PBS (public TV) repeats a ten-minute filler in between each fifty-minute program. It changes every week or so, and last week you may have seen that they featured Vashon Island for its stellar vaccination achievement. The first background shot was, of course, the Vashon Pharmacy, but the second, for no particular reason other than quaintness, was the Roasterie.
Unlike many other parts of the world where ancient or not so ancient peoples built out of stone or brick, we in the Pacific Northwest are stone poor and wood rich, so most of our structures, including the thousands of years of indigenous people’s habitations, have been built out of wood. As a result, we have no remnants other than some shell middens and a few totem poles farther north to mark the early presence of those original peoples, and we immigrants have only been here for about 150 years. So, our roots here seem quite a bit truncated compared to many other places in the world with structures going back many thousands of years.
That is why places like the Roasterie (formerly Dugan’s Drygoods), the Fuller Store across the street, the Island Theater, the Burton and Portage Stores, or the Hardware Store (now restaurant), and several others are so important to us. Places with a shiny, worn brass doorknobs on the front door are from an earlier time, and although nothing in the eyes of a citizen of Rome or Damascus, these are all we have here in terms of human relics. Ironically, nothing lasts here because we live in a place that is filled with life, and life doesn’t seem to be too enamored with lasting lifeless forms. We do have trees that go back more than a thousand years, and even here on Vashon there are a few that go around 800 years. Since they are alive, we only see the most recent growth and can only tell their age by their immense size. Then there are the species of plants and animals that are often hundreds of millions of years old and we, again, are the late comers with only one or two million years to our credit.
As you look about town, you see a hodge-podge of buildings put up at various times by individual entrepreneurs. These have gone through several incarnations, sometimes incorporating adjacent buildings as common spaces. There have been a few fires to clear spaces for more recent structures and that adds another element to the hodge-podge. For the most part, there is nothing architecturally worthy about any of these structures, but the familiarity that comes with time makes all of them very endearing to me. I miss the original hardware store but am very happy that its structure has been preserved. The restaurant is kind of like a woodpecker inhabiting a hole in an old snag.
I have been following a group online called Strong Towns that advocates for incremental change rather than applying the grand plan or the drastic makeover. I got a degree in college in Urban Planning at a time when urban renewal was all the rage. I’ve seen the great damage that individuals have wrought to the lives of thousands of people displaced by grand heroic projects and now am not quite so enamored by it. Fortunately, I abandoned that career early in life and have instead applied my skills on a much smaller scale for myself and the community. I now try to talk about the changes that we will have to make while not specifying how exactly any one of us will approach those problems.
Being a part of life, as with the living world all around us, we are subject to constant change and, although certain guidelines might be prescribed, it is not for any of us to dictate those changes to the group. Because our lifestyle is about to undergo a drastic change, it is all the more important that we maintain and preserve, if we can, the physical built environment that we have regardless of aesthetic merit.
We love the Roasterie not because it is efficient, safe, and a bold aesthetic statement, but because it is old and quaint and filled with stories. We see repairs and replacements that are straightforward, utilizing readily available materials that bear no relation to style or theme. Any door that fits into the frame is a good door. I love that about it. There are the traces of hundreds of independent human decisions in that building, and it all adds to the value. No big uber statements by aesthetic masters. Just what needs to be done to keep it functioning and perhaps a little flair here and there for those of us that use it. The result is more subtle, intricate, and idiosyncratic than any master plan could ever be.