PUBLISHED ON November 7, 2009
By CHRIS BRISTOL YAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLIC
Scott Irons liked what he saw Friday as he watched the Wilson Building shed its skin. Not that he was surprised.
Due to age and neglect, the 107-year-old building has been regarded for years as one of downtown Yakima's biggest eyesores. Nobody even knew for sure if it had a name.
This week, however, the name "Wilson" for builder George Wilson saw daylight for the first time in decades as workers began removing a green metal facade that was tacked on some time after World War II.
"What they have here is a jewel in the rough," said Irons, chairman of the Yakima Historic Preservation Commission, as he watched workers remove the siding. "All it needs is some polishing."
Removal of the facade revealed dark tan brickwork, windows and some modest architectural flourishes of the early 20th century.
Until recently, demolishing, not polishing, was the building's seemingly inescapable fate.
Two years ago, officials at the adjacent Capitol Theatre said they intended to demolish the 1902 building to make space for expansion of the theater. In the building's place -- at the prominent corner of Yakima Avenue and Third Street -- the theater planned to build a new multipurpose box office.
The Wilson had major structural deficiencies and had to go, theater officials said. They felt it was neither historically nor architecturally significant. But when fundraising for the project lagged because of the recession earlier this year, the Capitol made an aboutface and began quietly pursuing plans to keep the building and restore it.
The building even has a new name. "We're officially referring to it as the new CTCenter," Capitol Theatre CEO Steve Caffery said in an interview Friday.
Caffery was reluctant to say a final decision has been made to restore the building. Removal of the metal facade, he said, is part of the ongoing discussion he's having with architects and contractors about the Wilson's viability.
The city owns the Capitol Theatre and has helped secure financing, but the theater's $14.5 million expansion project is largely being driven by Caffery and the theater's board of directors.
According to a media kit distributed to reporters at the groundbreaking ceremony in September, theater officials are seeking money to restore the Wilson Building. Theater officials say it would cost $3.2 million to renovate it and that they've raised $725,000.
The remodeled building would be used for administrative offices, a box office, retail space and a spot for selling food and drinks.
Caffery said he's asked the project's architect to draw up a floor plan, a budget and an artist's rendering of what a restored building would look like.
"It will be challenging to bring it back up," he said. "That's what we're exploring."
For the moment, theater officials are focused on finishing the first phase of the expansion, a $9.4 million production center on the back side of the Capitol that will improve the theater's ability to host lucrative Broadway-style productions.
Work got under way on the production center in September. Caffery said the project is on budget and on time, with a completion date of June still on target.
Workers began removing the metal facade on the Wilson Building a week ago, drawing immediate interest from the preservation community. Members of the Historic Preservation Commission have been lobbying to save the building for two years and had encouraged Caffery to remove the metal facade before making a decision.
The green facade was thought to have been added to the building's exterior sometime in the late 1940s or 1950s, giving it a definitively post-modern look that has not aged well.
Commission member Jenifer Wilde-McMurtrie said she's been thrilled to see the original brickwork and other architectural features that have been covered by the facade for decades.
"That's why we wanted that siding to come down," she said. "The Wilson's not an eyesore -- it's a beautifully old building that's part of our history."
Irons and Wilde-McMurtrie said they were not aware that the building might be restored. Both suggested that it's in the Capitol's interest to save the building as a way of protecting downtown's history.
As for the twist of fate that may have saved the building, Wilde-McMurtrie said she and the rest of her colleagues on the Historic Preservation Commission don't mind at all.
"It's like the first time with the economy being bad that it's turned into a good thing," she joked.