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Originally published Thursday, May 27, 2010 at 9:42 PM

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National register house in Bellevue lies within path of light rail

The Winters House is Bellevue's only building on the National Register of Historic Places, and it also is in the path of the current proposed light-rail route. Sound Transit engineers are working on a solution for squeezing two light-rail trains between the road and the house.

Seattle Times Eastside reporter

Only 41 feet of landscaping and sidewalk separates the historic, pale pink stucco Winters House from the steady drone of traffic on Bellevue Way Southeast.

It's a 41-foot stretch that is testing the creativity of engineers at Sound Transit as they work out a way to squeeze two railroad tracks for two light-rail trains between the road and the house.

The 1920s-era house is Bellevue's only building on the National Register of Historic Places. Instead of moving it, which could affect the house's historic status, Sound Transit is exploring ways to build a shallow trench, with construction projected to come within 5 to 10 feet of the house's front door.

"It's definitely a tricky spot there," transit spokesman Bruce Gray said. "We're early in the process of figuring out how we can deal with it."

But the house and its location at the edge of Mercer Slough are key links to the city's agricultural history, said Mike Luis, president of the board of historical society the Eastside Heritage Center, which has offices in the house.

"The relationships with the Mercer Slough and the areas with the nursery part of the home is really pretty central to the house," Luis said. "It's a beautiful building and would be a beautiful building if it was moved somewhere else, but it's connected to the Slough. We really want to keep that connection."

Sound Transit's current idea is to put in a "retained cut," essentially a trench deep and wide enough to fit the trains and tracks. A "lid" with landscaping would cover the trains and make light rail invisible to anyone standing above.

The Sound Transit board voted in April to endorse a South Bellevue light-rail line that would run along the east side of Bellevue Way Southeast.

The board's unanimous vote on its preferred alternative is not final, but it gave the agency's engineers the go-ahead to work on details for the line, including how to get it past the Winters House

But the route, which has been controversial in Bellevue, is not final.

Sound Transit is expected to make its final decision on light-rail routes in Bellevue next year. Mayor Don Davidson, who supports an alternate route that does not run along Bellevue Way, said he was concerned about the impact of vibration on the historic house from passing trains.

"I just really worry that will cause damage," he said. "We'll either be repairing it all the time or it will not hold up."

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The Winters House was built around 1920 by the Winters family, who owned a nursery specializing in azaleas, daffodils and irises. The house was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.

Inside the stucco house, tilework with detailed etchings frames a fireplace. There is a Spanish feel to the light and airy space. Behind the house, a sinking, dilapidated greenhouse with a boiler still visible inside is tucked among the greenery, including overgrown lilac rhododendrons left over from the nursery days.

Since the beginning of the project, Sound Transit has been aware of restrictions related to the house, Gray said. When it comes to transportation projects that affect historic buildings, federal regulations require the agency to restrict impact as much as possible, including protecting the characteristics of the site.

The transit agency considered trying to move the house, Gray said, but realized the location was part of its character.

Luis said the society also is waiting to find out results from vibration testing and the long-term impact of trains rattling the house's foundation.

There is no perfect solution, Luis said, but the trench is the best one the society has seen that preserves the character of the site.

"In the suburbs," Luis said, "you don't have a lot of nice, historic places."

Nicole Tsong: 206-464-2150 or ntsong@seattletimes.com

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