Like old trees, old homes need friends

Which do Bainbridge Islanders value more: old houses, or old trees?

Not to suggest that it’s an either-or proposition, but we found ourselves intrigued by the question while considering the fate of one of Winslow’s historical structures this week.

The Hoskinson/Pratt house – built in 1892, according to the weathered placard on its facade – sits in the path of redevelopment at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and Wyatt Way. Yet in public comment on the Garden Lofts mixed-use project by which it will be displaced, neighbors and others expressed virtually no concern for what is clearly a storied building in their midst. Comments focused instead on the fate of a sprawling willow that drapes the roadway, and several other admittedly handsome arboreal specimens on the property.

“Save those trees!” a half-dozen writers implored; the house itself received but one endorsement, an afterthought.

Too bad, we think. The island is growing new mature trees by the day – granted, it’s a slow process – but historical buildings are neither interchangeable nor replaceable. Their significance is unique, tied as they are to specific families, events or epochs in our collective past.

Besides longevity, the Hoskinson/Pratt home’s claim to fame is by association. We’re told it was constructed by the son of Riley Hoskinson, who built the Northwest’s first weather station on the roof of his own home (where Winslow Drug is today). Writer and historian Jerry Elfendahl argues that the house, along with the Wyatt and Grow homes with which it shares the intersection, “have set the tone for much of the architecture up and down Madison.”

Whither now the Hoskinson/Pratt house?

As reported elsewhere in this issue, it finds itself in the way of change. And the owner will give it away to anyone with a vacant lot and money to move it.

Even that notion opens a rift among preservationists. Many argue that relocating a historical building strips it of “context”; others agree, but say moving beats demolition.

Both sides agree on the need for a city preservation ordinance, to create a voluntary register of the island’s significant older buildings and offer tax incentives to those who restore and maintain them. A draft ordinance to that end was introduced two years ago but disappeared into the labyrinth of “process”; it will finally get a hearing before the Planning Commission on Aug. 28, and move on from there to the City Council. With luck, the ordinance will see some action before the Garden Lofts themselves qualify as historical.

Would the ordinance have come into play with the Hoskinson/Pratt home? Inclusion on a local historical register would, as we’ve noted, be up to the property owner. And all of Winslow’s grand old homes stand in the face of our community goal of higher density in the downtown core. But a preservation ordinance would at least give some economic incentive for their stewardship.

We should note that thanks to a confluence of public support and code requirements, and the dexterity of the Cutler Architects, those impressive trees will be retained when the Garden Lofts go up. Now we hope someone has a place for the house that has for so long matured in their shade.

We’re not growing any more like it. And we should, from time to time, be reminded of a day when islanders had all the room in the world, yet a 1,200-square-foot house was a castle.

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