was going with the Ryan House months ago, combined with what seems to many like a surprise vote followed by an expedited demolition process – along with no opportunity for anyone to weigh in until mid-October – just doesn’t sit well with many of the people KIRO Newsradio spoke with Tuesday night at Sumner City Hall.

Impromptu Ryan House tour guide Brian Massey is clearly upset about the potential loss of one of the oldest structures in Sumner, which also happens to be one of the oldest publicly owned structures anywhere in the entire state of Washington.

“It’s the last big piece of history in Sumner,” Massey said as he stood on the lawn of the Ryan House with twilight descending on his hometown. “There’s nothing else here, they took out the old bridges and everything. This used to be an agriculture town when I was growing up.

“Once history is gone, it’s gone,” Massey said.

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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