Shearwater part one: Navy housing in Wedgwood in the 1940s

"Stephen Decatur" is written beside the front entrance of Decatur School, but partially obscured by shrubbery.

“Stephen Decatur” is written beside the front entrance of Decatur School, but partially obscured by shrubbery.

Decatur Elementary School at 7711 43rd Ave NE in Wedgwood is on the site of what was Navy housing from 1945 to 1966.  The first part of the school building was completed in 1961.  With a later addition to the building and expansions of the playground, by 1966 the Decatur School occupied its present entire ten-acre site from 40th to 43rd Avenues NE, NE 77th to 80th Streets.  One wood-frame building left over from the Navy era is on NE 77th Street and is used by a preschool.  In addition to the Decatur School site, there was Navy housing on some, but not all, surrounding streets near NE 77th Street and 40th Ave NE.  See the map at the end of this blog article for the location of the Shearwater housing on the present school site and on nearby streets.

This is the first in a series of five articles about the Shearwater Navy housing and what happened to it.  Another article on this blog is about the Decatur School and the new building on the same site, the Thornton Creek School

In the years following the end of World War Two in 1945 the military population in Seattle swelled enormously as men and women in the service returned from overseas.  For the first time in US history, the end of this war did not mean that military units dissolved and everyone went home.  Because of the ongoing threat of nuclear war, the USA resolved to maintain a large peacetime fighting force at the ready, and the military wanted to retain those who had received a high degree of technical training of various kinds, including pilots.    For this reason some people from all branches of the military elected to continue serving rather than leaving the military after the close of World War Two.  The post-war housing shortage for servicemen had a direct impact upon the Wedgwood neighborhood as a large number of Navy personnel were attached to the Sand Point Naval Air Station and would continue to serve there after the war.

The Wedgewood Estates Apartments is one of the few businesses in the neighborhood which still uses the extra “e” in the name. The rental office is at 3716 NE 75th Street, in one of the original brick fourplexes built in 1949.

As of 1945 there were no apartment buildings in the Wedgwood neighborhood, so there was no place for servicemen and families to find short-term housing.  The pressure of post-war population was one of the reasons for building the Oneida Gardens Apartments at 3716 NE 75th Street, now called Wedgewood Estates.

Oneida Gardens received post-war construction project loans from the federal government but the apartment building was privately owned and developed.  From the time of its opening in 1949 so many Navy families lived in Oneida Gardens that many people thought that the Navy owned the complex.

In the 1980s new, three-story buildings were built between the original brick fourplexes, and the name was changed to Wedgewood Estates.  The complex was purchased by Seattle Housing Authority in the year 2001.  There are both market-rate and subsidized apartments within Wedgewood Estates.

The shearwater is an ocean-going bird, so Shearwater was chosen as an appropriate name for the Navy-occupied housing in Wedgwood.

The Navy did not want to build housing off-site of military bases, so they relied upon other means of finding housing.  In addition to the present site of Decatur Elementary School, the 315 units of Navy housing in Wedgwood were on parts of several blocks around 40th Ave NE and NE 77th Street.  The housing project was named for an ocean-going bird, the shearwater.

The Shearwater housing had been built by the Seattle Housing Authority as an emergency measure in 1945-46, and the buildings were  turned over to the Navy to operate in 1947.  (At the same time, Magnolia Manor was turned over to the Army for the use of personnel stationed at Fort Lawton, present site of Discovery Park.)  The Shearwater buildings in Wedgwood were long, rectangular wooden structures divided into two or more apartment units.  The buildings had no foundations.  Each building was  supported by a wooden platform with steps up to each unit.

Wedgwood school portables 1953

Wedgwood School at 2720 NE 85th Street opened in 1953 with all-portable classrooms while the permanent building was under construction.

Perhaps the Shearwater housing was first intended primarily for civilian workers at Sand Point Naval Air Station or servicemen returning from the war, but it wasn’t long until the housing was mostly occupied by military families with young children.  The post-war population soared.  The nearest school, View Ridge Elementary at 7047 50th Ave NE, did not yet have a building and was operating with only portable classrooms.  By September of 1946 View Ridge Elementary had twelve portables for grades K-6.  After the View Ridge school building was constructed in 1948, it still was not adequate.  In 1950 the school’s enrollment was 765 students, with a number of portable classrooms on-site.

In 1950 the Decatur, Sand Point and Wedgwood elementary schools did not yet exist, so after View Ridge was full, the only other solution was to bus students to the next nearest school, Bryant Elementary at 3311 NE 60th Street.  In the early 1950s the Seattle School District’s enrollment was second only to Los Angeles in the western states and there were 531 portable classrooms being used throughout Seattle.  There were only three elementary schools in northeast Seattle:  Bryant, Laurelhurst and View Ridge, and all had exceeded capacity because of the post-war Baby Boom of child population.  (As of 1950 the city limit was at NE 85th Street.  Schools north of that, such as Lake City Elementary, were in the Shoreline School District.  They would not have been willing to take any Seattle schoolchildren, as Shoreline was also over-capacity.)

Photographer Werner Lenggenhager took this view of Wedgwood houses on NE 84th Street, looking northward, in 1953.

Werner Lenggenhager took this photo of Wedgwood houses on NE 84th Street, looking northward, in 1953.

New homeowners in Wedgwood in the post-World-War-Two period of the 1940s considered Wedgwood to be an area of single-family housing only.  Developer Albert Balch had built the first Wedgwood development on a forty-acre site from NE 80th to 85th Streets, 30th to 35th Avenues NE, completed in 1945.   Because Balch had obtained and developed the entire tract, the original Wedgwood was like a planned housing estate with unified house styles and with all streets, sidewalks and lighting put in.  Post-war families were very attracted to the tidy, white-picket-fence character of the original Wedgwood, and it became the measuring standard for new housing on nearby streets.

On the east side of 35th Ave NE Balch also developed some large sites such as the Wedgwood Park plats.  Homeowners on the eastern side of Wedgwood over toward 40th Ave NE wanted the consistent, Balch-style Wedgwood look for their streets and houses.   They did not want multiple-family housing such as apartments, duplexes, or Navy barracks-style buildings, as they felt it detracted from the look of the neighborhood and might even devalue their property which was nearby.  These concerns were the reason why an Eastwood Community Club was organized in 1946 by Fred Kane.

The Eastwood Community Club had two goals:  to get rid of the Navy buildings and to change the zoning of the Shearwater housing area from multiple to single-family-only.   An additional concern was to prevent 40th Ave NE from being fully developed as an arterial where commercial buildings might potentially go in.  The only way to prevent this would be to make the zoning single-family-residential-only.  The Eastwood Community Club began these efforts in 1946 and soon merged with other neighborhood activists to form the Wedgwood District Community Club.

The original Shearwater office building (not a residence) has been placed on a permanent foundation and is still in use on the site of Decatur Elementary School.

Little did Wedgwood neighborhood activists know, in 1946, that it would take another twenty years before all the Shearwater buildings would finally be torn down.  Some of the factors which delayed the process were the continued post-war housing shortage and the high number of military personnel attached to Sand Point Naval Air Station.

In 1947 the Cold War began, defined as a time of political and military tension based in part on fear of the Soviet Union’s possible aggressive expansion of Communism.  Fear of another possible war caused the USA to keep a large number of military on duty instead of reducing active forces at the close of World War Two.  From 1950 to 1953 the Korean War caused the USA’s west coast military bases such as Sand Point Naval Air Station to increase population once again.  During all that time in the 1950s, Shearwater in Wedgwood with its 315 housing units was still occupied by Navy families.

Jesse Epstein in 1980.  Photo courtesy of Seattle Housing Authority.

Jesse Epstein in 1980. Photo courtesy of Seattle Housing Authority.

Just south of Wedgwood, the View Ridge neighborhood had an emergency housing development called Cedarvale, centered around NE 43rd Street between NE 73rd to 75th Streets.  Cedarvale was ordered built in 1943 by Jesse Epstein, executive director of the Seattle Housing Authority.  His name today is best remembered for his work on the Yesler Terrace Housing Development.  Cedarvale was intended to provide housing for civilian workers at the Sand Point Naval Air Station.  Most of Cedarvale was small individual houses, not barracks-style like Shearwater.  But Cedarvale, with its 200 units, was never completely full, and it was never given over to the Navy to manage.

By 1952 Albert Balch, developer of View Ridge and Wedgwood, had acquired the Cedarvale property.  His plan was to sell the existing houses to be moved to other sites so that he could build new, larger homes.  It took quite a bit of time, more than two years, for the Cedarvale site to be cleared by selling the individual housing units and having them moved.  A “package deal” was offered by a contractor, to include moving a purchased Cedarvale house to a buyer’s empty lot where the house would be placed.  Today the former Cedarvale site on NE 73rd to 75th Streets, located just north of View Ridge Park and Playground, has 1950s houses built by Balch.

In contrast to Cedarvale in View Ridge, the Shearwater housing in Wedgwood was not concentrated in one area, but was scattered over several blocks.  The 1965 auction map (below) numbered the Shearwater sites as Parcels 1 through 5.  The “school” block is today the site of the Thornton Creek School, 7712 40th Ave NE, which opened in September 2016.

The original Decatur School building on the site, facing 43rd Ave NE, was built in two phases, 1961 and 1966.  The blacked-out sections on the auction map were not part of Shearwater and were not owned by the Navy; these were areas of private homes.  Continued in part two of the Shearwater story:  In the 1950s the Wedgwood Community Club got serious about getting rid of Shearwater.

When the Shearwater site was auctioned in 1965, the parcels for sale were numbered 1 through 5.  The “school” site is Decatur Elementary School.  The other blacked-out sections were not owned by the Navy and were not part of the auction.

About Wedgwood in Seattle History

Valarie is a volunteer history writer for neighborhood history in Seattle, Washington.
This entry was posted in apartments, Balch, community club (old), Controversies, School histories, Shearwater and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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