What makes a place worthy of preservation? King County Landmarks Coordinator Sarah Steen shares her thoughts.

By Anna Inghram

King County is creating a new approach to historic preservation. The field aims to protect physical reminders of a community’s past, but the traditional approach to historic preservation tends to overlook historically marginalized groups within those communities.

Sarah Steen, landmarks coordinator for the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks, is working to bring a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion to King County’s Historic Preservation Program. Sarah explains her perspective on how to make historic preservation a more inclusive space.

Sarah Steen is the landmarks coordinator for King County’s Historic Preservation Program, a role which involves coordinating landmark designation and project review processes, offering regional trainings and community workshops in preservation planning and practice, and contributing to preservation policy development.

How do you see the importance of historic preservation work to King County community members?

Sarah: When people live in a neighborhood that has that sense of scale and history to it, they know there’s a feeling there, a connection there, that you can’t find other places.

What does it mean for a landmark to earn historic preservation status?

Sarah: You’re taking a resource — typically a building, but not only limited to buildings — and you’re recognizing it as a “witness structure.” Something really important happened there, or the people who made it had a big impact on the historical development of some community or maybe it exemplifies certain patterns in architectural development.

And so, to be designated as a landmark, it’s kind of a protection. The goal is not to freeze the building or place in time. It’s just to make sure the changes that happen don’t interrupt the public’s understanding of this as a historic place.

I personally believe it should be the community saying, “this is important to us,” and our role is facilitating and making sure that’s recognized. Our goal is to work with communities to connect them to their history, however we can help do that.

Sarah Steen examines a headstone at the 1865 Sunnyside Cemetery on Whidbey Island.

How has the landmark designation process changed to better reflect diverse communities?

Sarah: I’m really seeing a questioning of some of the policy structures about how we assess the importance of places. Because the traditional approach to historic preservation is often too heavily focused on architecture, it can exclude historically marginalized communities. And as preservationists have developed a more granular and sophisticated understanding of historic significance, we’ve recognized that everyone in the cast is important, not just a few people or a few places.

The two things that you look at when you look at a historic building or a historic site are integrity and significance. Significance is the historic story. Why is this building important? Defining historic significance is explaining that story. Integrity is how intact a building is to its original or historic form.

Requiring architectural integrity can present a serious problem for underrepresented communities such as the LGBTQ community that for the most part, didn’t build the buildings they lived and worked in, where the important events in their community history took place. For most of its history, this community was fitting into whatever spaces they could find. And so, the integrity of the architecture has no relationship to a building’s importance to LGBTQ history.  

A historic wood window restoration workshop at the Neely Mansion near Auburn, one of thesites where Sarah Steen works to increase public engagement and education.  

Who in King County is working to address this traditional overemphasis on integrity?

Sarah: For a number of years King County HPP staff have been a part of Beyond Integrity, a historic preservation group started by 4Culture, King County’s cultural services agency. Beyond Integrity focuses on overcoming the obstacle of integrity when it comes to recognizing the history of underrepresented communities.

We have buildings and sites all around us that are really important to the history of various communities that weren’t built by people in those communities or that have been changed a lot over time. To evaluate the significance of these places, we need to focus on how strong their relationship is to the communities that have used them and less so on their architectural integrity.

What projects have you worked on in King County that are reflective of this increased focus on inclusion?

Sarah: We’re looking at sites that don’t necessarily have a building attached to them. We just applied for a grant through the Washington State Historical Society to build an exhibit along the Interurban Trail, outside Auburn, to mark and tell the story of an important place.

At this site there was a Japanese-owned agricultural distribution shed. It was owned by the Yamasura family. This site was also the gathering point to transport people of Japanese descent from the Green River Valley to transit centers in the south and east when the incarceration order came down from the President in 1942 removing everyone of Japanese descent from a portion of the West Coast and sending them to internment camps for the duration of the war.

If there’s no building or structure to represent a significant event or a historic community use,  we want to put something physical in place to represent these lost histories in our landscapes. We’re looking at other ways to work with sites that have been redeveloped or are just unrecognizable to tell the stories  that are buried there.

How can the public get involved in historic preservation?

Sarah: We always tell people to talk to us! King County also has a lot of really wonderful local and regional heritage organizations, and we work with many of them closely. That’s where I’d start.

The site where the Yamasura agricultural shed once stood along the Interurban Trail near Auburn. In addition to serving as a produce distribution site, this location was also the spot where people of Japanese descent would be picked up to be transported to internment camps during World War II. Sarah Steen and the Historic Preservation Program are considering creating an exhibit demonstrating the location’s historic significance. 

Anna Inghram is a communications intern with the DNRP Public Affairs team. Anna is entering her senior year at Grinnell College, where she is pursuing degrees in English and psychology.

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