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Coming back from battle

The historic quartermaster building has sat in disrepair since the 1960s. - Douglas Crist/Staff Photo
The historic quartermaster building has sat in disrepair since the 1960s.
— image credit: Douglas Crist/Staff Photo

A historic property at Fort Ward will soon be turned into luxury townhomes.

The old bricks of Fort Ward’s Building 16 have served many purposes over the last 90 years: an Army quartermaster shop, a Navy bunkhouse, the home of women volunteers during World War II, and, for the last few decades, a grand palace for birds and the occasional squatter.

That last long-term use just didn’t sit right with South Beach resident Scott McFarlane.

“I’d drive by it every day,” he said last week under one of the building’s boarded windows. “I’d look at it and just say, ‘Something has got to be done with this building.’ The way it was – it was just a shame, a travesty.”

The City Council last week approved McFarlane’s plans to turn a travesty into townhouses.

After purchasing the property in 1998, McFarlane undertook what he called a “long, drawn out, arduous” process to change the building’s zoning to allow him to put six residential units in the 15,000-square-foot building and two new units behind it.

After eight years of council meetings, Comprehensive Plan amendments, community discussions and countless visits to the city planning department, McFarlane is excited to finally breathe life into the building.

“Heck yeah!” he said, heaving open the temporary chain-link fence surrounding the three-story building. “I’m totally excited about this. I haven’t been this excited since I bought it in 1998.”

Taking the rear stairs, McFarlane stepped into a building with warped and rotted floors, spray-painted walls and smashed-out windows. But in his mind’s eye, McFarlane sees six condos, each towering three stories.

“We want this to be grand because it’s a fabulous building,” he said. “It’s going to have the nicest condos on the island, by far. It’ll have the best kitchens, the best everything. My goal is simply to make this the premier condo on the island.”

Each unit, stretched between the building’s windowed basement, main floor and vaulted top floor, will come with an elevator and a fireplace.

McFarlane estimates the units will run between $500,000 and $800,000 when they go on the market in in the fall of 2007.

“But that’s only if everything goes right,” he said, expressing a practiced hesitance toward the project.

McFarlane’s initial proposal for the “Quartermaster Lofts” drew criticism from neighbors fearing a residential development out of scale with the quiet Fort Ward of nearly a decade ago. Some also disliked McFarlane’s plan to gut the interior and alter its historic character.

One of the project’s most vocal opponents was Fort Ward resident and historian Mary Dombrowski. While disappointed the interior is no longer recognizable to her, Dombrowski’s views on the project have softened.

“The magic was in the inside,” she said, fondly recalling the building’s grand fireplace, large tiled bathrooms, dorm-style rooms and basement bar. “But at least the exterior will be preserved.”

Dombrowski also lauded McFarlane’s decision not to tear down the wooden coal storage building next door. McFarlane plans to renovate the building for use as a parking garage for residents. The city’s approval of McFarlane’s plans come with a clause requiring a $30,000 contribution to a Fort Ward community center in lieu of one that neighbors envisioned in Building 16’s basement.

Dombrowski said the money will serve as the community’s first step toward establishing a center nearby.

Longtime Fort Ward resident and neighborhood activist Gayle Ashton expects the renovation and continued maintenance of the building will hold the building together for years to come.

“We’re almost at the tipping place with that structure,” she said. “Something needs to happen if there’s to be any hope of maintaining it. I think this (redevelopment) and investment in it will keep it sound.”

After having sat vacant since the early 1960s, Dombrowski is pleased to see that the building’s new life will continue to remind island residents of its past lives.

“It’s a reminder for future generations of the crucial role Fort Ward played in combating the imperial Japanese during World War II,” she said.

Building 16 was built around 1912 as a storehouse for clothes, bedding and food for soldiers manning the new artillery and marine mine base.

Fort Ward was established along with several other coastal forts between 1885 and 1915 to fight the classic wars waged on land and sea. But with the advent of effective aircraft in World War I, the base became obsolete along with larger installations at the entrance of Puget Sound.

“The fort was ready to protect the Naval shipyard (in Bremerton) – but no enemy came calling,” wrote Ivan Lee in his book “The Story of the Little Fort at Bean Point.”

No enemy came during World War II either, but the Navy put the fort to use as a radio station. By then, the building was used as a barracks for enlisted men. To make way for women volunteers, the Navy raised the building’s roof and added more room for bunks.

Women at a military base “were still a novelty” in World War II, wrote Lee, and particularly exciting for the men stationed at Fort Ward.

Male work crews would give the women a raucous greeting every time they passed Building 16, according to Lee.

“The men had a truck available to move work crews up and down from the beach,” he wrote. “Each time they passed (the) dorm, the driver managed to ‘rev’ the engine a bit (as) a ‘Hi girls, just look who’s here” attention-getter.”

It’s stories like these that have made McFarlane appreciate the building even more as he waited to renovate it. Learning more about Fort Ward’s history and Building 16’s importance to the area’s residents led to a more collaborative approach with neighbors.

“I’m proud of the $30,000 I’m giving to the community and, in the end, the detractors made this a better project,” he said. “They’re the ones that had me keep the (coal shed) and now I think it’ll make a really cool garage. This really was a joint effort.”

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