Preserving Old Fire Station #23 for Byrd Barr Place
This article originally appeared in the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation's "This Place" Magazine, Fall 2022 issue.
This Place’s Spring 2022 issue featured an informative Donor Focus article by SHKS Architects recounting the history of Seattle’s Fire Station #23 and describing the mission and services of Byrd Barr Place who own the building. So, if you missed that, I leave it to you the reader to revisit that story here!
A very successful project for all involved, Byrd Barr Place is now complete and open for business. Historic renovation and seismic retrofits are difficult, and old buildings tend to hide surprises. So how does success happen renovating old buildings? I believe the magic required came about with perhaps some serendipity, but most importantly with the purposeful decision by Byrd Barr Place to bring together a team where contractor, architect, and owner all shared a clear passion for historic building renovation and preservation—not to mention shared cultures of collaboration, a broad catalog of team experience, and quick-thinking know-how to make historic renovations happen and stay on track.
Rafn Company was founded by Jack Rafn in 1978 in a quest to provide a negotiated project delivery system where contractor and design professionals work as a team from design through construction on the premise of open sharing of information and cost, along with thoughtful contingency planning to mitigate risks. This stood in stark contrast to the industry norm at the time for a design-bid-build delivery approach. These days, building a project on a negotiated basis is not unusual, but back then it was a rather novel idea.
Around the same time that Rafn Company was established, Seattle was experiencing a revived interest in historic preservation. There were many derelict buildings in Pioneer Square and in downtown where owners were looking for a way to renovate and repurpose their properties. But how could they mitigate risk when undertaking renovations of buildings fraught with age and neglect? How to tackle that without risking financial disaster?
And so, the legacy of Rafn Company began with renovations that many thought unfeasible—guided by a contracting philosophy that the best chance of success comes with close collaboration between contractor, architects, and engineers who together investigate these old buildings, develop affordable construction solutions, plan for risks, and share responsible cost information. This gave owners and developers the confidence to proceed with their projects.
Now, 44 years later, Rafn has completed seismic retrofits and renovations of 25 buildings listed either as Seattle Landmarks or on the National Register of Historic Places, not to mention many other older buildings. Some of the more iconic include: Town Hall Seattle, Building 9 at Magnuson Park for Mercy Housing, and Pioneer Square’s Cadillac Hotel, home to the Klondike Gold Rush Museum and National Park Service offices.
Which brings us back to the newly reopened Byrd Barr Place, in which we are very proud to have played a part. This project is a textbook example of successful adaptive reuse of a historic building. It is a community center, a grocery (“the market”) for those who cannot afford groceries, and a hub for assistance services. All of this is packaged inside a renewed vintage building that simply makes everyone who walks through its doors feel welcome and good to be there.
Photos by Rafn Company and Rafael Soldi.