Ryan House in Sumner named “Most Endangered”

Feb 9, 2024, 8:50 AM | Updated: 2:26 pm

The Ryan House in Sumner, Wash. dates to the 1860s; after years of fundraising to preserve it, the ...

The Ryan House in Sumner, Wash. dates to the 1860s; after years of fundraising to preserve it, the City of Sumner is planning to demolish the structure instead. The Ryan House was recently named to the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation's list of "Most Endangered Places." (Washington Trust for Historic Preservation)

(Washington Trust for Historic Preservation)

The grassroots effort to save the historic Ryan House in the Pierce County community of Sumner just got a boost from the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. The statewide advocacy group has added the threatened structure to its list of “Most Endangered Places” in Washington.

“We have officially included the Ryan House in our ‘Most Endangered Places list,” Washington Trust executive director Chris Moore told KIRO Newsradio earlier this week. “That ‘Most Endangered’ program is one of the foundational programs of the organization, and for years, we’ve been using the ‘Most Endangered’ list to help raise awareness around historic resources and cultural resources that face one form of threat or another.”

As KIRO Newsradio reported in September 2023, parts of the Ryan House date back to the 1860s, prior to Washington becoming a state. The home was donated to the city in the 1920s and served as the town’s library for decades. More recently, it has been home to the Sumner Historical Society.

The City of Sumner had been working for the past few years and had successfully raised a significant amount of money to restore the Ryan House, and the historic structure in the middle of town figured prominently in their long-range planning as the nexus between the past, present and future of Sumner. The iconic structure’s role as a prominent public landmark is fully embraced in multiple city planning documents published over the past several years.

However, at some point last summer, City of Sumner officials received updated estimates on the cost to do the restoration – costs had gone up because of some additional structural issues discovered within the old house – and they abruptly shifted gears. Without much public process, the city council then voted to demolish the Ryan House instead.

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The demolition vote gave Sumner residents – many of whom had happily followed from afar the fundraising activities and other updates on the Ryan House project – a sort of civic whiplash. What had been years of work and successful fundraising toward restoration suddenly, and without warning, became the exact opposite.

In the wake of last September’s decision to demolish, a grassroots effort to save the Ryan House sprung up. Members of the group go to city council meetings and hand out flyers at parades, and maintain an active Facebook page. But the city doesn’t seem interested in hearing about what those Sumner residents want, so the grassroots campaign also includes a legal challenge to the process by which the demolition permit was granted.

KIRO Newsradio reached out to City of Sumner spokesperson Carmen Palmer for an official reaction to the “Most Endangered” listing, but she declined an interview request.

In an email, Palmer wrote “We thought that we were fairly clear in September that it was endangered, so this listing seems a bit belated.”

Palmer appears to miss the point about what this week’s action by the Washington Trust actually means: the biggest threat to the Ryan House is not the structural issues common in any wood-frame home dating to the 1860s. The danger that makes the Ryan House qualify for the list is coming from the City of Sumner and their hasty plans to demolish it.

Chris Moore of the Washington Trust points out that rising costs on a preservation project is not uncommon. Architects and engineers more often than not tend to discover critical and expensive issues only as the work to restore a structure gets underway.

The sudden shift by the City of Sumner, which they blame on these unforeseen cost increases, is a bit of a head-scratcher for most of the historic preservation community.

“We really applaud the city for the stewardship they’ve done for nearly 100 years” to maintain the Ryan House, Moore said, “and for the efforts to fundraise to get it rehabilitated.”

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“And I guess the question is,” Moore continued, “with such a long track record, why was it so sudden to just move to demolition?”

Some kind of disconnect means that critical messages about the Ryan House that could lead to solutions and a more unified community aren’t being shared by those on what’s become opposite sides of a debate.

“We appreciate the support of the Washington Trust, but funding remains the missing ingredient,” Carmen Palmer of the City of Sumner also wrote in her email. “As far as we can tell, being added to this list unfortunately doesn’t help with that.”

By declining to be interviewed, KIRO Newsradio was not able to pushback on Palmer’s interpretation of what being added to “Most Endangered Places” list can mean for a community effort to find a solution that works for everyone – including helping to raise the additional funds to complete the work necessary to restore the Ryan House.

Maybe Palmer’s unwillingness – as city spokesperson – to have a conversation with a journalist is indicative of what’s also missing in the bigger picture of the controversy and anger swirling around the Ryan House these past several month: dialog between City of Sumner officials and concerned citizens who feel like they weren’t consulted before the decision to demolition, and who feel like they’re not being heard now.

One school of thought suggests that elected officials in Sumner (or any community, for that matter) would applaud a group of residents and business people who were devoting hours of volunteer time to do something positive for their community. Working together to raise money and create a plan for a renovated publicly owned landmark would have much higher likelihood to succeed than battling it out via social media or the judicial system.

That’s where Chris Moore of the Washington Trust sees the real potential in this project: if there can be meaningful dialog and a true partnership between the City of Sumner and the citizens who are clearly willing to roll up their sleeves.

Part of the discussion is to work with the city and with the community just to say, ‘Hey, there’s a combination, there’s a hybrid outcome of sorts that might work here,’” Moore said. “That certainly keeps this building as a legacy building for the city, but also finds other ways to use it and have it be a real civic asset.”

Meanwhile, the community group’s legal challenge to, among other things, the process by which the City of Sumner issued themselves a demolition permit for the Ryan House, will be heard next month in Pierce County Superior Court.

However, before that phase of the legal battle gets underway, a much more appetizing event will take place when supporters of the Ryan House invite the public to take part in a spaghetti dinner fundraiser at Purdy’s Public House in Sumner on Sunday, February 25.

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 or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.


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