Shearwater part two: the Wedgwood Community Club fights Shearwater in the 1950s

In the 1950s the very active Wedgwood District Community Club made its voice heard in issues such as the completion of streets, water and other utilities, business district development in Wedgwood, and trying to get the Seattle Parks Department to finish work on Dahl Field.   Since World War Two had ended in 1945, by the 1950s the Wedgwood community thought that military housing in the neighborhood had been there long enough.  After impatiently waiting ten years for the Navy housing in Wedgwood to be phased out and closed, in 1956 the community club took action.  Their goal was to get the Navy’s Shearwater Housing Project vacated and torn down.  This article is part two of the long-running story of the Shearwater fight in Wedgwood.

Wedgewood Estates

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.

One of the issues which caused the formation of the Eastwood Community Club in 1946 was the desire of homeowners not to have any apartments or other multiple-family zoned areas in Wedgwood.  The members of the Eastwood group were primarily concerned with the east side of 35th Ave NE, which had a lot of vacant land.  Eastwood wanted eastern Wedgwood to be single-family only and have the consistent, tidy look of the streets and houses built by the original Wedgwood developer Albert Balch on the west side of 35th Ave NE.

The Eastwood club unsuccessfully opposed the application of a development company to build the Oneida Gardens apartment complex, which was completed in 1949 and later renamed Wedgewood Estates.  That apartment complex, built on what had been vacant land, extended from NE 75th to 77th Streets, 37th to 39th Avenues NE.

The zoning fight begins

The next zoning fight of the combined Eastwood-Wedgwood District Community Club was in 1951, over applications to build duplexes on NE 77th Street and on 43rd Ave NE.

In 1951 the Wedgwood Community Club protested the building of this duplex at 4303 NE 77th Street.

In December 1951 the Wedgwood District Community Club appealed to the Seattle City Planning Commission to deny applications for the construction of duplexes at 7518 43rd Ave NE and 4303 NE 77th Street.  The three-man committee of the City Planning Commission was headed by architect Clyde Grainger.  Grainger certainly was familiar with Wedgwood as he, along with architect Harlan Thomas, had designed Albert Balch’s original Wedgwood-development houses in 1941.

Clyde Grainger, architect of View Ridge and Wedgwood

In 1941 Clyde Grainger built his own house in View Ridge at 6546 52nd Ave NE, two blocks east of developer Albert Balch’s home at 6850 50th Ave NE.  By the late 1940s  architect Harlan Thomas had retired, but Clyde Grainger still worked at their architectural office and Grainger continued to contribute to the development of Wedgwood.  In the period of 1948 to 1951 Grainger’s architectural firm, which included Harlan Thomas’ son Donald Thomas, designed Balch’s complex of medical-dental office buildings from 8014 to 8050 35th Ave NE.

Shearwater auction map of 1965

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 blacked-out sections were not owned by the Navy and were not part of the auction.

Ultimately the Seattle City Planning Commission approved the duplexes, and by the end of the 1950s there was a row of four brick duplexes in the 7500 block of 43rd Ave NE.  But the new (combined) Wedgwood Community Club continued to fight to keep Wedgwood an area of single-family housing, and what they learned from the duplex application was that they needed to change the zoning on the east side of 35th Ave NE in the area around Shearwater.  The blocks around Shearwater which included 43rd Ave NE between NE 75th and 77th Streets, was zoned “multiple.”  That was the same reason why the City Planning Commission had approved the Oneida Gardens apartment building between NE 75th to 77th Streets, and the duplexes on NE 77th Street and 43rd Ave NE.

In the years since the hastily-built wood frame Shearwater emergency housing had been set up in 1945, little maintenance had been given to the Shearwater buildings.  The Shearwater housing, built by Seattle Housing Authority, was transferred to Navy ownership and after ten years’ time the units became shabby.

In the late 1950s some of the Shearwater units were vacant as the number of military families declined or the families were able to find other places to live.  A play area had been set aside for Navy children on the present site of Decatur School, nearest to 40th Ave NE and NE 77th Street.   But the Navy did no other development or improvement on or around the Shearwater site, which included housing on some other streets near Decatur School.  The streets around Shearwater were unpaved and there were no sidewalks.  Nearby homeowners were irked because the Shearwater area was not being kept up and they felt that the conditions were detrimental to the appearance of Wedgwood.

The key issue:  zoning of the neighborhood

In December 1956 the Wedgwood District Community Club appointed a subcommittee to work on the Shearwater issue, and their strategy was to get the zoning changed to single-family-only.  For the January 1957 community club meeting, Seattle City Councilman Clarence F. Massart, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, was invited to speak on the zoning proposals which City Council was working on.

It had taken until 1954 for all of Wedgwood to come into the city limits of Seattle, with the north city line finally set at NE 145th Street.  With city boundaries in place, City Council worked on an overall zoning map and zoning ordinances for the entire city.  The Planning Commission sent its recommendations to Councilman Massart, and his Public Safety Committee’s review was the last step before a proposal on zoning was to be sent for a vote at City Council.  Wedgwood would be affected in how the site of the Navy’s Shearwater housing would be zoned.  Would it be zoned for future multiple-dwelling units such as apartments and duplexes, or zoned for single-family houses only?

Key role of City Councilman Clarence F. Massart

City Councilman Clarence F. Massart (at right) with Mayor Gordon Clinton and celebrants, ribbon-cutting for Ballard Bridge Overpass, December 12, 1958. Photo #60284 courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives.

City Councilman Clarence F. Massart was a “Seattle success story” as he had come from a farm background and arrived as a young man in Seattle, ready to make his fortune.  He became successful in business and later in political office.  Massart grew up as one of fourteen children on a Wisconsin dairy farm.  He served in the First World War and in 1920, at age 22, he came out West with some of his brothers.  For many years Massart owned a plumbing and heating company in Wallingford, where he was active with the District Commercial Club (like a chamber of commerce) and with the Associated Clubs of North Seattle.  He was known for his ability to solve problems and get things done, and this was what got him elected to Seattle City Council in 1950.  During his seventeen years as a councilmember Mr. Massart enacted a series of building-code modernizations and city-wide zoning changes.

City Councilman Massart lived in Hawthorne Hills.   His daughter, Mary Lou McNulty, lived in Wedgwood at 8221 42nd Ave NE just north of the present site of Decatur Elementary School.   (In the 1950s Decatur School had not yet been built and Shearwater housing was still on the site.)   Mrs. McNulty was active in Wedgwood neighborhood concerns and she often read prepared statements from her father when he could not attend Wedgwood Community Club meetings himself.   The community club’s recruitment of Councilmember Massart into the concerns about Shearwater was a strategic success, because he lived in northeast Seattle and was familiar with the Shearwater situation, and he could influence how Seattle’s new zoning regulations would be written.

A perceived victory: single-family zoning

In the summer of 1957 Seattle City Council voted to make the Shearwater housing area in Wedgwood a single-family zone.  This meant that when the Navy housing was vacated, it could only be replaced with houses, not apartments.  The 1957 victory in zoning regulations came after the community club had lost the fight to prevent the Oneida Gardens (Wedgewood Estates) apartments from being built in 1948-49, and their 1951 protest of duplexes on 43rd Ave NE.  After the 1957 zoning decision the community club still hoped that in future the rest of Wedgwood would be a neighborhood of single-family housing only, including the east side of 35th Ave NE where most of their zoning concerns were focused.

As of the September 1957 edition of the community club newspaper, it was thought that the Shearwater Navy housing would soon be torn down. Note the article at left, that the enrollment at Wedgwood School had hit a new high of 919 students. Wedgwood School first opened in 1953 with portable classrooms only. Decatur School opened in 1961.

Headlines of the August and September 1957 editions of the Wedgwood Echo, the community club newspaper, triumphantly proclaimed victory.  Using an idealized Balch house as the masthead on the Wedgwood Echo, the lead articles were written on the presumption that Shearwater would soon be torn down and would be replaced by single-family homes consistent with the rest of Wedgwood.  Victory was not immediate, however.

After two more years went by, in late 1959 some of the Shearwater property was given by the Navy for a much-needed elementary school, which, in 1961, became Decatur School at 7711 43rd Ave NE.  As of 1961 there was still some Shearwater housing on the same block as the Decatur School.  By 1966, with a planned addition to the Decatur School building and more playground space, the entire block from NE 77th to 80th Streets was cleared and belonged to the school, as it does today.

Even after the Decatur School block was completed in 1966, there were still some Shearwater barracks buildings on surrounding streets.  Even the name of the school had been selected in tribute to the Navy, since a large number of the Decatur schoolchildren were from Navy families still living in the barracks buildings, though some had moved into the nearby Oneida Gardens apartments.  So many Navy families lived at Oneida Gardens that many people thought the Navy owned the apartments, but they were owned by a private developer.

After the supposed zoning victory of 1957, it would take another nine years before the rest of the Shearwater housing in Wedgwood, on streets surrounding Decatur School, was finally gone.

To be continued in Part Three: Shearwater victories and setbacks in the 1960s.

About Wedgwood in Seattle History

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

One Response to Shearwater part two: the Wedgwood Community Club fights Shearwater in the 1950s

  1. Paul says:

    I love stories of community action – especially ones that happened in the summer I was born.

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