QA — Aaron Nickell, Chairman of the Aberdeen Historic Preservation Commission

Seattle native Aaron Nickell attended schools in Aberdeen and has lived in Central Park most of his life. He graduated from Grays Harbor College in 1997, and earned a B.A. with a focus on political science and political economy from the Evergreen State College, where he returned to earn a masters in Public Administration in 2009 with a focus on public policy and non-profit administration. His partner, Becky Chapman, is a personal trainer in Bellevue. Nickell has played guitar for “two decades” and is an avid music and vinyl record collector. “My love of the rock band Van Halen knows no limits.” He played guitar in the Driftwood Theater production of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” “My favorite smell in the world is when I open the case for my Martin D-35 acoustic guitar.” He is “Daddy” to “a usually well-behaved border collie (Fidel), who is great at catching Frisbees, herding cats and sneaking pastry off the counter when nobody is looking,” he said.

What first attracted you to historic preservation? Did any childhood influences lead you to the field?

My family has always encouraged my deep appreciation of history and taught me that history transcends our built environment. My grandmother was half-Chinook and she spoke Chinook jargon at home. Buildings are important, but only insofar as they reflect the importance of our language, art, music, food, politics, and commerce, love of family and community.

My interest in historic preservation evolved quite a bit during graduate school. My research suggested that the cities and towns with the most success in revitalization had some sort of historic preservation program.

As chairman you will help oversee a historic plan for downtown and a few residential areas. What is the Historic Preservation Commission’s vision of what that will be like?

It will be a blueprint for our preservation efforts. I’d like to see historic districts where property owners are dedicated to, and rewarded for, preserving the architectural character of their buildings and are also excited about sharing history. I would like to tie our preservation efforts to the broader goals of economic development, mixed-use infrastructure and historic tourism. It is an iterative, community-oriented vision that requires public participation.

Is your home historic? What kinds of preservation work have you done or supervised?

My home does not meet the requirements of any historic register, but it is historic for my family. I’m not a preservation architect; I see my role as largely administrative and policy-oriented. As chairman, I need to effectively navigate bureaucracy and simplify complex policy processes so we can encourage public involvement and maximize our historic resources. My commission colleagues — Dann Sears, Alan Gozart, Sally McCarthy, and Jim Wynans — are experienced folks with impressive talents in architecture, history and preservation. We make a great team.

Which entity of government federal, state, county and city has the best array of incentives to historically preserve buildings and homes? What could be done better?

The best preservation incentive we have is special valuation taxation. It is a cooperative program spanning all levels of government. The National Parks Service works closely with states to set standards and guidelines for preservation and restoration, and they give our commission the authority to approve this tax incentive for qualifying projects. It can be leveraged with federal tax incentives, as well.

All levels of government could do a better job educating. Sometimes,people see government as punitive and motivated by self-interest. Mitigating that perception is a fundamental challenge for historic preservationists and public administrators.

What are among the buildings and residences you admire most in Aberdeen and why?

I love all of them. We have a beautiful town with an impressive array of historic infrastructure. The D&R Theatre and the Masonic Temple are great examples of preservation at work, but I also see great promise in the Electric Building, Morck Hotel, Elks Building and the Becker Building.

I’m continually fascinated by how our lives are defined by place and time. Our collective definition of history is not static, and it’s important for communities to continually reexamine and redefine the resources we deem historically relevant. We look to the future to preserve history.

The commission has asked for more information on some prospects for the Aberdeen Historic Register. What advice do you give to newcomers to the process?

Ask questions. We’re here to help. We follow guidelines for preservation, but our programs are entirely voluntary. I advise applicants to work closely with the Aberdeen Museum of History to research their building and gather as many supporting pictures, plans or documents possible. We’re not just preserving buildings: we’re recording history through the Aberdeen Historic Register, and it is important to include thorough documentation. I also tell applicants that a register listing is honorary.

If you could invite guests from any era to an elegant dinner party, where would you dine, what would you serve and who would you invite?

I would serve Chinook salmon and oysters at home. I’d love to invite ordinary folks from every era imaginable! I’d invite family and friends who have passed away. I’m a fan of historical narratives from folks who wouldn’t necessarily make the history books. I’m a big fan of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” because it examines society through the lenses of people who didn’t get to write or define history.

Notable guests would include Joseph Campbell, Noam Chomsky, Che Guevara, Jack Kerouac, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Freddie Mercury, Mozart, Eleanor Roosevelt, Salman Rushdie, Vandana Shiva, Sitting Bull, Eddie Van Halen, and Neil Young. That would be perfect.


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