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Earthworks designated Historic Landmark

Herbert Bayer at Earthworks Park
Herbert Bayer at Earthworks Park
(photo: John Hoge, 1982) 

KENT, WA – April 28, 2008 – Formal recognition of historic properties through landmark designation is typically confined to sites that are at least 40 years old or older – and rarely is a property found to be of such exceptional significance that the age criterion is waived.  But such was the case on April 24, 2008 when the King County Landmarks Commission, acting for the City of Kent, designated the Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks as a City of Kent Landmark.  Nominated by the Kent Arts Commission, the Earthworks is the City’s first designated landmark.

The Earthworks was designed by renowned Bauhaus master Herbert Bayer and installed in 1982.  It is a sculpted landscape intended to address flooding, erosion, and to detain stormwater.  It is also a city park. 

In an emotionally charged hearing before the Landmarks Commission, artists, historians, landscape architects, elected officials, and others spoke to the power of place embodied in the site.  They also spoke of the precedent it set for integrating art directly into large-scale environmental projects, and the remarkable interdisciplinary effort that was required to pull it off.

Designation comes at a time when the site is threatened by environmental factors related to fisheries, vegetation and stormwater. The Washington State Department of Ecology has increased the dam’s spillway requirement from a 100-year storm to a 10,000 year storm. As a result, the height of the earthen berm that protects historic downtown Kent will be increased by two feet in summer 2008, so as to provide a new spillway through the adjacent parking lot. The existing outlet structure will also be altered to accommodate increased stormwater. The additional spillway and capacity are intended to prevent catastrophic flooding.

Concurrently, fishery requirements along the Mill Creek riparian corridor have made it difficult to maintain the Earthworks in the pristine manner that Herbert Bayer envisioned. Restoration requires extensive hand grubbing of invasive and volunteer vegetation on an ongoing basis. Now that the property is designated, the Kent Arts Commission will move forward with developing a management plan to resolve these complex maintenance issues.

Historic Properties

Generally, when we think of historic properties, we envision a single, early 1900’s building, like the King County Courthouse. Or we might consider a historic business district, such as Seattle’s Pioneer Square. Closer to home, the Mary Olson Farm in Auburn provides us with a better example of a how an entire landscape like the Earthworks is deemed historic. While certainly the Olson Farm includes several buildings, it is the buildings’ connections to natural and historic features - such as a century-old orchard, two salmon runs and a wagon road - that make the entire 60-acre Olson property significant.

Typically, properties need to be 40 years old or older to be eligible for landmark designation, and we have only just celebrated the Earthworks 25th Anniversary. Nevertheless, the Earthworks qualified as “exceptional” based on its association with the great Bauhaus master Herbert Bayer, for the remarkable role it played in the evolution of public art, and as a highly distinctive example of modernist landscape architecture.

In addition to nominating the Earthworks on the local level, the Kent Arts Commission will be submitting a nomination for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and it is hoped that the Earthworks will be accepted and designated “nationally significant.” Along with the prestige, these designations would qualify the landscape for federal, state and local funding programs, which would help the City maintain and restore the landscape.

The Greater Kent Historical Society deserves credit for advocating that the City of Kent partner with King County to develop an historic preservation program to protect the city’s significant historic properties. Be sure to visit the Museum this year as the Historical Society celebrates the Centennial of the Bereiter House with its own landmark nomination. This remarkable building is just across Smith Street from Earthworks Park.

Incidentally, one of the most rapidly growing sectors of our regional economy is cultural tourism. Featured in many publications, the Earthworks has most recently been included in Destination Art, “the first critical guide to the two hundred most important modern and contemporary art sites around the world.” The Kent Arts Commission has also created a self-guided tour that includes Bayer’s Earthworks, the Robert Morris Earthwork and Lorna Jordan’s Waterworks Gardens, as well as the Green River Natural Resources Area which attracts international birdwatchers.

Landmark designation adds yet another star to the map for Kent.

For more information, please contact Cheryl dos Remédios, Visual Arts Coordinator, Kent Cultural Division.
cdosremedios@kentwa.gov or 253.856.5050.