Storied Showbox gains landmark status, but fight continues to preserve musical identity | KNKX

Storied Showbox gains landmark status, but fight continues to preserve musical identity

Jul 17, 2019

The Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board has designated The Showbox theater downtown as a landmark, a significant step in the nearly yearlong battle over the future of the music venue. The vote was unanimous.

The property became a point of contention last summer after reports emerged that a developer was looking to demolish the venue to build condos. Since then, music lovers and historic preservationists have been calling on the city to "Save The Showbox." The building has not yet been sold.

There are several criteria a site can meet to be designated as a landmark in Seattle. It might be associated with a historically significant event or person, built by a well-known designer, or serve as an identifying feature of a neighborhood. It also can showcase a style of architecture or have connections to the cultural heritage of the city.

The landmark nomination — spearheaded by historic-preservation groups Historic Seattle, Vanishing Seattle, and Friends of Historic Belltown — focused on the last two criteria, citing some of the features of the building as well as the venue's musical history.

HISTORY OF THE SHOWBOX

The building first opened as a market in 1917, but was significantly remodeled in 1939. That remodel provided the bones for a building that has served as an enternatinment venue on and off over the past 80 years.

"Almost from its first day in 1939, The Showbox was a showcase of the best musical talent," Leonard Garfield, executive director at the Museum of History and Industry, told KNKX in 2018. "So think of names like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, or Sarah Vaughn. They all performed at The Showbox."

A 2014 HistoryLink article by Seattle music writer and historian Peter Blecha traces the history of The Showbox from the jazz age through the grunge era, showing how the venue remained a popular performance space for a variety of the city's musical communities.

"In hindsight, and thanks in significant measure to The Showbox, the seeds were planted for the eventual rise of the creative and successful rock and hip-hop communities that the pop-culture world came to associate with Seattle," Blecha wrote.

He cites shows from homegrown artists such as Pearl Jam and Sir Mix-a-Lot. The Showbox also has attracted big talent, such as an intimate show from superstar Prince in 2013.

The Showbox property owners have noted that the building's history as a music venue is not contiguous. It was used at various points as a furniture showroom and a bingo hall, and also has experienced periods of vacancy.

They also have cited a 2007 city survey of the property, stating "the building appears to lack sufficient physical integrity to convey architectural and/or historic significance." 

Landmark supporters say that survey was not sufficient and did not take into consideration the theater's cultural significance.

AN UNUSUAL DESIGNATION

While Wednesday's vote was unanimous, board members acknowledged that landmarking The Showbox was a somewhat unusual move. 

During the nearly three-hour hearing, board members heard again from the nominators and from a team representing the property owners. They presented contrasting views both of the venue's architecture and its cultural significance.

The nominators emphasized interior features representing the "streamline moderne" style of the 1930s. But opponents countered that there have been many alterations and said the building's lackluster exterior made it unfit to landmark. While nominators traced the theater's musical history, opponents tried to poke holes in their timeline, saying most supporters' nostalgia comes from the venue's more recent history.

Ultimately, that nostalgia and the vocal "Save The Showbox" movement likely swayed the board. Many cited the testimony of musicians and industry leaders as crucial to their decision to consider The Showbox culturally significant.

"We're kind of at an interesting point in the way we're understanding history and the way we understand landmarks," said board member Kathleen Durham. "In order for our history to remain relevant to future generation, we have to start recognizing, more commonly, cultural significance."

Two members mentioned Sub Pop CEO Megan Jasper, who compares The Showbox to the storied Bowery Ballroom in New York. 

"When a band plays at either of these venues, it's noticed," Jasper said. "And if that show sells out, it's interpreted industry-wide as a positive, significant shift for that artist."

NOT 'SAVED' YET

The landmark designation is a big victory for the "Save The Showbox" supporters, but it likely won't be enough to stop change at the downtown venue.

The property owners will now work with the city to determine which aspects of the building are protected from change and what a future developer could change. That agreement needs to be approved by the landmarks board and eventually by the City Council, with opportunities for appeal along the way.

"We respect the work of the Landmark Preservation Board to designate the property as a landmark, but disagree with both the reasoning and the decision itself," said Aaron Pickus, a spokesman for the ownership group. "We will further evaluate their designation as we consider next steps."

Even though the scope of the designation covers several interior features, landmark status does not guarantee The Showbox will be a theater forever. Many supporters of the "Save The Showbox" campaign say they want to preserve performance space in Seattle, as well as celebrate the theater's historical significance. 

The Seattle City Council had been considering a more restrictive designation by trying to include the venue in the Pike Place Market Historic District. But a King County Superior Court judge struck down that move last month, saying it amounted to an illegal spot zone by restricting development. The judge also ruled that it violated the owners' due process rights.

Historic Seattle, one of the organizations behind The Showbox's landmark nomination, says it has made an offer to buy the property in an attempt to maintain its use as a music venue. But the group says the owners have not responded.

Although the building has not yet been sold, the property is expected to go for tens of millions of dollars.

KNKX producer Ariel Van Cleave contributed to this report. 

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