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Essay

Wild Wood, Deep City

Bluebeard Coffee Roasters, on Sixth Avenue in Tacoma. When owner, Kevin McGlocklin, saw the former auto dealership building sitting empty with daylight flooding in on the old fir beams, he knew he had to be there and nowhere else.

 

My wife and I make custom furniture from reclaimed wood. We use only the old, tight-grained stuff—industrial-grade, rough-sawn fir from a time not that long ago, when the Pacific Northwest was a few vaguely urban outposts plunked down in dark, wild forest.

Reclaimed wood is very hot right now, lending a dizzying material authenticity to all things transitory, from Starbucks facades to clothing stores. But as much as it’s a story of reuse, there is, in the end, a very real story of loss in all that re-appropriated, artisanal wood.

Buildings from 100 years ago are coming down so fast that I’ve found myself making an odd plea for a guy who needs old wood to practice his craft: Slow down on the demo. Let more of our old buildings stay aloft more often. We can go without a few dozen strapped stacks of old-growth lumber neatly jacked.

Reclaimed wood—in its patina and wear, dents and dings—expresses easy, liminal evidence of another lived life, a previous purpose. But how did that life end and was it over or just interrupted? What story are we really telling ourselves when we say wood is reclaimed? Are we being environmentally responsible, saving it from the junk heap or is it just our latest pair of acid-washed jeans?

I get it. With our Amazon ennui, daily blaze of tweets and virtual likes, occasionally it’s nice to encounter something analog. In a digital world, old wood helps. Some quaint plank reclaimed from an archetypal dreamy barn in a sea of grass. Or a rafter fragment from a crouching warehouse in urban fog. But this, too, is data, evidence of a very real, wild forest that is nearly gone. We cut it to the ground, from coast to coast, in about 150 years—romantic, with axes and then chainsaws, building farms and then cities, staying warm by the fire.

Now we have a second chance, a second encounter, with this stronger and more fine-grained wood from another time, from when wood was wild, not a crop farmed in 40-year cycles. It’s all there, an orthogonal forest still going strong in our old downtown buildings and industrial backwaters. But more often than not, we’re opting to demolish rather than re-use. The effort to grow is verging on a second clear-cut: Nearly 3,800 building demolition permits are currently active in Seattle alone. We’re essentially choosing to re-log the old wood in speedy, wasteful ways, even if we’re reclaiming some of it in the process.

I love the urban density that comes as Seattle buildings climb into the Pacific Northwest sky. I do. But we can build with our existing Doug fir bones more often, leave more of the embodied material energy of our urban spaces intact, reuse it in situ, rather than scraping flat and building new. In old Auto Row, for example, in the Pike-Pine corridor, garages and car showrooms of the early 1900s are being reinvented as restaurants and office space. Going halfway won’t cut it; an old building facade stripped of its insides is just a one-dimensional skin, a hide. It may suggest connectivity and time, but it can’t deliver once you go inside.

To take maybe the worst example: For a town that self-identifies so often with coffee and thinks of itself as thoughtful and innovative, how did Seattle let Bauhaus coffee die? I mean the original Bauhaus at the corner of Melrose and Pine. How did that open air, rainy day living room get erased? Would Paris let Shakespeare and Company make way for just another corporate bookstore? Would New York’s West Village stand for it if White Horse Tavern decided the beer would taste the same from taps a few doors down? Urban spaces, like forest ecosystems, take years to build and form. We need the grain and scale of older, smaller spaces if all the crisp, newer spaces are going to shine in any meaningful way.

Old spaces expand time simply by continuing to hold up the skyline. They help a city get deep, grow multifarious, integral roots to the point that it becomes plausible to understand ourselves as partial, as part of something. Exposed wild wood structure, like the clear-span trusses of Melrose Market, is spatial, visceral proof of all the cities we have been.

We have hopeful examples of adaptive reuse to build on: Elliott Bay Book Company, Wing Luke Museum, the just-begun reinvention of Tacoma’s old Elks temple—each a transformation of an old, enduring building to a contemporary use. Those are just a few in two cities of many. But there should be many more.

The wild forest we milled straight and regular was almost infinite, board after board air-dried on docks and in yards long ago. It is all around us, in the walls, rafters, floors, still doing its work. We have the material to build cities of complexity and contradiction, old and new side-by-side. Wild wood is forever. It endures like no other. We can bring it with us.

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