On December 16, 1965, all the Shearwater land parcels on streets near Decatur School were sold at a government-property auction, with the stipulation that the buyer must remove the old barracks buildings within ninety days of the sale.
The Wedgwood Community Club believed that the auction would be the end of the Shearwater story, and that the buyer/developer would fill the blocks with nice homes in keeping with house styles in Wedgwood. But as of 1966 a new saga of Shearwater began: the community club went to war with the developer, George N. Apostol, over the zoning of the area and his building plans.
A review of the Shearwater story
In late 1945 barracks-style wood-frame buildings were hastily constructed by the Seattle Housing Authority as emergency housing on the present site of Decatur Elementary School, 7711 43rd Ave NE, and on some nearby streets in Wedgwood. As of April 1948 the 315 units of housing were turned over to the Navy exclusively for occupancy by personnel assigned to Sand Point Naval Air Station.
In 1951 the Wedgwood District Community Club first began their efforts to get the unsightly, deteriorating buildings vacated and torn down. After ten years a partial victory was achieved when some of the Shearwater property was given for the new school, Decatur Elementary School, which opened in 1961. About five years later the Navy gave additional land which was used to expand the school and playground into its present full block.
In December 1965 all the remaining Shearwater buildings on the Decatur School block were torn down for the school’s expansion, completed in 1966. On surrounding streets, most Navy families had vacated the Shearwater housing by July 1965 but the empty, boarded-up buildings still stood. It took Congressional action sponsored by Washington State’s powerful US Senators Jackson and Magnuson to get the Navy to close Shearwater, and to prod the government’s General Services Administration to put Shearwater up for auction.
After the auction
Wedgwoodians must have breathed a collective sigh of relief on December 16, 1965, the day that the remaining Shearwater properties (outside of the school block) were sold at auction. Senator Magnuson had been successful in adding a condition of sale, that the buyer of Shearwater parcels must remove the old barracks-like structures within ninety days.
Wedgwoodians hoped for a quick end to Shearwater and it is likely that many hoped Albert Balch, original developer of Wedgwood, might be the winning bidder for the Shearwater property. It is not known who the other auction bidders were and whether Albert Balch was one of them. The winning bidder was a Wedgwood resident, George N. Apostol, who with a co-investor, Mrs. Verda V. Peters of North Hollywood, California, paid $368,000 for Shearwater. (Newspaper reference: “Shearwater Site Cleared for New Homes,” Seattle Times March 1, 1966, page 37.)
The five parcels of Shearwater property were not contiguous, but were scattered around on streets near Decatur School, and added up to a total of about 7.5 acres. On some blocks Shearwater housing took up one side of a street while the other side had previously-existing private homes. George Apostol himself lived on one of these streets.
On the east side of 43rd Ave NE where the Apostol family lived at 7540 43rd Ave NE, there were houses dating from 1910 to the 1940s. In that block between NE 75th to 77th Streets, the west side of 43rd Ave NE was a solid row of Shearwater barracks-style wood buildings. George Apostol, his wife Faye and their three daughters had lived on the east side of 43rd Ave NE since 1954, so they certainly were familiar with Shearwater.
George N. Apostol becomes the new developer of Shearwater
George N. Apostol’s family heritage was European and he enjoyed the cultural connections to the Old World. The Apostols continued to own an olive arbor in Greece which had been in the family for generations. George’s father Nicholas was a Greek immigrant to the USA and George’s mother Martha was American-born of French immigrant parents. George was born in the USA in 1918 and all his life he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about his Mediterranean coloring and his foreign-sounding name.
In 1916 George’s parents had moved from California to Seattle where Nicholas was a chef. George and his younger sister, Mary Elizabeth, grew up in Seattle and graduated from Queen Anne High School. George continued on to the University of Washington in Seattle where he met and married his wife Faye in 1940. George started law school at the UW but late in World War Two he was drafted; he served in the Navy in the Pacific.
Returning to the UW to finish law school after World War Two, George got into the first of what would become a life-long series of confrontations over injustice and ethnic prejudice. He got into conflict with the dean of the UW Law School over the issue of whether veterans ought to receive assistance to attend college. It seemed to George that the UW Law School was an “old boys network” where only the sons of moneyed, privileged families were welcome to attend. The Apostol family had been in the USA a long time and George himself was American-born, but at law school George was subjected to others’ “fear of foreigners” which was prevalent during the war years, because of his foreign-sounding name, his dark hair and olive skin coloring. After butting his head up against the law-school wall and unjustly receiving failing grades, George took a professor’s advice and transferred to Gonzaga in Spokane to finish his law degree.
George was a man of wide interests and restless energy, gifted at anything he wanted to try. Despite the fact that he was in law school, by the time he finished he had also taught himself carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work. He held memberships in seven trade unions by the time he finished law school.
George Apostol’s first job after law school was as a tax advisor for Boeing Aircraft in Seattle, but he didn’t like it there. He saw how things were with racial bias and institutionalized efforts to keep certain people out of the better-paying jobs. After three years, in 1951 George and Faye moved to Juneau, Alaska. The USA had enacted Economic Stabilization/price control measures, and George obtained a job with the Alaska Office of Price Stabilization. Once again, George butted heads with the powers-that-be, and he didn’t last long in Alaska. Returning to Seattle in 1954, George and Faye Apostol bought the house at 7540 43rd Ave NE, across the street from what was then one of the blocks of Shearwater Navy barracks.
Both before and after their time in Alaska, George and Faye worked with other members of University Congregational Church in Seattle to found an organization called Friends of Youth. The work expressed the Apostols’ social-justice concerns and their desire to help the underdogs in society. Today the organization, with office in Redmond, still works in programs for at-risk teens.
In 1954 George Apostol set up his own law office in downtown Seattle, and on the side he bought rental properties and fixed them up, honing the trade skills he had begun to develop during his law school years. The Apostols had about forty rental properties and there was always something to do, something to fix. Faye teamed up with her husband to suggest decorating ideas, and George enjoyed carrying out her suggestions in house layouts and paint schemes.
The Apostol family stands for social justice for their neighbors in Shearwater
There is no indication of whether George and Faye Apostol were ever involved with the Wedgwood Community Club. With their sensitivity to social injustice and racial prejudice, they may have been more sympathetic toward the occupants of the substandard Shearwater housing than some others in the Wedgwood neighborhood.
One of the Apostol’s across-the-street neighbors in Shearwater housing were Philippines natives Tiburcio and Consolacion “Connie” Mejia. The Mejia family had been in Ohio and took a transfer to to Seattle in 1956, seeking better health conditions. Tiburcio Mejia was a chief petty officer at Sand Point Naval Air Station. To help make ends meet, Connie worked as a neighborhood babysitter, and she later became The Popsicle Lady when she started a business selling Popsicles, Fudgsicles and Creamsicles.
The Apostols had an “inside joke” with the Mejia family because “Apostol” was a common surname in the Philippines. George had had the experience of being asked if he was Filipino, because of his dark coloring. The Apostols gave encouragement when Connie took action to try to buy the house next-door to theirs.
Connie Mejia had three strikes against her as a homebuyer: she was a Shearwater resident, a woman, and a woman of color. The house she wanted to buy was old (built in 1912), vacant and in rough shape, but it took a large cash deposit to convince the owner to sell to her. Connie had determination, and she did not tell her husband about her pursuit of the house purchase until she had succeeded in persuading the owner to sell. After the Mejia family moved into the house at 7536 43rd Ave NE, there was vandalism and even BB pellets shot through their house windows, by people who did not want non-white residents in the neighborhood.
George Apostol begins development plans for Shearwater
As the winning bidders at the auction of Shearwater property in December 1965, George and Faye Apostol must have been excited about the opportunity to clear away the dilapidated Shearwater structures and build some nice new homes. The name “shearwater,” an ocean-going bird, had originally been chosen for the Navy housing project. The Apostols owned a sailboat which they had named Shearwater, and with George a veteran of military service in the Navy, they decided to keep the name Shearwater Corporation for the new homes which they proposed to build.
Optimistically George and Faye started out with plans for the first new house in the development to be their own at 7701 40th Ave NE. They set off on a trip to Europe where they bought Italian marble flooring and other fine finishes for their new house.
George Apostol did keep the agreement to clear away the old Shearwater buildings in early 1966, within ninety days of the purchase at auction, but after that, something went wrong. Perhaps he and Mrs. Peters, his co-investor, had bid too high for the properties or perhaps changing economic conditions put more financial pressure on the project. From 1966 to 1969 a long series of court challenges, community meetings, and appeals to the City of Seattle ensued both from Mr. Apostol and from the Wedgwood Community Club over the zoning of the Shearwater project and the type of new housing to be built.
The zoning dispute
Mr. Apostol began a challenge to the zoning of the Shearwater sites and asked to have it changed from single-family back to multiple-family zoning, as it had been before 1957. The reason he gave for his request, was that a reasonable financial return could not be had by building single-family houses. In his first court challenge, Mr. Apostol prevailed on the basis of not having been notified in writing that the zoning had been changed to single-family. The court threw the zoning decision back to the Planning Commission of the City of Seattle for a review and another vote.
Early in 1968 George Apostol began to apply pressure on the Wedgwood Community Club to go along with and endorse his rezone application to the City of Seattle, so that he could build “luxury townhomes.”
The differences between a townhome and a duplex were difficult to understand. Apostol was trying to give the appearance of single-family buildings but with maximized occupancy so that essentially there would be two-story buildings of two to four dwelling units on each lot. This was how he planned to make the Shearwater development add-up financially and come out with a reasonable profit.
In order to step up the pressure on the community club, in March 1968 Apostol began to build tiny, 600-square-foot rental houses on his Shearwater sites. He claimed that he couldn’t wait any longer to start receiving income from the project and that he would only cease building the rental units if the Wedgwood Community Club would endorse his rezone proposal. (Newspaper reference: Seattle Times March 31, 1968, page 102. Photo of one of the “little houses” is on page 112.)
The little houses and the final decision on zoning
Mr. Apostol began with the most visible site, on the arterial 40th Ave NE between NE 77th to 80th Streets, on the west side directly across from Decatur Elementary School, and he built a row of the 600-square-foot rental houses. In that year, 1968, there was a community outcry about the ugly little houses that Apostol was building as rental units.
A Spring 1968 meeting was attended by 450 people of the Wedgwood, View Ridge and Sand Point neighborhoods to discuss the Shearwater situation. After discussion, the Wedgwood Community Club decided not to oppose the rental units directly, but to continue through the process of settling the zoning issue. The zoning was to come up for appeal to City Council as to whether the Shearwater sites would be zoned for single-family houses or if they would be returned to the multiple-zoning they’d had prior to 1957.
The contentious rezone application process dragged on into the summer of 1969. At a crowded joint hearing of the City of Seattle Planning Commission and the City Council Planning Committee on July 10, 1969, it was ruled that the zoning of the Shearwater sites should stay single-family to conform to the rest of the Wedgwood area. This was the end of the appeals process; George Apostol had no more recourse and could not build the townhouse development.
A storm of issues: the economic crisis of the Boeing Bust
In the background of the Shearwater story in 1968 to 1970 was the gathering storm of the economic crisis known as the Boeing Bust. In those years Seattle was a one-industry town, highly dependent upon the economic engine of large numbers of people who were employed at Boeing Aircraft Company. It was said that for every Boeing employee, four other Seattleites held jobs in industries which served the Boeing population, such as schools, housing, restaurants, medical care, etc. When Boeing employment levels began to fall, demand for other businesses and services fell accordingly, leading to high unemployment figures in Seattle and the failure of small businesses such as restaurants.
By 1970 Boeing’s employment levels had fallen by sixty percent, causing severe economic shock in Seattle. The census of 1970 showed that the population of Seattle was smaller than it had been in 1960. There were a lot of abandoned houses as people left Seattle to find work elsewhere.
George Apostol’s project was affected by the economic slump, too, so that he could no longer expect to recoup his costs on Shearwater. He had bought the land “at the top of the market,” paid for removal of all the old buildings and engaged in a lengthy process of court challenges and rezoning appeals. The Apostols had not derived any income from the project during the four years of struggle and controversy.
The Apostols abandon the project
George’s wife, Faye, told him she couldn’t stand it anymore – the constant wrangling and worries over the project and the problems, with George angrily complaining about injustice. “So we lose all the money – what does it matter?” she told her husband. “Let’s just write it off and get out of here.”
In the final stressful months of the court cases, the rezoning fight, and the controversy with the Wedgwood Community Club over the small rental houses, George Apostol went through personal life stresses and transitions, as well. He turned 50 years old in October 1968, and just after his birthday his only sister, Mary Elizabeth, died at age 47, the same age their mother Martha had been when she died.
George and Faye’s three daughters were out of high school, and there seemed to be no more reason for George and Faye to stay in Seattle. They had contacts in California, so they decided to move there. George and Faye left Seattle in 1970 and George got a job as a land use attorney for the Disney Corporation in Los Angeles. The Apostols walked away from Shearwater and their holdings reverted to the bank.
After eight years in California the Apostols returned to Seattle in 1978 to care for George’s elderly father. George’s mother had died at age 47 while George was in college but his father lived to be 98 years old. Back in Seattle George worked as a legal advisor to King County Council. One of the councilmembers, Scott Blair, had been president of the Wedgwood Community Club in 1968 at the height of the controversy over George Apostol’s townhouse plans for Shearwater and the building of the little rental units. Seattle is a small world, and Councilman Blair was glad that he had always treated Mr. Apostol courteously, because they later had to work together at King County.
George Apostol was still working for King County when he died in October 1982 just before his 64th birthday. Faye Apostol believed that the Shearwater Project had shortened her husband’s lifespan.
Conclusion of the Shearwater story in Part Five: the end of Shearwater and the death of the Wedgwood Community Club in the 1970s.
Interview with Fay Apostol in 2007; she died in 2008.
Photo of grave marker of George N. Apostol at Lake View Cemetery, courtesy of Find-A-Grave.com