On the southeast edge of the main Capitol Campus are two aging residential buildings that aren’t much to look at.
Although they have some historic significance, they are no longer homes in the traditional sense. No one sleeps there at night. Well, not most nights. Once or twice a daytime occupant has fallen asleep after filing a story about a late session of the Legislature.
They are the Capitol press houses. On the official Capitol maps they are known as the Carlyon House, so named for the family of an early Olympia mayor for whom one was built, and the Ayers House, named for the renowned architect that designed the other.
Generally, they are known as the Blue House and the White House. The Blue House was blue when painted eons ago, but with weathering and dirt is close to gray. The White House is white but is actually named for John White, a long-time Associated Press reporter known for a sharp wit and even sharper tongue.
Print and radio reporters have occupied the two houses for decades, since being moved from the domed Legislative Building a block west because space was at a premium. They used to be filled with dozens of reporters assigned to cover the Legislature and state government.
Now each building is partially occupied, as the Capitol press corps numbers seven, although they hold a few more college interns during the session.
Shameless plug: The number of reporters went up early this month for the first time in more than a decade as The Spokesman-Review added Laurel Demkovich to our office, making it more of an actual bureau than a western outpost. She’s from Report for America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the number of journalists in the country.
The Spokesman-Review occupies the dining room of the Blue House, which we parochially believe is the better building. While both are past their prime, the reporters are quite fond of them because when need arises we can sprint from office to House or Senate floor in about 3 minutes.
But they occupy valuable space long coveted by people with edifice complexes who want something newer and better on the Capitol Campus.
With great surprise, and equal suspicion, the press corps discovered recently the buildings could be bulldozed in the next year or so, as part of a plan for a new office building to house Senate Republicans and their staff. The state agency that serves as the campus landlord notified press house tenants of a “Proviso” in the 2020 Capital Budget calling for a predesign study of such a project that would include tearing down the current Senate Republican office building and replacing it with one without current structural problems. The project would also rehab and remodel two other campus buildings.
Price tag for the study: $100,000. Possible price tag for all that construction: maybe $10 million, maybe lots more somewhere down the road.
That proviso was added to the budget on the second-to-last day of the session, as other budgets were being trimmed to keep money in the budget for something kind of occupying the news cycles, COVID-19. It was added as a negotiation between the two chambers, which each had their eyes on better office space.
Only a true Capitol savant could know the eventual construction project would involve the press houses, because they aren’t mentioned by either their official names or colloquial names. Instead, the proviso merely refers to the demolishing an area called Opportunity Zone 6, and suggests unspecified “tenants” might be moved into a building a block away that once served as the campus visitor center.
Hmm. A closed-door deal for a late-session proviso that would tear down the press houses without specifically mentioning them. Add in that this happened just shy of three months after the press corps won a state Supreme Court ruling that legislators must release more of their records, and it would be safe to say the reporters’ Spidey sense was tingling about possible payback.
There was even some speculation about that on the prime vehicle for speculation, Twitter.
Sen. David Frockt, chairman of the Senate Capitol Budget Committee, later assured the press corps the proviso was definitely not payback. It was not as transparent and inclusive as it could have been, he said, but everything is still in early stages and the state will do a better job of bringing the press into discussions about the project.
Frockt is a stand-up, forthright guy, so we are inclined to take him at his word, if for no other reason than we know that most legislators are better at being careless than nefarious.
Plus, we’ve heard Senate Republicans complain about the leaky roof in the Newhouse Building, our neighbor to the west where most of them have offices, for quite some time. It’s brick and younger than our buildings, but was built in the 1930s as a “temporary” building. So we can suspect them of merely looking out for their own best interests as long as they provide a way for us to look out for ours.