Sumner City Council vote on whether to save the Ryan House postponed

May 20, 2024, 12:27 PM | Updated: May 21, 2024, 1:07 pm

The Ryan House in Sumner was built in the 1870s and 1880s before Washington became a state, and is ...

The Ryan House in Sumner was built in the 1870s and 1880s before Washington became a state, and is one of the oldest publicly owned homes from the Territorial Era still standing. (Photo courtesy of the city of Sumner)

(Photo courtesy of the city of Sumner)

UPDATE (May 21, 2024, 11:46 a.m.): On Monday night, the Sumner City Council postponed a vote on the resolution related to the Ryan House until early next month. Nick Biermann of Save Ryan House wrote in a text to KIRO Newsradio late Monday after the meeting, “The resolution was debated and with some of the issues raised during public comment, the Sumner City Council decided to table a vote on the resolution until June 3.”

In video of the public comment and council discussion about Resolution No. 1685, multiple council members, who joined the council after last September’s council vote to demolish the Ryan House, are heard expressing their desire to delay the vote because two veteran council members who did take part in the demolition vote in September were not in attendance last evening.


At their regularly scheduled meeting Monday night, the Sumner City Council will likely vote on a resolution that could determine the ultimate fate of the Ryan House — a historic structure dating as far back as the 1860s.

The Ryan House in downtown Sumner was recently added to a list of the Evergreen State’s Most Endangered Places by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. As KIRO Newsradio reported in September 2023, the house is owned by the City of Sumner and has been for a hundred years. It’s a lot older than that – parts of it date to the 1870s – but the city says it’s more expensive to fix than originally thought, and it needs to be torn down.

A grassroots campaign emerged in Sumner last fall called “Save Ryan House.” Members of the volunteer group have spread the message about the long-term value of historic preservation, marched in parades and spoken at city council meetings and other civic events. They also took part in a legal battle with the city when a lawsuit spearheaded by another local group they work with – Save Our Sumner – successfully invalidated the demolition permit that Sumner had issued to itself.

The in-person meeting Monday night of the Sumner City Council begins at 6 p.m. at Sumner City Hall and it will also be possible to participate remotely. On the agenda is “Resolution No. 1685,” which formally invites private citizens to raise $2.2 million and donate it to the City of Sumner “no later than close of business” on Dec. 1 to fund restoration of the house.

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Volunteers take issue with Resolution 1685

Nick Biermann of “Save Ryan House” takes issue with several aspects of Resolution 1685. He says the $2.2 million figure is not necessarily accurate, and the Ryan House could be preserved – or at the very least stabilized until it can be fully preserved in the future or as funding permits – for a lot less.

Mainly, Biermann says his group is frustrated that the City of Sumner won’t work in partnership with them on a solution. The resolution being considered tonight, Biermann contends, is needlessly long-winded and unhelpful.

“It basically rehashes the city stance that they will not contribute any more time, any more funds, any more money of any kind to the Ryan House project,” Biermann said Sunday, and “that they’re completely out of options, but that they would accept a check in full for the entire $2.2 million that they believe is needed for the restoration work to continue.”

The resolution is three pages long and does, indeed, go into sometimes granular, subjective and sometimes confusing detail about the struggles over the future of the Sumner landmark over the past eight months. Some examples of specific “recitals” in Resolution 1685 include:

  • “WHEREAS, members of the public have blamed lack of private donations on a number of factors including lack of a solid dollar figure and the threat of demolition”
  • “WHEREAS, it appears members of the public continue to insist on focusing on intent and desire to keep the building, which has never been in question, as a major distraction from the core need of raising the lacking funding from the private sector.”

As Nick Biermann points out, the resolution also includes language stipulating that the City of Sumner won’t “expend any additional City staff time or resources to apply for or obtain grant funding for the Ryan House.”

What Biermann says that he and the other Sumner citizens of Save Ryan House want is a “spirit of cooperation” and for the city to reach across the table and work with them to get the preservation of Ryan House – which the city was working on for five years until last summer – back on track.

“But this resolution doesn’t do that,” Biermann said. “This resolution reads more as an ultimatum to our group, and essentially says that if Save The Ryan House group wants to come up with the funds to save the Ryan House, we need to do it all by ourselves, we need to come up with full $2.2 million, and that the city will not contribute whatsoever to that effort.”

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‘We’ve spent five years on this, we have other have priorities …’

Carmen Palmer, spokesperson for the City of Sumner, made it clear that the city has no intention of assisting Save Ryan House or Save Our Sumner or any citizen-led effort to raise money in support of preserving the structure.

“We’ve spent five years on this, we have other have priorities like you wouldn’t believe at the city,” Palmer told KIRO Newsradio on Sunday. “So we’re trying to clearly remind people, we gave five years into this. We don’t have more to give, we have to work on other priorities.”

Palmer also rejects the notion of the value of any kind of formal arrangement between the city and any one of the citizen-led groups.

“If other groups feel passionate enough about this to go out and raise that money, wonderful,” Palmer said. “So, here’s all the clarity. We’ve heard that they didn’t understand. We’re trying to respond to all the criticisms we’ve heard and give a very clear indication of what is needed.”

KIRO Newsradio pushed back on what Palmer seems to be saying is the underlying assumption of Resolution 1685: that citizens with no formal affiliation with the City of Sumner (for the specific purpose of raising funds in support of the Ryan House) would have much luck convincing donors to give to something with no clearly defined public-private partnership agreement in place.

Isn’t this a recipe for failure – to tell Nick Biermann and Save Ryan House to essentially get lost, but be sure and come back by Dec. 1 with a check for $2.2 million in hand?

“We’re not saying get lost. We’re saying come back with checks, plural,” Palmer responded. “Why would we say we’re going to work with Group A, but Group B and C, get lost? Why would (we) do that?”

“You’ve got to raise $2.2 million in seven months,” Palmer continued. “Everyone who worries about this should be concerned and participating. This isn’t the time to bless one anointed group over another.

Previous coverage from Feliks Banel: Frustration in Sumner over city’s rush to demolish Ryan House

Unfortunate reality: Funding has been forfeited

For some reason or reasons that remain unclear from afar, when the city of Sumner shifted gears last summer and decided to demolish the Ryan House rather than preserve it, it unleashed a chain of unfortunate events and what appears to be missed opportunities for citizens and government to make peace and then work together effectively to find a solution.

Many unfortunate realities of the past eight months are spelled out in the recitals of Resolution 1685, but one that’s not mentioned is the fact the City of Sumner had already raised – but not spent – about $1.5 million in grant funding to preserve the Ryan House, and that now most of that funding has been forfeited, including $1.15 million from the Pierce County Lodging Tax.

“The $400,000 had to be used by Dec. 31, 2023, so that’s gone,” Carmen Palmer explained. “The $750,000 was to cover the overages on the $400,000 to make the doors actually open and the (Ryan) house actually secure, so absent the $400,000 the $750,000 wouldn’t do what it promised.”

“So that went away, too,” Palmer said.

Nick Biermann is frustrated about the $1.15 million evaporating, and he’s frustrated that so much energy and so many resources are being expended in what feels like a pointless battle with the City of Sumner over a longtime local landmark that visually and historically defines the community.

“Why are we all spending so much money arguing about this?” Biermann said. “Why don’t we just come to an agreement and put the money toward actually funding the work one way or another, even if you don’t agree on the exact amount?”

“Then that should be the challenge to us, as our Save Ryan House group, is ‘you guys come up with the rest,'” Biermann continued. “If it’s a million, if it’s $600,000, if it’s $800,000, whatever that value is, let’s come up with a value that we can raise with cooperation from the city contributing their portion as well.”

Where the process goes from here

What comes next after the city council meeting and likely vote?

For Save Ryan House, it will likely be a fundraiser based on Sumner’s historic connection to rhubarb.

Biermann says the event, set to take place sometime in June with the actual date to be determined, “would celebrate the history of Rhubarb Days in Sumner and looking back at the history of the small town festival.”

“They used to have rhubarb races on the lawn of the Ryan House like those (Pinewood) derby things where you make a small car and set it at the top of a ramp and then run it down,” Biermann explained. But instead of wood, “the car was made from rhubarb.”

What comes next from the City of Sumner’s perspective?

“The next steps are the people who would like to save this house have a steep hill to climb,” said city spokesperson Carmen Palmer. “Actually, a cliff to climb to raise $2.2 million by Dec. 1.”

You can hear Feliks Banel every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien. Read more from Feliks here and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks. You can also follow Feliks on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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