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Mukai event aims to raise awareness

Several organizations concerned about the state of the Mukai farmhouse and garden hope a large gathering outside the historic site this weekend will help draw attention to the property, which they say is not being properly preserved.

“The whole place, I think, is in danger of falling apart eventually,” said Bruce Haulman, a board member of Friends of Mukai, the group spearheading efforts to see the property revitalized and a sponsor of this weekend’s event. “(Organizations) have done this with other properties around the state. It’s been very significant to get local focus on what the issues are and spur movement to get the property preserved,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mary Matthews, director of Island Landmarks, the nonprofit that owns the farmhouse, said she, too, will be at the site on Saturday to open the grounds to visitors, tell Island Landmarks’ side of the story and recruit new members to the nonprofit. She’s currently creating a handout to make available that she said refutes some of the Friends of Mukai’s claims, and she’s planning a three-day open house for the following weekend, when the house will be opened to visitors.

“I think there’s a lot of misinformation that’s been said to the public about what’s going on there, our objectives and the past,” Matthews said.

The event, called This Place Matters — Stand Up for Mukai, comes on the heels of news that the property has been added to the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of most endangered historic properties in the state. The farmhouse was nominated by the Friends of Mukai.

“I think it’s an important recognition that the Mukai place does matter and people are aware it hasn’t been taken care of in the way we originally intended it to be taken care of,” Haulman said. “We wanted to focus attention on that.”

Haulman said it’s not uncommon for such awareness-raising events to take place at properties after they’ve been added to the Washington Trust’s endangered list. This weekend’s event is sponsored by the friends group and the Washington Trust, as well as the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association and 4Culture, King County’s cultural arts organization and one of the funders that helped Island Landmarks purchase the house a decade ago.

The event, to take place on the street outside the farmhouse, will open with several speakers, including Mary Matsuda Gruenwald, a former islander and Japanese-American author who knew B.D. Mukai, the farmhouse’s former owner.

A small street fair will feature booths with educational displays, food and Japanese arts and crafts, and several local bands will provide music. At 2 p.m., organizers will stage a photo of everyone in attendance standing outside the farmhouse with a banner reading “This Place Matters.” Organizers say King County Councilmember Joe McDermott is expected to attend the event, and Sen. Sharon Nelson and county Executive Dow Constantine have also been invited.

Katharine Golding, who is on the board of the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association, said the 11-member board voted unanimously to sponsor the event because they feel something needs to happen at the historical property. Golding, who called the long dispute over the property a “hot political issue and a contentious issue,” emphasized that she didn’t want to point fingers at or make accusations about Island Landmarks. But, she added, she does support the Friends of Mukai’s efforts to see the property transferred into new ownership. Golding will speak at Saturday’s event.

“I hope what it does is heighten the awareness,” she said “I think that one of the most important things is that it makes people more aware of this asset we have sitting in the middle of our community. If the Friends of Mukai do prevail, they’re going to need resources to do what needs to be done.”

Matthews said she wasn’t entirely sure of the event’s purpose, but she wasn’t happy to hear it was being planned. She agreed that attention should be brought to the property, but thought organizers would do better to work with Island Landmarks on finding a solution for it.

“All the people out there who are sensible and want something to happen to this need to work with us,” she said.

For years, the historic farmhouse and Japanese garden, purchased more than a decade ago by Island Landmarks, has been at the center of a heated dispute. Critics say, among other things, that the house and garden have both fallen into disrepair and haven’t been accessible to the public, a requirement of public funds used to purchase it.

Last fall, a group of concerned islanders who would later form the Friends of Mukai attempted to wrest control of Island Landmarks from Mary Matthews and her husband Nelson Happy, who live part-time in Texas, and install their own elected board to oversee the property. However, a judge ruled in November that the takeover was not done legally, a decision the group, now a registered nonprofit, is appealing.

And earlier this year, Allyson Brooks, a top official from the state Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation, voiced concern about the status of the house, evidence that it had been used as an occasional private residence and what she called Island Landmarks’ apparent failure to live up to the terms of a state grant that helped purchase it.

Matthews, on the other hand, continues to deny any wrongdoing on the part of Island Landmarks, saying the nonprofit is maintaining the property. She and her husband have spent their own funds to preserve the house and garden as much as they can, she said, and they are working to see it transferred to a tax-supported agency, ideally the National Park Service.

Matthews wasn’t able to give a contact at the National Park Service, but said Island Landmarks needed more support, especially from elected officials, before it could hope to see the property transferred. She said she was skeptical that the Friends of Mukai had a better plan for the site or the resources to care for it.

“We have contacts, and we have been working toward that goal,” she said “It would help if we had people on Vashon to support us and help us in that effort. We know they’ve tried to block that effort. National Park Service ownership is a big, political thing.”

“I don’t think it’s enough to say ‘We want Mary Matthews and Nelson Happy gone,’” she added. “I don't think that's right. ... I don’t think it’s polite. I don’t think it’s nice. I don’t think it’s how you treat people.”

Haulman said the Friends of Mukai tried to contact Matthews and work with her in the beginning — something Matthews says simply isn’t true — but now the group feels the property has been mismanaged and deteriorating for so long that action needs to be taken as soon as possible. The Friends of Mukai, he said, would also like to see the property owned by a public entity, perhaps King County Parks or the Vashon Park District.

The friends group now has more than 100 dues-paying members, and with the recent Washington Trust listing and the large event planned for this weekend, Haulman said it feels as though the group has more support than ever.

“It feels like we’re no longer a lone voice in the wilderness,” he said. “It feels like there’s real support around the region and around the state, saying places like Mukai matter.

This Place Matters – Stand up For Mukai will take place from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday on the street outside the Mukai farmhouse on 107th Avenue S.W., one block south of Bank Road.

The farmhouse will be open for an open house put on by Island Landmarks from noon to 6 p.m., Friday, Saturday and Sunday, June 7, 8 and 9.

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