Architecture fans praise beauty and historical value of Olympia ‘eyesore’

Staff writerJune 30, 2014 

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    The Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation has multiple online resources for those interested in learning more about historic properties. To check out the list of mid-century modern buildings in Olympia, click here or visit www.dahp.wa.gov/nifty-from-the-last-50-initiative.

With a box shape, flat roof and simple grid of windows, Olympia’s tallest non-governmental building set the architectural tone for the times.

Critics of the Capitol Center Building have referred to the nine-story tower in downtown Olympia as an eyesore worthy of demolition. Some people, however, see historical value and even beauty in the vacant building.

Located on the isthmus between Capitol Lake and West Bay, the building represents an architectural style known as mid-century modern. It was built in 1966 as part of Olympia’s “Committee of the 60s,” which was a citywide effort to improve infrastructure.

“This building definitely has a story to tell about what Olympia was like in the 1960s,” said Michael Houser, state architectural historian, who has conducted extensive research on the city’s mid-century modern buildings. “It was a shift in the mindset of what Olympia could be and was the only high-rise that really made it.”

The Capitol Center, designed by G. Stacey Bennett, is 130 feet tall, and the domed Legislative building is 237 feet tall.

Private owner Views on Fifth Ltd. wants to turn the building into a hotel. Some supporters of a public park on the isthmus say the building, which has been vacant since 2006, blocks views of the State Capitol and needs to come down. The latter sentiment has prompted some critics to nickname the building “the mistake by the lake.”

Tearing down the building would be a mistake, Houser said, adding that recognition of post-World War II architecture has slowly surfaced in recent years.

“It’s always tough to convince somebody that a building constructed in their lifetime might be significant,” he said.

At least 34 buildings in Olympia belong to the mid-century modern era, which is characterized by clean lines and materials such as reinforced concrete, glass and steel. For a while, there was a movement – and even a self-guided walking tour - to celebrate these structures built between 1945 and 1975.

In 2010, Olympia resident and architecture enthusiast Jami Heinricher co-organized an exhibit called “Mid-Century Modern Olympia.” She also formed a committee, which has since gone dormant, to further raise awareness of the era’s buildings as artifacts.

“Do I think all of these are masterpieces? No,” she said. “You don’t have to preserve every single building. What’s missing is an appropriate level of appreciation of architecture from that era.”

Heinricher’s love of local mid-century architecture was first inspired by the Medical Arts Center, 1015 West Fourth Avenue. Built in 1966, the Medical Arts Center has charmed Heinricher with its simplicity and period landscaping.

As for the Capitol Center Building, she hopes the developer maintains the building’s existing style during the remodeling process. Even if the building were torn down, she admits that few would mourn its loss.

“That wall of glass soaring to the sky – that was a statement back then,” she said of the building. “I’m one of those few people who thinks it can be beautiful again.”

Heinricher’s enthusiasm for mid-century modern architecture has spread to others in the community, including Lisa Owen, who owns The Mark Restaurant in downtown Olympia. Owen has been following discussions about the Capitol Center Building and surrounding development.

“It’s part of Olympia’s history,” said Owen, hoping that more people appreciate local buildings from the era before they’re gone. “By the time it’s valued here, will there be any left?”

She said the Capitol Center Building, with its functional design, is beautiful and worth keeping, regardless of whether the building ever becomes a hotel.

“I’ve been in love with mid-century modern for years,” she said. “It’s something that stands the test of time.”

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869 ahobbs@theolympian.com @andyhobbs

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