In the early 1970’s the USA suffered through an economic recession, made worse in 1973 when an energy crisis began because of a middle-East oil and gas embargo. In the USA gas prices skyrocketed and it affected air travel, as well, making it more expensive to fly. In the 1950’s and 60’s Seattle’s economy had been very dependent upon the employment levels at Boeing. In the 1970’s when demand for airplanes fell, Boeing cut employment levels by sixty percent. The economy of all of Seattle was impacted in this era called the “Boeing Bust.” There were many abandoned houses as people left Seattle to look for work elsewhere. Shearwater in Wedgwood, which was to have been a development of new housing, was abandoned, too. In 1970 the developer, George Apostol, walked away from the project and the holdings reverted to the bank.
Shearwater and the story of Decatur Elementary School
Decatur Elementary School at 7711 43rd Ave NE first opened in 1961 and the site was later expanded. Decatur was impacted by the population booms and busts which affected all of Seattle generally, and Decatur also suffered from neighborhood negative attitudes toward the Navy housing which surrounded the school. Some people in Wedgwood did not want their children to associate with “Navy brats” so they preferred to keep their children at Wedgwood or View Ridge Elementary Schools. In the summer of 1965 after all of the Navy families finally vacated the Shearwater housing which surrounded Decatur, attendance levels fell at the school. This triggered an unfortunate clause in the school district’s agreement with the Navy, which required that attendance at the school remain at a certain level, or else the Navy would reclaim the property. Chiding editorials appeared in local newspapers, “This is what you get when you deal with the federal government.”
The Seattle School District scrambled to increase attendance at Decatur. Just before the school year began in September 1965, it was announced that all students living in Wedgwood on the east side of 35th Ave NE would automatically be transferred to Decatur. This did not go over very well with Wedgwood parents. In those days all children in Wedgwood walked to school, and parents did not want their children walking past the vacant, vandalized, boarded-up barracks buildings on blocks surrounding Decatur.
Wedgwood parents raised a storm of protest over the attempted forced-transfer of students to Decatur School, and the school district backed down. The school district had failed to do advance public relations work to notify neighborhood residents and provide incentives for transferring their children to Decatur. The school district then went ahead with the planned expansion of the Decatur building and worked on other plans to attract more students. Emergency measures, such as bringing in special education students and even a high-school-diploma completion program for adults, were enough to increase the total Decatur School enrollment so that it was no longer in violation of its agreement with the Navy.
In 1967 Mr. Gerald Newton was brought in as Decatur’s third principal in its tumultuous history since first opening in 1961. At age 50 and as an experienced teacher and principal, Mr. Newton knew how to mend fences with local parents. One of the first things Mr. Newton did was create an accelerated-education program for gifted students. Since most parents consider their children to be gifted, it didn’t take long until people, even from outside Wedgwood, were clamoring to send their children to Decatur. Mr. Newton spent ten happy years at Decatur. He was then asked to become principal at John Rogers Elementary School in Meadowbrook, where he served for five years until his retirement.
Mr. Newton’s innovative efforts are one of the reasons why Decatur became a “program school” which, even today, does not limit enrollment only to nearby residents. In 1989 Decatur became the home of a program called Alternative Education School #2, which had to move out of its University Heights building. AE#2 focused on interactive learning and multicultural education. In the spring of 2008 a new program name was chosen, “Thornton Creek School at Decatur.” The school community, including parents, students and alumni, settled on this name to more clearly emphasize the mission of the school and its connection with the community. Thornton Creek is the name of the large watershed system of northeast Seattle, and TC School has a program emphasis on environmentalism, including studying the stream’s plants and animals and doing service projects such as creek clean-up. With its playground and athletic fields which are heavily used by the community, TC School is a neighborhood hub and gathering place for Wedgwoodians who live on the east side of 35th Avenue NE.
The end of the Wedgwood Community Club
By 1970 Wedgwood Community Club volunteers were exhausted from the twenty-year struggle to get rid of the Navy’s Shearwater housing, followed by the five-year battle with developer George Apostol over what kind of new houses he would build on the Shearwater sites. During the unpleasant fighting over Shearwater, attendance at community club functions fell and participation declined. By mid-1969 there was not enough money to continue producing the monthly Wedgwood Echo newsletter. Wedgwood news was absorbed into the Lake City Star, a local paper which was sometimes called “the shopping news” because it contained the weekly ads from grocery stores.
The last record of a Wedgwood Community Club meeting was in May 1971. At the meeting, attendees were updated on what was happening with the Shearwater Project, which was then wending its way through the court system. There was nothing for the community club to do but wait for the case to be settled. By the end of 1971, no one was contributing any Wedgwood news items to the Lake City Star and there were no further signs of any activities of a Wedgwood Community Club. It is my belief that in addition to factors such as the economic crisis of the Boeing Bust years, the Wedgwood Community Club was killed by the decades-long, vicious wrangling of the Shearwater fight. In the early days of the community club, serious issues had been addressed but there were also activities for children, family picnics and interesting speakers at the meetings. By 1970 the meetings were not enjoyable. Only lawyers could understand what was going on at the community club because the talk was all of court fights and appeals to City Council.
From 1971 to 1986 people in Wedgwood participated in PTA, churches and service groups such as Scouts, but there was no community club or other activist organization concerned with neighborhood issues. In 1986 Frank and Dorothy Brancato became alarmed when they saw trees being cut down and lots cleared for the building of “skinny houses” in Wedgwood on subdivided lots. The Brancatos found no advocacy group for land use issues, including preservation of Wedgwood’s renowned tree canopy. The Brancatos visited and observed new community councils in nearby neighborhoods such as Maple Leaf and organized a community council for Wedgwood. The Wedgwood Community Council continues today on the foundation of the original bylaws of 1986 with only slight modifications. Community councils throughout the city are volunteer organizations under the umbrella of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods.
Properties turned over to the bank
The last court fight over the Shearwater properties in Wedgwood was a dispute between the two original investors, George Apostol and Verda Peters. As of December 23, 1970, the Shearwater Corporation partnership was dissolved and the assets were turned over to the bank. Mrs. Peters was able to retain ownership of some portions of Shearwater property but development took several years, including an application to replat the lots into larger sizes. The last mention of Shearwater in the Seattle Daily Times was on September 21, 1975. The Times Open House for that day featured 7550 40th Ave NE as part of a new development called Sand Point Summit, a former Shearwater section. The Times chose it for their Open House feature because it was one of very few houses built that year within the city limits. The article stated that the features of 7550 40th Ave NE were comparable to the homes being built in Seattle’s suburbs.
Today the former Shearwater sites near Decatur Elementary School all have houses built in the period 1975 to 1984 in Northwest Modern styles, including split-level floor plans with two-car attached garages. Only if a person looks carefully will they notice that on some streets, such as on 43rd Ave NE in the block between NE 75th to 77th, there are older houses on one side, and on the other side are houses all built in 1979, where the former Shearwater sites were eventually redeveloped. On 43rd Avenue NE between NE 77th and NE 80th Streets directly across from the front door of Decatur School, the southern half of the block has older homes and the northern half, former site of some of the Navy’s Shearwater buildings, has houses built in the 1980’s. It took until 1984, more than eighteen years after the Shearwater Navy properties were auctioned, for all the former barracks sites to be filled with new homes.
The empty lots and the little rental houses
By 1966 Decatur Elementary School looked approximately as it does now, with an expanded school building, playground and athletic fields taking up the entire ten-acre site between NE 77th to 80th Streets, 40th to 43rd Avenues NE. On surrounding streets there were a number of empty lots. These had been the former sites of the Navy housing, cleared in March 1966 to make way for George Apostol’s townhouse development which was never built. As of 1970 some of the lots were still vacant and some had tiny rental houses (about 600 square feet each) which George Apostol had built in 1968. At that time, he had pressured the Wedgwood Community Club by threatening to build 64 of the little houses, unless the WCC helped him with his rezoning application (See Shearwater Part Four on this blog.) The most visible site of the rental houses was along the west side of 40th Ave NE from NE 77th to 80th Streets, directly across from Decatur School’s playfields. Incongruously, the palatial home which George Apostol had built for his own family was at 7701 40th Ave NE, next to a row of the tiny rental units along 40th Ave NE.
When George Apostol walked away from involvement in the Shearwater Project in 1970, there were at least twelve of the 600-square-foot rental houses which he had built to antagonize the Wedgwood Community Club. Only two of the houses were finished and the rest were in various stages of partial completion. The houses were abandoned and were an eyesore, causing problems for adjacent homeowners around 40th Ave NE near Decatur School.
Finally in December 1971 the National Bank of Commerce which was trustee for the property, ordered that the little houses should be removed. Incredibly, another developer, C. Robert Suess of Suess Builders, bought the little houses, moved them and combined the units to create the Wedgewood Cottage Apartments in January 1972. The address of the Wedgewood Cottage Apartments is 7318 35th Ave NE, behind the Zaw Pizza building (formerly the Domino’s Pizza building at 7320 35th Ave NE.) The apartments can also be viewed from the east, on NE 73rd Place off of 38th Ave NE, where the structures look like birdhouses clinging to the hillside. These houses-turned-apartments are the last vestiges of the long-running Shearwater controversy, and represent the end of the Shearwater era in Wedgwood.
In 2007 I was privileged to interview Mr. Gerald Newton, former principal of Decatur School, and he shared happy memories of his time there. Mr. Newton was very proud of the work he did to create a high-standard, challenging learning environment for his students. Mr. Newton died in March 2012 at age 92.
In 2007 I interviewed Faye Apostol, widow of George Apostol; she died in 2008.
A Seattle Daily Times article of January 16, 1972, page 28, told of the purchase of the “little houses” by developer C. Robert Suess and his plan to combine the structures into an apartment building at 7318 35th Ave NE.
At the Microfilm Library of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD), the property records for 7318 35th Ave NE include a map of where the “little house” structures came from, mostly from along 40th Ave NE across the street from the playfields of Decatur School.
Property info for the Wedgewood Cottage Apartments is available on-line at the King County Parcel Viewer. In searching for it you must enter the address 7320 35th Ave NE, which is the pizza building (formerly Domino’s) or search by entering Parcel Number 7974200041. The apartments at 7318, the pizza building at 7320, and the duplex at 7324 which is wedged in next to Safeway, are all on one parcel and were built by C. Robert Suess. Mr. Seuss later moved to Beaverton, Oregon, and was involved in a long-running lawsuit about zoning for property he owned in Beaverton which he wanted to have zoned multiple-family rather than single family.