When the work began, Richard Dorsett didn’t think much of it.
Dorsett figured what he saw across the street from his home in Tacoma’s North Slope Historic District was all part of a plan that would have needed approval from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Committee.
But Dorsett and many of his neighbors along Ainsworth Avenue were left aghast by the time the last crew member packed up over a weekend back in March.
The home — which dates back to the turn of the century, like many in the neighborhood — was essentially gone.
All that remained standing was the facade — a porch, a door and one lone window. Debris now filled the lot, serving as a reminder of what had been — and the history that had been lost for good.
“We were all kind of shocked. We didn’t know what was going on,” recalls Dorsett, who lives on North Ainsworth with his wife and two English setters.
In the months that have transpired since, little — if anything — has changed at the property, which, according to the National Register of Historic Places, was owned in 1932 by Frank J. Flanigan, a salesman at Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Co. Today, property records show it’s owned by Jorge Chavez. Attempts to reach Chavez were unsuccessful.
The strange sight often attracts curious onlookers, Dorsett says, and it’s not uncommon for passersby to snap photos of the home that was.
Meanwhile, concerned neighbors like Dorsett are left with two aching questions:
What the heck happened? More importantly, what comes next?
Answers to those questions are simple and complex, frustrating and straightforward, depending on whom you ask.
The demolition, according to Tacoma historic preservation officer Reuben McKnight, was performed without the necessary permit. While the project, including a partial demolition of the back of the house to make way for a planned addition, had received prior approval from the Landmarks Preservation Committee, tearing the structure down — to this extent — was never part of the plan, McKnight says.
In response, a stop-work order was issued, McKnight explains, though he acknowledged there’s not much the city can do when it comes to punishment.
Instead, McKnight, like everyone else, is left waiting for a new plan to be submitted and approved.
He hopes to see something soon.
Demolishing a home without the necessary permit in any part of the city is a no-no, of course, but it’s particularly upsetting in a historic district that was created specifically to maintain “the look and feel of the neighborhood as it existed from the turn of the century to the ‘40s,” McKnight says.
“When something like this is done, frankly, it is a loss,” McKnight says, describing the situation as extremely rare.
“The house is probably 130 years old. It wasn’t beyond restoration,” he adds. “It could have been fixed up and really looked much like it did. Now, that possibility is gone.”
The anger and frustration that now permeates the neighborhood isn’t lost on Tony Guido, the general contractor responsible for the project.
Guido tells The News Tribune that the demolition was piecemeal and that “a series of unfortunate discoveries (led) to more and more of the structure gradually being removed.”
Guido acknowledges that the permit he obtained for the work originally called for only a portion of the home to be removed. But as things progressed, Guido says “the building began crumbling” in part due to “shoddy construction” at the historic property and various other complicating factors, like insect infestation, water damage and rot.
The decision to demolish as much as he did, Guido says, wasn’t made hastily. The crumbling home, he discovered over time, had been built over the property line, representing “both a fire hazard and a safety hazard” to neighbors, he says.
“In retrospect, proper steps were followed to the point of discovery of previously unknowable damage,” Guido said in an emailed response to questions. “Little by little, decisions were made to protect life and limb.”
For neighbors like Dorsett, the explanation likely leaves something to be desired. He considers the ordeal an example of how historic preservation fails.
But the bigger concern — at this point, he says — is what the future holds.
He’s tired of looking at the reminder across the street, he says, and the “blight” it creates in his neighborhood.
“What’s going to happen and when is it going to happen?” Dorsett wants to know. “Our concern is getting something done that comports with the character of the neighborhood.”
Guido says he’s hopeful the city will soon grant permission for him to finish demolition of the home.
In its place, he said he hopes to build “a custom home that is representative of the beautiful craftsmanship found on Ainsworth and elsewhere in the (North Slope Historic District).” He’s working with a well-known local architect to make it happen, he says.
At this point, that’s probably the best outcome anyone can hope for.
Because — unfortunately — it’s the only option left.
“Once the damage was done, there was no rectifying it,” Dorsett says.