Historic Mukai farmhouse to be put on the market

A former Islander whose nonprofit owns the Mukai Farm and Garden, considered one of Vashon's most historically significant sites, is expected to put the property on the market in the next several days.

Mary Matthews, who now lives in Texas and who founded the nonprofit Island Landmarks, has contacted real estate agent Ken Zaglin to discuss listing the property. Zaglin said he expects the property to be listed in the "near future."

Matthews, he added, hopes to find a way to keep the property protected as a historic site and a community asset.

"She charged me with trying to land the property in a place where its preserved and the her mission is furthered," he said.

King County 4Culture, the county's cultural services agency, which provided some of the funds for the property's purchase, has also been contacted and has begun discussing ways that the farmhouse and its traditional garden can remain protected.

"This is really a significant site on Vashon Island," said Jim Kelly, who heads 4Culture. "Our intention is to use whatever goodwill and leverage we can to help Mary come to a happy resolution."

The farm and garden, located at the end of 107th Avenue S.W. off of Bank Road, was purchased by Island Landmarks nearly a decade ago, with $400,000 in county, state and federal grants. Three years ago, Matthews and her husband J. Nelson Happy purchased the farm's adjacent processing plant with their own money, hoping, Matthews said in an interview last year, to reknit the properties into one historic landscape.

The farmhouse and the processing plant are both county historical landmarks. They were once owned by Japanese-Americans B.D. Mukai and his son Masa, who grew strawberries and operated a thriving cold-processing operation that enabled them to ship berries across the country — a business that flourished until the internment order of 1942 forced them to turn their property over to a manager and flee the region.

Today, the site stands as a historic reminder of Vashon's past and the role that Japanese-Americans played in shaping the region's agrarian culture. The traditional garden in front of the farmhouse is especially heralded: It was designed and created by a first-generation Japanese woman, B.D. Mukai's wife, Kuni, a rarity in Japanese culture at the time.

But the fact that the two properties are owned separately and under very different terms makes the sale more complex, Kelly said. The farmhouse, because of the public grants that were used to purchase the site, carries obligations for public access, he said. But the processing plant could be sold with few strings attached, he said.

"How one sells the entire site is something we're trying to explore," he said.

According to Zaglin, Matthews has put her own money — tens of thousands of dollars — into taking care of the house and restoring the garden. But many in the historic preservation community have been frustrated by the way Island Landmarks — a nonprofit that seems virtually defunct — has handled the site, and some have been critical of Matthews for not fulfilling the terms of the grants that enabled the nonprofit to secure the site.

The house, for the most part, is shuttered. And the public access the grant money required is limited, according to observers.

Matthews could not be reached for comment.

Holly Taylor, an Islander and historic preservation consultant, said she hopes the possible sale of the two properties will give the community an opportunity to fulfill the promises the grant money carried when the farmhouse was purchased years ago. Several groups, she said, should come together to begin discussing the roles they could play.

"The status of that propoerty has been up in the air for so long, and people have been pretty frustrated with the neglect and lack of access," she said. "The possibility of a sale has renewed people's interests."

The Vashon-Maury Island Historical Association has already been contacted, she said. Others that could come to the table include the Vashon Park District, Vashon Island Growers Association, the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust and off-Island groups such as the Wing Luke Museum.

"The Mukai complex is one of the most historically significant sites on the Island," Taylor added. "I think this is an opportunity for the community to step forward and take care of it."

Kelly agreed. "I believe we can have a happy outcome."

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