Thursday, October 27, 2016

Owls Occupy Old Brewhouse Tower in Tumwater

Above: On a tour organized by the Old Brewhouse Foundation in October 2014, City of Tumwater councilmember Tom Oliva, in dark coat, stands on the sixth floor of the Old Brewhouse tower, and looks up at the photographer who is in an upper loft of the tower under the copper roof. Owl droppings litter the floor. It is anticipated that the owls will be relocated before the tower undergoes temporary repairs, window closures, and weatherization this winter.

By Janine Gates

Barn owls have occupied Tumwater’s vacant Old Brewhouse tower for years, but they will not rule the roost for much longer.

In a meeting last month of the Tumwater Historic Preservation Commission, commissioners approved, with conditions, a certificate of appropriateness so the city can begin temporary weatherization efforts of the tower.

The 110 year old Old Brewhouse is a historic landmark, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. It has been on a watch list by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, and is also in Tumwater's Historic Brewery District.

Obtaining a certificate of appropriateness by the commission ensures that any alteration, demolition, or new construction to the historic site is consistent with the property's character. The step is also necessary to move forward with permitting. 

The commissioners took their time at the September 8 meeting to express concern for the owls, ask extensive questions about the types of materials to be used in repairs and weatherization, the methodology for anchoring a temporary roof, and the appearance of the temporary fixes.

One of the conditions for approval was assurance from staff that they would learn more about the barn owls and figure out how to relocate them before installing a temporary roof and sealing up about 55 windows.

Barn owls are a protected species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

After consulting with biologist Michelle Tirhi of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife after the meeting, city staff learned that they must place owl boxes elsewhere on the property in hopes that the owls in the tower will be convinced that they should go elsewhere.

Contacted by Little Hollywood, Tirhi said barn owls often seek out older, seldom used outbuildings for nesting, like barns and old buildings. Barn owls are done nesting for the season and this is a great time to construct and place nest boxes, and then seal them out of their current location.   

The boxes should be installed as close to where the owls currently enter and exit the building. 

Tirhi said she is hopeful the city or volunteers will continue to monitor the boxes so that they can be protected, repaired, or replaced over time, as needed, for the sake of the owls.

The City of Tumwater acquired the tower in an agreement with owner George Heidgerken in May. Heidgerken and his company, Falls Development LLC, owns the 32 acre area around the Old Brewhouse property, roughly bounded by Custer Way to the south, the Deschutes River to the west, Capitol Lake to the north, and the railroad to the east. 

As of this week, there is still no update on the placement of the nesting boxes.

“We’re working with George (Heidgerken) to get permission to install them on site in a variety of locations that are appealing to owls. Then, it will be safe to seal up the Old Brewhouse,” said assistant city administrator and brewery property manager Heidi Behrends Cerniway.

In the meantime, the building continues to deteriorate. In a process called “spalling,” bricks literally fly off the tower, as moisture causes the mortar to expand and contract with weather temperatures, thus dislodging the bricks. 

Behrends Cerniwey told the seven member commission that whenever she visits the site, new bricks are laying on the ground around the tower.

The city hopes to have the temporary protections and weatherization efforts complete by the end of the year.

Above: The southeast corner of the Old Brewhouse tower of the fourth floor shows a dramatic decay of bricks and exposure to the elements.

Regarding the appearance of the repairs, there will be no unsightly blue tarps, but a temporary roof is expected to stay put for one to four years while funding is secured for a permanent roof and window materials.

The windows could be boarded up with plywood from the inside, and perhaps shaped to fit the window, but some windows may have a clear weather resistant material instead, to allow in light. Some may stay open to allow for minimal ventilation. There is no electrical power or heating inside the building.

The city’s consultant, Cardinal Architecture, produced a detailed tower protection and renovation report in May. It estimated that a temporary roof structure would cost about $97,750, and temporary windows and door panels would cost about $21,250.

Because they will be temporary - immediate protections meant to reduce the rate of decay - the city says it will not go through a formal bidding process, and the work will be done with volunteer labor and donated materials.

This was another aspect of significant discussion, as commissioners did not want to find themselves in a situation similar to that of the City of Olympia when it attempted to use the donated services of Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers to demolish two blighted buildings on the isthmus in downtown Olympia last year.

One of those organizations donating services is the nonprofit Old Brewhouse Foundation.

Rob Kirkwood, president of the nonprofit, has already built four owl boxes, donated an additional owl box, and provides informal input on how to approach the project and what is needed to be done in terms of professional services.

The City of Tumwater will begin permanent restoration efforts as soon as funds become available through grants, capital giving campaigns, and other sources. The project, when complete, is expected to cost about six million dollars.

So far, the only funding the City of Tumwater has on hand for the tower’s restoration is $14,500, an amount earned from the Conservation Futures fund for trail easements that will be donated back to the city. Another $288,000 is coming through the city’s lodging tax funds.

“We’ve been doing our homework about a capital campaign, and working on a funding strategy to raise private and foundation dollars as a match for state grants such as the Heritage Capital Project Fund (HCPF). We did apply for a HCPF grant of $500,000 for the 2017-2019 biennium, but it requires a match of two to one to begin the first phase of restoration,” said Behrends Cerniway.

Above: Local naturalist Nancy Partlow of Tumwater holds barn owl pellets on a tour of the Old Brewhouse property and the tower in October 2014. Partlow documents and contributes many of her observations on a local blog, Bees, Birds & Butterflies, at and has known about the owls in the tower for many years.

“It's a perfect setup for them, protected, but with open and easy access to prey. Their nests are simply scraped together regurgitated owl pellets, which are the fur and bones left over after the rest of its prey has been digested. Nature's recycling at work, but also an interesting way for owls to raise young, on the remains of their victims,” says Partlow. 

For more interior and exterior pictures and information about the Old Brewhouse, Tumwater, the planned action for the historic property, George Heidgerken, Falls Development LLC, stop work orders, groundwatering monitoring, and other issues related to the property, go to Little Hollywood, and type key words into the search engine.

For the benefits of owls in Washington and providing for them, go here:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a page on installing barn owl nest boxes: