Another outbreak of cabin fever

Every few years, a handful of our island history buffs fall into the throes of cabin fever.

Symptoms of the outbreak include much exasperation and alarm over the sorry state of the historic, Depression-era scout cabin at Camp Yeomalt, followed by a round of excited utterances at public meetings or through the letters columns of the local paper. The afflicted few proceed to upbraid local park officials for letting the building crumble

by degrees – “they haven’t done a damn thing,” groused one fellow recently – before the fever finally recedes and everyone goes back to fretting about roundabouts and trees.

Unfortunately for the cabin, the malady has not been particularly contagious; the building’s woes have failed to seize the popular consciousness to the point that any group would actually rally to do something to about it. So a few years ago in this space, we offered what seemed like an eminently pragmatic solution: knock it down. A proposal under consideration by the park district at that time would have replaced the dilapidated log structure with a new (but tastefully vintage-styled) meeting hall, an excellent resource for community groups planning retreats or other low-key events.

We were promptly flayed by one of our historian friends, who stridently defended the cabin’s place in the pantheon of historically significant buildings. But what happened next? Nothing. The cabin fell out of the news. Seasons came and went, and the structure lapsed further into disrepair. It only came to mind again this spring when the park board finally got around to setting a deadline for its dismantling.

Which, in turn, has sparked a fresh outbreak of cabin fever. As reported hereabouts, the Bainbridge Island Historical Society and aligned interests have called for formation of “Team Yeomalt” to figure out how to bring the building back from ruin. This week, the park board agreed to look at the cabin’s prospects one more time, but held fast to a June demolition deadline should those efforts fail.

The preservation of historic buildings is certainly an excellent cause, but make no mistake, it requires the congruence of funds and broad community interest. Consider Battle Point Park. Ten years ago, local stargazers asked for and received permission to turn the old “helix” building – a holdover from the park’s days as a military communications installation – into an observatory. The brilliance of those minds, coupled with creative fund-raisers and donations, brought the island a telescope worthy of Mt. Palomar. More recently, the blighted transmitter building on those same park grounds was targeted for renewal; a citizen-led campaign is now drumming up funds to restore the building and turn it into a much-needed youth gymnastics space.

Commonalities emerge. First, folks stepped forward to do more for a decaying building than just gripe about its decay. Second – and, we would argue, more important – they brought plans for something useful to do with it once it was restored. Community interest and financial donations followed in turn.

Absent such a vision – what preservationists call “adaptive reuse” – the Camp Yeomalt cabin is never going to generate much interest with the public at large.

Should the cabin have been allowed to fall into such piteous straits? No. But grousing that the park district hasn’t done “a damn thing” is too narrow an indictment. The building’s plight has been in the news on and off for years – where were the neighbors? Where were the Boy Scouts? Where was the Historical Society? Where was a constituency – anybody – with a vision not just to “save” the cabin, but to use it?

No, the park district hasn’t done a damn thing.

They’re in good company.

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