In the early 1900s in Seattle, apartments were built along trolley routes to close-in neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill. Wedgwood was a remote neighborhood which didn’t begin to form an identity until the 1940s and was never served by a streetcar system. Wedgwood had no apartment buildings and was known as a semi-rural area of single-family homes where most people drove cars to work.
Albert Balch started building his original Wedgwood houses in the early 1940s but the development grew slowly due to wartime restrictions on materials. Once World War Two ended in 1945, there still was a struggle to get sufficient building supplies for new houses, but the post-war construction boom had begun.
After the war, floods of returning servicemen wanted to get married, have their own homes and start families. The Wedgwood neighborhood became synonymous with family living as the small but well-built Wedgwood houses beckoned to young married couples.
The US Government funds housing after World War Two
Some World War Two veterans were fortunate enough to be able to buy a house, but other returning servicemen would have to live in apartments while they restarted their lives with post-war education and employment. For that reason federal legislation went into effect in February 1946 so that the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) would loan money to build rental units.
In 1947 one of the biggest new rental construction projects proposed for Seattle was the Oneida Gardens Apartments in Wedgwood with 110 units, advertised as housing for returning war veterans. “Oneida Gardens” was the original plat name on those blocks. We can guess that the plat name was chosen because Gladys, the wife of plat namer Charles Baker, was from Oneida, NY.
The Oneida Gardens apartment project was designed by Jesse M. Warren, a prolific architect, contractor and realtor who was active throughout northeast Seattle. He became particularly known as a member of the Commercial Club of Wallingford, promoting development along NE 45th Street. He gained experience with architectural projects by working in several different firms in Seattle, particularly that of Gardner J. Gwinn in apartment building design. (See: Shaping Seattle Architecture, edited by Jeffrey Karl Ochsner, 2014.)
The Oneida Gardens apartment complex was built between NE 75th to 77th Streets, 37th to 39th Avenues NE, which required application for a “street vacation” to close what would have been 38th Ave NE.
The apartments are now known as WedgEwood Estates. The original buildings, completed in November of 1948, were called fourplexes because each building had two units upstairs and two down. From the time that Oneida Gardens first opened, so many Navy families lived in the building that many people thought that the apartments belonged to the Navy, but the complex was always privately owned.
In the early 1980s three-story wood-frame buildings were added in-between the original brick-faced fourplexes. At about this time the name of the complex was changed from Oneida Gardens to Wedgewood Estates. The name change may have been chosen because of a change of ownership of the complex, or because of an effort to refresh the image of the apartments with the new buildings.
There is now a total of 204 apartments in the Wedgewood Estates. In July 2001 the complex was purchased by Seattle Housing Authority. Some of the apartments are subsidized and some are offered at market rate.
The 1947 zoning controversy
In 1947 the real estate firm of Carroll, Hillman & Hedlund obtained FHA financing to build the Oneida Gardens Apartments, but before they could start, they had to petition the Seattle City Planning Commission to change the zoning of the site from single-family to multi-family. The battle was enjoined when the Eastwood Community Club, led by decorated war hero Fred Kane, vigorously opposed the apartment project. Despite being war veterans themselves, Kane and others in the community club did not want an apartment building near their houses as they contended that it would lower property values. Eastwood’s opposition was finally defeated on August 25, 1947, when Seattle City Council voted 6-to-1 to reject Eastwood’s petition to leave the zoning single-family-only.
Over the months of construction of the Oneida Gardens Apartments, the Eastwood Community Club continued to complain about whether the project was following the design as originally given. Finally, however, after people began to move into the apartments in November 1948, the community club began to adjust to the new neighbors. Many of the new residents were veterans and some were still on active duty, especially those attached to Sand Point Naval Air Station. For that reason some people thought that the Navy owned Oneida Gardens, but it was privately operated by Oneida Gardens, Inc. real estate managers. When Oneida Gardens opened in 1948, rent was advertised as $92 per month for a two-bedroom unit and $110 for three-bedroom.
Oneida Garden residents become part of the community
In June 1949 the Eastwood Community Club, in cooperation with Boy Scouts, conducted a neighborhood-wide campaign to sell house flags to be displayed on the Fourth of July. The proceeds from flag sales were to be used to purchase new Scout uniforms, and boys from the apartment complex participated.
At Christmastime in 1949 Oneida Gardens Apartments’ 110 units were fully occupied with a total of 140 children living in the complex. Eastwood Community Club helped arrange for a live tree, a twenty-foot Lawson cypress, to be planted at Oneida Gardens so that the children could participate in the city-wide competition of outdoor lighting and decoration at Christmas. The Christmas contest was conducted by the Seattle Times and the rules were that a live, outdoor tree was to be decorated. Being new at that time, the grounds of Oneida Gardens had no large trees so a local nurseryman, Vic Mix, helped with the planting.
A new era: the Jasper Apartment building in Wedgwood
In 2007 an old grocery store building at 8606 35th Ave NE in Wedgwood was to be torn down and a condo building built in its place. The neighbors of the project were alarmed by the large size of the proposed building — four stories tall. It would be the first building of this height in the Wedgwood commercial district along 35th Ave NE.
A long struggle ensued between the developer and a Wedgwood community activist group which sought to gain modifications to the building, such as set-backs so that the building would not loom over neighboring houses. The condo project stalled during the economic downturn of 2008, and this gained time for Wedgwood activists to learn about City of Seattle zoning regulations. Activists had not been aware that the four-story zoning of the project was legal.
Eventually the “condo project” was bought by a different developer who used the same floor plans but made the building into apartments, not condos. After unsuccessful negotiations between the community and the developer over the height, bulk and scale of the project, the Jasper apartment building at 8606 35th Ave NE was completed and ready for occupancy in July 2012. It was the first new, large apartment complex to be built in Wedgwood in more than sixty years, since the opening of Oneida Gardens (Wedgewood Estates.)
There are some similarities of economic conditions between the Oneida Gardens era and today. Now the US economy is in a time when many people cannot afford to buy houses, and a whole generation of young people, including veterans of recent wars, is struggling with getting established and finding employment. A high percentage of young adults in Seattle are living in apartments while getting established with their careers and deciding where they want to live.
Just as the Wedgwood neighborhood eventually adjusted to the presence of Oneida Gardens and began including the apartment building residents in community activities, Wedgwood will go through the process of getting used to the Jasper. While adjustment to change is always difficult, as people move into the Jasper, Wedgwood will find that the new apartment dwellers will become “Wedgwoodians” and will be an asset to the neighborhood.
Zoning — how does it affect the commercial district in Wedgwood?
The Jasper Apartments represents a critical turning point in the history of the Wedgwood business district because it is the first building to be four stories tall along the 35th Ave NE corridor, and it is the first building in Wedgwood to have live-work units which are like storefronts along the front sidewalk. What community activists learned during the struggle over the Jasper building, was applied to a new initiative for neighborhood planning called the Future of 35th Ave NE.
Today, Wedgwood neighborhood activists are still advocating for the City of Seattle to adjust the zoning in Wedgwood’s commercial corridor along 35th Ave NE. What is wanted is zoning to bring in storefront buildings to enhance the business district. But over time since Wedgwood activists began asking City Council to help in zoning issues, more than five years have gone by without action. Since then, other buildings have been torn down and replaced by townhouses, which is not what the neighborhood wants in the commercial district.