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Preserve America is a national initiative in cooperation with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; the U.S. Departments of Defense, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and Education; the National Endowment for the Humanities; the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities; and the President's Council on Environmental Quality.

Preserve America Community Close-ups: Port Townsend, Washington

Port Townsend (population 9,000), nestled on the northeast corner of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, lies approximately 40 miles northwest of Seattle across Puget Sound. Originally named “Port Townshend” by explorer George Vancouver for his friend the Marquis of Townshend, the area was recognized as a good harbor and a strategic point at the entrance to Puget Sound. Native American groups occupying the area before Euro-American settlement included the Chimacum, Hoh, Klallam, Quinault, and Quileute, but the Native population was decimated by small pox, measles, and other diseases transmitted by contact with white explorers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The town was officially settled in 1851, and soon had the nickname “City of Dreams” because of early speculation that the city would develop into the largest port on the west coast.


By the late 19th century Port Townsend was a well-known seaport and a center for shipping timber and other goods. Ornate Victorian homes and other buildings dotted the hills coming down to the water. With other Puget Sound ports growing in size, Port Townsend saw a rapid decline in population when the Northern Pacific Railroad failed to connect the city to Tacoma, Seattle, and other population centers to the south and east along the Sound. By the late 1890s the boom was over.  

However, an Army base was established at Fort Worden in 1902 to help in the strategic defense of Puget Sound, and became an important part of the community. Prior to World War I it became the headquarters for Puget Sound harbor and coastal defense, with major shore batteries. During World War I most of the artillery was removed for use in Europe, and the fort became an aerial reconnaissance and coastal surveillance center, a training installation, and (during World War II) a coast radar site. Lighter-than-air dirigibles and other aircraft were flown from here to observe shipping. Closed in 1953, Fort Worden was acquired by the state and became a juvenile detention facility, and then in 1973 a state park.   

Shipping, fishing and canning, and the military provided the most significant portions of the economy in Port Townsend until the early 1920s when a paper mill was built. Despite the mill, many buildings remained uninhabited until the 1970s, when artists, retirees, and others began to find the area desirable again. Because of the speed at which the economy fell initially and the lack of industry or investment to replace it, none of the buildings were torn down. Much of the historic building stock was preserved, and today they form a rich repository of historic treasures. Port Townsend and nearby Fort Worden State Park are host to more than 1.5 million visitors annually, drawn to Port Townsend’s major festivals, events, arts, and historic resources. 


A successful public-private partnership in the city of Port Townsend is the City Hall Restoration and Annex Addition Project. The City of Port Townsend partnered with the Jefferson County Historical Society (JCHS) for the preservation of the City Hall. The City Hall, built in 1892, is the oldest continuing operating city hall in the state of Washington. The City Hall is part of the Port Townsend National Historic Landmark District. As the fire and police departments, police court, and City offices moved on to more modern facilities over the years, the Jefferson County Historical Society’s museum expanded into the spaces left behind. 

Rehabilitation of the City Hall was necessary, not only to continue use for the city government but to make needed repairs after years of deterioration. Additionally, Port Townsend is located in an active seismic zone, with concerns of stability during a major earthquake a factor. The result of these needs led to the construction of a new city office building, the Annex, to the north of the current structure, and the rehabilitation of the historic City Hall. The JCHS implemented a capital campaign to raise more than $1 million for the project. The city also received grants from Save America’s Treasures and the National Endowment for the Humanities for the project.  

The completed rehabilitated City Hall included roofing, window, brick, and masonry repairs; seismic bracing and footing work; and removal and repair of interior surfaces. The JCHS returned to the rehabilitated structure in November 2006. The Fire Hall Gallery includes exhibits on the Port Townsend Fire Department and Jefferson County maritime history. The Court Room Gallery includes exhibits on Native Americans, early explorers, and the Victorian era. The museum uses the original jail to tell stories about the individuals who inhabited the space and the crimes they committed. 

The Annex addition, now housing the city government, is a Silver LEED certified project. The annex is designed to seismically support the historic City Hall through specialized bracing. The annex is three stories tall, 12,000 square feet, and designed to complement the design of the original structure.  


The Victorian history of Port Townsend and the popular Fort Worden State Park spur many heritage events. The Victorian Festival is an annual event in March that celebrates the Victorian heritage of Port Townsend. The event draws upon the historic resources of Port Townsend, including several historic house tours, tea time in a Victorian home, and poker games in a Victorian hotel. Other events include a Victorian dinner and fashion show. This event draws crowds from across the entire United States. The Main Street Program coordinates the Victorian Holidays event in December. This event includes Victorian carriage rides, Victorian carolers in the streets, and opportunities for local businesses to open their doors for the holiday season. The town also hosts an annual Wooden Boat Festival, a Kinetic Skulpture Race, and an annual blues and jazz festival as well as numerous other maritime and arts events. 

The Jefferson County Historical Society hosts “History Camp: Fun Learning in Real Places” for children ages 8-12. The week-long camp offers students the opportunity to experience the historic resources around them. The girls’ camp occurs at the Rothschild House Museum, where the students explore the day-to-day life of Victorian women. The boys’ camp takes place at the Commanding Officer’s Quarters Museum at Fort Worden. This camp offers young boys the opportunity to hike around the hills, fields, and beaches of Fort Worden and learn about past military life. 


Port Townsend is active in many national preservation programs. Both the Port Townsend Historic District and the Fort Worden Historic District are National Historic Landmarks. The City of Port Townsend is a Certified Local Government, with an active Historic Preservation Committee and a staff city planner engaged in preservation activities. The Port Townsend Main Street Program is active in the preservation efforts throughout the city, and the Main Street Program’s Design Committee offers design assistance to building owners of historic structures. Port Townsend received the “Great American Main Street Award” in 2000 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). Also in 2000, Port Townsend was listed as one of the National Trust’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations for the year.  

In addition to the City Hall Project, Port Townsend has received Save America’s Treasures funds for the Jefferson County Courthouse and Port Townsend Bell Tower projects. Port Townsend received a Preserve America Grant totaling $200,000 in 2009-2010 for the “Port Townsend Wayfinding and Heritage Marker Project.” The project will include a comprehensive program of wayfinding, information kiosks, and site interpretation to guide visitors to important destinations and amenities throughout the town and the surrounding area. The goal is to complement and reinforce the town’s identity as a “Victorian Seaport and Arts Community” and help Puget Sound’s resident population and many visitors from elsewhere more easily find their way to and around Port Townsend.  

For more information

City of Port Townsend: www.cityofpt.us

Jefferson County Historical Society: www.jchsmuseum.org

Port Townsend Main Street Program: www.ptmainstreet.org

Port Townsend Travel Guide: www.ptguide.com

Victorian Festival: www.victorianfestival.org 

Updated November 30, 2009