During a discussion at a meeting of the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board (LPB) I attended some years ago, one speaker proposed, “I think a ‘Landmark’ should be a LANDMARK!!!!”
While the statement is an obvious tautology, we all understand what he meant; he was thinking of a “landmark” in the sense of Kevin Lynch, a distinct visual object that stands apart from its surroundings—something memorable. Fortunately, Seattle’s landmarks ordinance is more subtle than that. One of the criteria for designation is visual prominence, but there are others including association with events, persons, cultural, political or economic heritage; embodiment of the attributes of a particular style or identification as an outstanding work of a designer or builder.
As I recall, at that long ago LPB meeting, the building under consideration was an apartment building, and it did not make the cut. Only a minority of the LPB favored designation for the building. It now survives only in photographs. Apartment buildings likely have a difficult time being designated as landmarks. We tend to think of them as urban fabric—as background buildings. They rarely stand out as LANDMARKS!!! Besides that, apartment buildings often do not age particularly: well renters come and go, maintenance can sometimes be minimal, interiors may be updated. Change over time can pose a problem for landmarking—not only must a building meet one or more of the landmark criteria, but it must also display integrity, meaning “the ability to convey its significance.”
Thus, we are indeed fortunate that the LPB voted on August 8 to nominate the Bel-Roy Apartments (now The Belroy) for Landmark status and followed this with a vote to designate the building on October 6, 2010. The Board called the building an outstanding work of Bain & Pries, an outstanding example of Art Deco and visually significant in its location.
The Bel-Roy is woven into the fabric of Capitol Hill, but it is much more than most fabric buildings. Constructed between September 1930 and April 1931, the Bel-Roy was the most notable apartment project of the partnership (1928-31) of William J. Bain and Lionel H. Pries. Most Bain & Pries apartment projects were fairly straightforward two-, three- and four-story structures with conventional double-loaded corridor plans and simplified versions of historically derived detailing. The Bel-Roy was exceptional both in its planning and its vocabulary.
The Bel-Roy features a point-block plan with seven individual apartment groups: Each group has its own entry and stair providing access to two apartments on each floor—one to either side. Because there are no continuous corridors, each apartment extends all the way though the narrow building, providing access to light and air on two opposite sides.
In overall form the building is an L, extending 131 feet north-to-south parallel to (and visible from) I-5 and 130 feet west-to-east along Roy Street, ending at Bellevue Avenue E. Its scale is rarely perceived because the north-south wing is hidden by houses along Bellevue and by existing vegetation. Only from the air can one see the overall L-plan and the unique zig-zag wall with very broad V-shaped bays that erodes the southwest corner of the building, allowing wide-angle views from the apartments.
Constructed at the onset of the Great Depression, the Bel-Roy is an economical brick and wood frame structure above a concrete garage built into the hillside. Although the details are simply executed, critic Peter Staten described the building as “one of the best examples of Art Deco design in Seattle.” Wide bands of brick painted gray, with protruding bricks at the top and bottom, alternate with bands of red brick that align with the steel windows. Stepped brickwork marks each of the entries. The closest entrance to the street is slightly recessed, while the others have steel canopies supported by zig-zag brackets.
The Bel-Roy was a successful project. As noted by Mimi Sheridan, who prepared the Landmark nomination, the building inspired loyalty among its residents. Although the apartments (studios and one bedrooms) average just 553 square feet, the building has had many long-term residents. The apartments have been well maintained and retain many of their original features. In the LPB discussion on August 8, a member of the Board called the Bel-Roy the “gold standard” in terms of integrity.
It is anticipated that the Bel-Roy will soon be part of a larger project, conceived by developer Point32, that will replace the houses in front of the Bel-Roy along Bellevue, as well as on the next lot to the north. The Bel-Roy will be integrated with new buildings, designed by Weinstein A|U, creating a courtyard shared by the old and new structures.