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Reclaiming the Beall Greenhouses
A mile outside bustling Vashon town sits a relic of the past. Dozens of greenhouses, once filled with world-renowned orchids and roses, are now in various stages of disrepair and decay. Beaten by harsh Northwest weather and slowly swallowed by thick undergrowth, the buildings, some of them a century old, seem to be quietly returning to the earth.
But there is also new life at the Beall Greenhouses. In the middle of the decomposing complex now sits a commercial quarter of a different kind. Manicured lawns and well-tended gardens butt up against the dilapidated structures. A couple of rustic homes have been remodeled and rented out. Several of the complex’s largest buildings have been shored up and reclaimed as unconventional studio spaces for some of the Island’s best-known artists.
Indeed, as King County seeks to designate Center — a more intact piece of Island history — as a historic district, Chuck and Nancy Hooper are working to fight against the forces of time in an effort to realize an ambitious dream for what is currently the Island’s only other historic district.
“We could look beyond all the mess that was here and see something in it, a gem in the rough,” Chuck Hooper said last week, sitting in the couple’s home at the property. “We still see it,” he added.
The Hoopers purchased the Beall Greenhouses 20 years ago, and their ownership of the site has been as almost as eventful as its history as a the country’s largest commercial greenhouse complex. After years of what they describe as constant labor to revive the property — all the while battling rumors and criticism by Islanders — the Hoopers say things are finally starting to look up at the greenhouses on Beall Road. There’s a waiting list of artists eager for space, they say, and with the passage of time the community, too, seems more receptive.
“We’re actually putting a lot of work back into this place again,” Chuck said. “We can see it’s turning around finally, and we’re getting a great reception from the arts community.”
The Hoopers came to Vashon in the late 1980s looking for a few acres where they could live and perhaps begin a new business leasing small cranes. A real estate agent sent the couple to the Beall Greenhouses, a 25-acre property at the time already falling into disrepair after the Beall family moved its flower-growing operation to Colombia. When the Hoopers laid eyes on the place, they say, a new dream started to form.
A steal at less than $100,000, they bought the property with hopes of transforming it into a large commercial complex with low-rent spaces for budding businesses. Chuck, an award-winning contractor with a history of renovating historic buildings, said revitalizing the greenhouses was right up his alley.
“We were amazed with the immensity of it all and the possibility of it all,” he said.
The Beall Greenhouses, however, turned out to be unlike any project the Hoopers had taken on. Many of the buildings were in a state of ruin, Chuck said. Blackberries, brambles and even trees had taken over many of the greenhouses, and in recent years the site had been used as a garbage dump of sorts — old appliances, cars, boats and other trash were ditched on several acres.
To top it off, years of use as a greenhouse complex when environmental regulations were scant left the property tainted with pesticides, oil and asbestos. It was eventually designated a hazardous site by the state Department of Ecology, a designation that still holds.
Sitting in their home, a nicely remodeled space on the top floor of a barn at the greenhouses, the Hoopers described how they didn’t feel welcome on Vashon for years — despite the work and money they put into reviving the property. Hard feelings lingered over the jobs lost when the greenhouse operation folded, they said, and many seemed to resent that the Bealls, a beloved Island family, no longer had the place. Some even claimed the property became worse under the Hoopers’ ownership, Nancy said.
“Unfortunately we inherited a lot of the ire or anger about that,” she said. “That was frustrating for us. We didn’t have anything to do with that. It was a mess when we got it.”
The Hoopers made a go at growing roses in some of the last intact greenhouses. They grew basil for a time as well. Like the Bealls, however, they found the crops didn’t pencil out.
In 1994, when King County approached the couple about designating the site as a historic district, the Hoopers agreed, hoping the designation would lead to money for renovation. The funds never materialized, they said; according to the county, that’s because the Hoopers never applied.
Ultimately, as accusations that they were sitting on the likes of a Superfund site added to the couple’s stress, they hit a tipping point and in 2003 sold the property to another Island couple, Scarlett and Nancy Foster-Moss.
“I guess we were frustrated,” Chuck said. “There was burnout. We were tired of working so hard.”
The Hoopers returned to Vashon with mixed feelings two years ago, when, according to the couple, the Foster-Mosses could no longer make payments on the real estate contract that the Hoopers carried and the Hoopers reclaimed the property. They spoke candidly about their return to the greenhouses, saying the Foster-Mosses — arts-minded and high-profile — had a compelling vision for the site but ultimately left it in worse shape.
Artists who set up shop at the greenhouses when Nancy and Scarlett Foster-Moss owned the property also said the couple’s vision was compelling. The two women allowed artists to refurbish their own studio spaces, said Mike Magrath, a sculptor who has been at the greenhouses for four years, often exchanging labor for rent reductions.
“Everyone started putting a lot more energy into the spaces. It was like once energy was thrown back into it … the artists themselves, at that point, led a bit of a revival,” he said.
At the same time, he said, the Hoopers are now maintaining the place better. “Nancy and Scarlett weren’t necessarily building maintenance people,” he said.
Neither Scarlett nor Nancy Foster-Moss returned telephone calls. Scarlett Foster-Moss, in a brief email, said the couple did not want to comment about their ownership of the historic site.
Tom Beall, reached by phone at his home on Beall Road, said he hasn’t visited the greenhouses in years. “The memories are just too hard,” he said.
Beall, whose grandfather helped found the greenhouses, recounted his family’s difficult decision to move the operation, once the largest employer on the Island, to Colombia. As was the case with farming operations across the country, he said, the rising cost of gas and competition from Canada — a place rich with natural gas — put them out of business.
“We tried to keep it going. We put a lot of our money into it,” he said. “We began to realize we were fighting a losing battle.”
Beall, who recently retired from a long career at Sawbones, said he has no qualms with how the Hoopers have managed the property. He knows firsthand what they’re up against.
“I was hoping they or any new owner would be able to turn it around and make a go, but it’s a difficult challenge,” he said.
Walking the property one sunny day last week, the Hoopers said they feel more welcome on Vashon now than ever. Coming to a row of greenhouses close to the front entrance — skeleton structures bursting with blackberry vines — they spoke of a dream to see at least a few of the greenhouses rebuilt and put to use again. Nancy said she would especially love to see them serve Vashon, perhaps as a community garden or a greenhouse for the elderly to work in during the winter.
“We didn’t get this to make money,” she said. “It would help the community. It really would.”
The couple still has their hands in other business ventures as well, though. Most recently, they renovated a historic apartment building in Tacoma. They’ve yet to take steps to rebuild any greenhouses, something they said would take community support or grant funding. And they haven’t attempted to clean polluted soil at the site either. They say they don’t know the current extent of the pollution, and they believe that vegetation is slowly cleaning the soil naturally.
“We have the resources to do a lot (of renovation), but we’re also careful with our resources,” Nancy said. “We need to keep some cash for us.”
Julie Koler, who heads the county’s historic preservation program, said her office hasn’t heard from the Hoopers in years. Scarlett and Nancy Foster-Moss presented a plan to revitalize the entire site, something that never took shape, she said.
“We would love to see the Hoopers come forward and work with us on adaptive reuses, to maintain the spirit of its history while making it functional for today’s uses,” she said.
For the time being, the Hoopers said, they simply wish Islanders would know about the hard work they’ve put in at the greenhouses. Some people don’t even know the place is privately owned, she said.
It’s not uncommon for people to drive onto the property and show themselves around or even take items from the greenhouses, Chuck said.
“We didn’t abandon this place. We worked out butts off for a very long time,” Chuck said. “That stuff really hurts.”
Magrath said the Beall Greenhouses were one of the reasons he moved to Vashon. He’s always had a love for old buildings, he said, and was in awe when he first saw the decaying greenhouses.
“It had that kind of beautiful ruin feel to it,” he said.
Magrath, who is now working with another artist to begin a co-op foundry at the site, said that at least once a year he ventures into the most overgrown parts of the property to see how it has changed.
“It’s kind of interesting to watch nature take something back like this. ... You kind of throw your shoulder at this decay and you can hold it at bay. To me, it’s all you can do,” he said.
While some greenhouses molder and collapse, Magrath said, he’s also seen the Hoopers make huge strides in the heart of the property, transforming it into a new artists’ haven of sorts. About a dozen artists now hang their shingles at the Beall Greenhouses, including tile artist Nadine Edelstein, puppet-maker Bill Jarcho and members of Quartmaster Press, a co-op printmaking studio that recently renewed its lease on a refurbished building there.
“I think they have what it takes to save it,” Magrath said of the Hoopers. “If it can be saved, they’re the ones to do it.”