An Old Town Tacoma homeowner wants her house taken off the city’s historic register because, she said, she can’t take advantage of the home’s views.
“It’s like my house is being held hostage,” Diane Washburn told The News Tribune.
Since Washburn began her quest to de-list, surrounding neighbors have demolished or significantly remodeled homes just as historical as hers. Their much larger replacements have in turn blocked Washburn’s views.
“The value of the property is the view,” she said.
Now, Washburn is trying to sell the house and thinks the historical designation affects its value.
“People who are looking to buy this property don’t want the hassle of going through the committee (to make changes),” she said.
“The committee” is the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. It has authority over modifications made to buildings on the historic register — privately owned or not. It’s mainly concerned with exterior alterations.
In 2011, commission members denied Washburn’s request to have her home taken off the historic list.
Washburn said she didn’t realize she was buying a home that would be outgrown by those surrounding it when she purchased the Dutch Colonial Revival in the 2800 block of Starr Street in 2007. Nor did she realize, she said, the stringent permissions needed to change the outside structure and look of the house.
She wanted to add windows to the home after buying it but soon learned that no structural changes to the exterior of a home on the register can be made without the approval of the Preservation Commission.
“That kind of review is something the commission does all the time,” said Reuben McKnight, the city’s preservation officer.
In 2018, 64 design reviews were conducted by the commission. Only three were denied, McKnight said.
The home is one of four Dutch Colonials in a row on Starr Street. All four homes have distinctive gambrel (barn like) roofs and porches with round columns.
A previous owner, Katherine Irsich, put the 1,172-square-foot, three-bedroom house on the historic register in 2006 before selling it to Washburn in 2007 for $390,000, just as the market was peaking.
Irsich owns one of the other four Dutch Colonials and her brother, Joseph, owns another. Their late mother, Catherine Irsich, has a park at North 29th and Carr streets named after her.
The four homes are relics from the Croatian immigrants who once populated Old Town, McKnight said. All four are on the register.
The register currently has 178 Tacoma locations that range from Albers Mill to Union Station. There are over 30 homes on it, including the four matching homes on Starr Street. Other residences are located in two residential historic districts.
In retrospect, Washburn said, she would not have bought the house.
“Everybody’s under the impression that being on the Historic Registry makes your house more valuable,” Washburn said. “When I bought the house, I had no idea that a small group of people could wield constitutional authority over a citizen’s private residence.”
The register serves to identify, celebrate and protect historically significant buildings and architecture for future generations, McKnight said.
“It’s important to have those reminders that contribute to a sense of place,” he said. “They are the physical remainders of past lives and people who have come through an area and shaped it.”
When Washburn realized she couldn’t change the exterior of her home without approval, she decided to put the whole matter to rest and get it taken off the register.
It was an uncommon request, and the city had no process for removing a property. McKnight told Washburn to send in a written request.
Then, the Great Recession hit in 2008.
“I didn’t do it immediately, which turned out to be a big mistake,” Washburn said of the request.
Washburn didn’t return to the matter again until 2011. But by then, the city had adopted a procedure for removing properties from the list.
“It was a huge overhaul,” McKnight said of the register’s regulations.
A hearing was held in September 2011 in front of the Preservation Commission.
Washburn claimed economic hardship — she had been laid off. Economic hardship is one of the few qualifiers the city now has in place to remove a property from the register.
Irsich spoke against the removal of Washburn’s property from the register at the 2011 hearing. Irsich could not be reached for this story.
In the end, the commission did not allow Washburn’s property to be de-listed.
Washburn’s neighbors almost found themselves on the register as well.
In 2010, a proposal to turn the entire Old Town neighborhood into a historical district was shot down by residents, McKnight said.
“Pretty profound opposition from the neighborhood caused it not to go any further,” McKnight said.
“I voted against it,” Washburn said. “I don’t like the idea of the government controlling my house.”
There actually wasn’t a public vote, McKnight said. The commission decided to drop the matter after seeing the opposition.
For Washburn, nothing had changed. Her home was still listed individually.
But for her neighbors, who weren’t on the register or in a historic district, everything could change. And it did.
In 2011, the owners of a home across Starr Street from Washburn’s remodeled their modest 1906 vintage structure with an additional 1,000 square feet.
The addition blocked Washburn’s first-floor view of northern Ruston Way.
In 2017, a 978-square-foot house next to Washburn’s was demolished and a 2,919-square-foot home with a glass balcony railing and cantilevered roof was built. It pushed the assessed value of that property from $248,000 to $915,000 in two years.
The modern home, with soaring stone columns, is a dramatic change from Washburn’s barn-like house.
It’s just one of many 21st century homes that dot Tacoma’s historic birthplace. There’s even a Santa Fe-style home in the neighborhood.
“It didn’t contrast so much, but now it’s starting to,” McKnight said of the increasing amount of modern homes in Old Town.
The new house also blocked all of the view from one of Washburn’s upper bedrooms and partially blocked another.
“It really cut down on my light and my view,” she said. “That’s why it would be nice to have skylights in the roof.”
The blocked views don’t concern Washburn as much as the home’s placement on the register, she said.
Washburn would like to bump out her front porch so the facade is flush. Not only would that increase square footage, but she’d regain some of her views, she said.
But whether the Preservation Commission would approve that is unknown.
Washburn has never asked. Instead, she remains determined to get the home off the historic register.
McKnight said all Washburn has to do it ask for permission to make changes and she might get what she wants.
Washburn put the home up for sale in April 2018 for $425,000. Buyers were scared away by the preservation listing, she said. She ended up dropping it to $369,000 in October.
Still no takers, she said.
This year, she spent $17,000 on improvements including new, architecturally correct columns for the front porch.
Now, she’s offering it by owner for $415,000.
“I have a buyer right now who wants to buy if it’s off the register,” Washburn said Wednesday morning.
If she doesn’t sell it by October, she’ll rent it out.
There might be hope, however. On Wednesday afternoon, Washburn received her first offer for the home.