Mukai Farmhouse and barreling plant face foreclosure

The Mukai Farmhouse, with its traditional Japanese garden, is considered an important piece of the region
The Mukai Farmhouse, with its traditional Japanese garden, is considered an important piece of the region's history.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

The historic Mukai Farmhouse and an adjacent structure known as the barreling plant are slated to be auctioned off on Dec. 10 unless the properties' owners come up with more than $50,000 in back taxes and fines prior to the auction date.

Both properties are in foreclosure due to unpaid taxes dating back to 2007. Under King County rules, foreclosure proceedings begin if a property owner owes more than three years in back taxes.

But Mary Matthews, who owns the barreling plant and heads the nonprofit that holds title to the farmhouse, said she has no intention of losing the two properties at an auction and plans to come up with the cash before the December auction.

In a telephone interview from her home in Texas, the former Vashon resident said the county's high taxes and the costs of maintaining the historic structures have proven difficult for her and her tiny nonprofit, Island Landmarks. But, she added, "We're not going to let the investment go down the tubes. Everyone who's hoping they can get that property in foreclosure should forget about it."

The future of the two structures has been hanging in the balance for several months, ever since Matthews decided last year to sell the house and barreling plant, both of which are listed as historic by the King County Landmarks Commission.

Her decision triggered a response on Vashon and in Seattle. Several people active in the historic preservation community quickly came together, hoping to find a buyer who would not only maintain the properties' historic significance but also open up the farmhouse to occasional public visitation. Island Landmarks purchased the farmhouse in 2000 with public funds; Matthews and her husband J. Nelson Happy purchased the barreling plant with their own money in 2006.

At least one Vashon-based organization, the Puget Sound Zen Center, stepped forward. Last year, after considerable effort and soul-searching, the nonprofit put an offer on the farmhouse.

But Matthews, who wants to sell both parcels together, decided against the Zen Center's offer and in May arranged for a Seattle real estate agent to list the two parcels for $799,000. She's had only a few nibbles since then, she said, but continues to hope an entity with both a commitment to historic preservation and the financial capacity to purchase both properties will make an offer.

Matthews, in her first public comments about the farmhouse and barreling plant since she decided to sell them last year, said she turned down the Zen Center's offer because she felt the organization was too small to be entrusted with such an important piece of Island history.

"We would have liked to have seen a bigger organization, with more members and more of a bank account," she said.

The organization that buys the parcels could turn around and sell them at any time, she noted. "What's going to happen to these properties five years from now, 10 years from now? There are a lot of things to consider," she said.

She also expressed dismay that no one with the financial wherewithal to take on the project has come forward.

"It's really disappointing to me that someone hasn't stepped up," she said.

"It's an absolutely magical and unique place," she added. "There are a lot of people out there who have the money and want places like this. I'm surprised no one has made an offer."

The two parcels comprise nearly five acres at the end of 107th Avenue S.W. near Vashon town and on the edge of Island Center Forest. The modest farmhouse, considered an important historic landmark on Vashon, was built in 1928 by the Mukais, a well-known Japanese-American family that once lived in the home and ran a thriving strawberry growing operation on the site. The barreling plant, built later, was where B.D. Mukai and his son Masa cold-processed the berries for shipment across the country until the internment order of World War II forced them to turn the property over to a manager and move from Vashon.

Particularly noteworthy is the small, ornate garden in front of the farmhouse. Designed by B.D. Mukai's second wife, Kuni, it is one of the few traditional gardens ever designed by a Japanese woman and is considered an important legacy of the region's Japanese-American heritage.

Jim Kelly, who heads 4Culture, King County's cultural resources agency, said he was troubled at the thought that the two properties could be auctioned off. The farmhouse and barreling plant, he said, are "a wonderful piece of American history."

4Culture gave Island Landmarks a $100,000 grant towards the purchase of the farmhouse. "That this historic asset is about to be sold ... is a disturbing situation," Kelly added.

But Holly Taylor, an Islander and historic preservationist with a deep interest in the parcels' fate, said she also sees this as an opportunity. "I'm hopeful ... something will happen that will allow the property to be taken care of the way it should be taken care of," she said. "It's an opportunity for some kind of transition."

The Zen Center's small sangha or congregation, meanwhile, remains interested in the farmhouse. Koshin Christopher Cain, abbot of the center, said the group is "passively pursuing other properties."

"But Mukai," he added, "is our first choice. We love that place and think it would be great on many different levels, for us and for the community."

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