All of Wedgwood didn’t come within the Seattle City limits until 1954, and up until that time the neighborhood retained its rural character. Wedgwood was thinly populated and there were many vacant lots whose owners were holding land as an investment. Many of the pre-1940 houses in Wedgwood had a lot of space around them with large yards, and undeveloped areas nearby.
Unlike densely populated neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill, there were no apartment buildings in Wedgwood prior to 1948 and no commercial intersections with a lot of stores. In the 1920s and 1930s in Wedgwood there were only a few isolated mom-and-pop stores along 35th Ave NE, such as the Jacklin’s near the corner of NE 75th Street, Shauer’s at NE 85th, the Morningside Market at 9118 35th Ave NE and Faulds Corner at the intersection of NE 95th Street. From early days Wedgwood was not a “walking” neighborhood, and even in the 1920s it was common for people to drive to market areas in Ravenna, Roosevelt or Green Lake.
There were not any developers who built whole sections of houses in Wedgwood in a particular style until Balch’s first Wedgwood plat in 1941. What came to be known as a “Balch house” set the precedent for decades to come of what type of houses were usual and expected in Wedgwood.
The concepts of traditional house styles (such as a pitched roof) and having a lot of space around houses (a big yard) is embedded in Wedgwood thought, so that today Wedgwoodians struggle to accept styles which don’t fit in with their ideas about compatible neighborhood house forms.
Comparison: the development of the Wallingford neighborhood
The Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle is located just a mile or two west of the University District. Wallingford was earlier known as Latona and it was a community which first developed along a railroad line, like its neighboring communities along the northern shore of Lake Union.
Housing in Wallingford developed rapidly in a relatively short time period from 1905 to 1925, because the same business investors who owned blocks of land in the area were also involved in extension of the streetcar lines.
No one knows for sure how the neighborhood came to be called Wallingford, but it is thought that the name gradually came into popular use because the streetcar line traveled on Wallingford Avenue before it turned onto N. 45th Street. (See: the Wallingford context statement, a mini-history available on the Dept. of Neighborhoods Historic Preservation page.)
Advertised as a convenient suburb with streetcar connections to downtown, complete blocks of Craftsman-style houses were built in Wallingford which resulted in a very consistent look to the residential streets. A Craftsman-style house is solid-looking with heavy porch posts and a wide overhang to the roof.
Despite its “foursquare” look, the Craftsman house is often narrow (about 28 feet wide) but may go back deep on the lot, as much as 40 feet or more. The rectangular shape with narrow street frontage allowed for more houses to be built on each block, so the houses in Wallingford do appear to be close together, and even today many Wallingford houses do not have a garage.
Wedgwood considered to be a rural area served by cars, not public transit
In contrast to Wallingford’s early development due to its strategic location near to Lake Union and along the railroad line, Wedgwood was not on a waterfront, the railroad did not pass nearby, and Wedgwood was never reached by any streetcar system.
To meet their transportation needs, Wedgwood housewives were instrumental in organizing a private bus service in 1926. Due to the limited bus options, many Wedgwood households had cars, even in the 1920s, but women didn’t drive them – men used the cars to drive to work. Wedgwood’s development as a remote, rural area led to it becoming an automobile neighborhood very early on. Car ownership affected how people built their houses and used their property, as well. As of the 1920s it was not thought safe to have a car in a garage attached to the house. Like chicken houses, firewood storage sheds, or barns of earlier years, a garage was thought of as a freestanding building to be placed somewhere on the lot behind a residence.
Houses in Wedgwood in the 1920s and 1930s needed to have space around them for outbuildings, especially before city water was put in: everyone had to have a well water source on their property. It was very common for people in Wedgwood to own more than one lot for these reasons of space and use, and people very often kept chickens and had a vegetable garden on an adjacent lot. The Conroy family, whose house at 3239 NE 87th Street was built in about 1915, owned several lots where they had a barn for their horses, a shed for equipment, and other outbuildings.
The concepts of having a semi-rural existence, cars used for getting to work (no transit system) and houses with a lot of space around them influenced how Wedgwood developed and what was thought of as appropriate land use. Up to the present day in Wedgwood, some people say it “ doesn’t feel right” to have houses close together or to have a house consume most of its lot. On streets where there are 1920s houses in Wedgwood we can see the “infill” of newer homes on each block as lot size has decreased.
Due to its rural aspect, located far from Seattle’s commercial centers, Wedgwood did not have intensive business development or large tracts of houses. The first planned housing area promoted by a real estate company was Morningside Heights from NE 90th to 95th Streets on the west side of 35th Ave NE. In the 1920s the Burwell and Morford Real Estate Company was able to put in water and electricity and they began to sell lots in Morningside Heights. However, they did not build houses themselves. It was up to each lot purchaser to arrange for construction. Burwell and Morford did give away a free set of house plans with each lot purchase so as to encourage buyers to build a good-quality home. That is the reason why Morningside Heights has more 1920s Craftsman style houses than any other section of Wedgwood.
From View Ridge to Wedgwood: Albert Balch
In 1935 Albert Balch was thirty-two years old and was working as a radio advertising salesman in Seattle. Along with radio station newsman Ralph Jones, the two quit their jobs and became real estate men. They began with just ten acres in what is now View Ridge, starting with 48th and 50th Avenues NE between NE 68th to 70th Streets.
Balch and Jones took a huge financial risk and they experienced success which was not expected in the difficult economic climate of the 1930s. Once they got going, their use of publicity gave the project momentum so that View Ridge became a desirable destination for those who had money to build a house. Balch and Jones kept up the level of quality in the development by requiring that each home be architect-designed and that building plans had to be reviewed before going ahead.
By 1940 thirty-seven-year-old Albert Balch was at another turning point in his career. He’d had five years of experience as a real estate man, and although View Ridge had been successful, there was more that Balch wanted to do. Balch referred to himself as a “community-builder,” and it is thought he meant that he wanted to develop entire neighborhoods instead of just building houses here and there.
After looking around at nearby areas, Balch saw the large amount of vacant land to the north of View Ridge, and the opportunity came to buy a completely untouched, heavily-treed forty acre tract. The land from NE 80th to 85th Streets, 30th to 35th Avenues NE had only one structure, a log house which was being used as a Catholic chapel, owned by the Jesuits of Seattle University. Balch bought the land and in July 1941 filed a plat for Wedgwood, a name chosen by his wife Edith.
Balch had no way of knowing that not only was he at a turning point in his career, but that the USA was on the verge of a war which would change every aspect of life. As of the entrance of the USA into World War Two at the end of 1941, Balch’s new housing development became part of the war effort. Builders received some exceptions to wartime restrictions upon materials, and all new housing in Seattle was designated to war workers. Seattle was flooded with military servicemen and with workers in support industries such as aircraft building. Balch was set for success in Wedgwood because of the overwhelming demand for housing.
The house plans for the new Wedgwood plat were designed by architects Harlan Thomas and Clyde Grainger in Colonial and Cape Cod styles. These designs have early American motifs such as a New England village or a Revolutionary War colonial-era house. In this, Balch and the architects struck just the right note: with the onset of World War Two in 1941, these early-American references were considered patriotic and became enormously popular as house styles.
What is a Balch house?
Ideas about colonial styles were first systematized because of the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, the first “world’s fair” event to be held in the United States. In preparation for the Expo, architects studied original colonial-era buildings and made a list of typical features.
A colonial house may have a porch structure called a portico which is extended out from the house itself and has a triangular gable form on the top, supported by posts. There may be Revolutionary-era design details such as a brass American eagle-shaped door knocker, or lantern-shaped porch lights which were meant to evoke Paul Revere’s ride.
As a reference to Cape Cod/New England, a colonial house may have shutters, shingle siding and windows with wooden supporting moldings (or muntins) which hold the individual panes in place. Often the windows are arranged symmetrically on either side of a centrally-located front door which has been emphasized with a portico, a gable over the porch or by side columns.
What came to be referred to as a “Balch house in Wedgwood” was designed as a rectangle with the long side parallel to the street. This gave the impression that the house was bigger than it really was, and it also preserved more area in the backyard of each house, allowing for a play area for children. The decision was made to give most houses an attached garage, which made the houses look even wider.
In contrast to the Craftsman houses of the 1920s which were set with the narrow end of their rectangular shape in front (often only 28 feet wide) the new Wedgwood houses were at least 40 feet wide plus an additional ten to twelve feet for the garage. The Balch house was not necessarily bigger than a house of older eras in terms of total footage, but it had a spacious look because the long side of its rectangular shape faced the street. It was also presumed that homeowners would travel to work by car, since there was no other transportation. By including a garage for each house, the new 1940s Wedgwood continued the car culture that had always characterized the old neighborhood.
Harmonious styles and consistency of scale in Balch’s Wedgwood
A house in Balch’s original 1940s Wedgwood development was usually only one-story and had an “open” look to it with a path connecting each house to the sidewalk, an approachable front door and living room windows overlooking the street. Homeowner’s covenants prohibited fencing along the front to help preserve the open look of the neighborhood.
The houses in Balch’s first Wedgwood plat were all generally on the same scale; in other words, there were not any three-story monster houses next to one-story houses. All the houses had the same set-back and there were not any to-the-lot-line, taller-than-others houses.
Consistency of scale gave a harmonious look in the first plat of Wedgwood. Sidewalks, curbs and streetlights which were put in throughout the tract gave it a finished look. We can imagine that Balch, who by that time was the father of young children, could appreciate the need of safe areas for children to walk to school and ride their bikes, so he attended to all of these amenities in Wedgwood.
A key characteristic of the original 1941 Wedgwood development was the preservation of trees. In View Ridge, Balch and Jones started out by clearing the land and cutting down every tree to expose the views of Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains beyond.
Although we do not know whether Balch suffered from tree-cutting guilt, we do know that he platted Wedgwood with gently curving streets (rather than grading them straight and flat) and he preserved the trees between and behind houses. The trees took the raw edge off of the new Wedgwood development, softening it and giving a finished appearance. The whole development sloped gently downward from 30th Ave NE eastward toward 35th Ave NE, and Balch may have realized that curving the streets of Wedgwood and preserving trees would help absorb water run-off.
A photographer’s perspective of Wedgwood
Werner Lenggenhager was a Swiss immigrant who came to Seattle in 1939 and worked at Boeing. His hobby was photography, chronicling the changes in Seattle through the tumultuous years of the tear-down of old neighborhoods to build Seattle Center and the I-5 freeway.
Lenggenhager took many photos of places which he knew were about to be destroyed. One was shown in Paul Dorpat’s column, Seattle Now and Then, of October 6, 2012. Lenggenhager titled the photo “Country Road,” an unpaved lane which was in the path of the freeway and would soon become an asphalt ribbon. Many of Lenggenhager’s photos mourned the destruction of Seattle’s natural environment in the name of progress.
Over the course of his life Lenggenhager gave nearly 30,000 prints of his photographs to the Seattle Public Library. As Lenggenhager explained to the Seattle Times newspaper in 1955, “Some persons contribute time to charitable causes. My pictures are my small contribution to the city.”
Lenggenhager’s photos are in the Seattle Public Library Historical Photographs Collection. Lenggenhager wrote this of his 1953 visit to the Wedgwood development:
In this neighborhood of two hundred homes, the consistently related designs coupled with the preservation of the beautiful trees have produced a charming and harmonious development. The modest two and three-bedroom homes are variations of the basic plans with a few other designs for special situations. Strange as it appears, few project developers have been willing to save the trees and natural growth abounding in Seattle.
The legacy of Balch’s Wedgwood work
In the process of building the first Wedgwood houses in the period 1941 to 1946, Balch set precedents for what would come to be considered usual and appropriate for the neighborhood. Over time, as Balch acquired more land and developed other plats in Wedgwood, he built bigger houses and kept up with newer trends in house design, leaving behind his first “colonial village” theme. Balch kept the architecture, height, bulk and scale of houses consistent within each development even as he evolved with newer architectural forms.
As noted by Lenggenhager, Balch’s developments were built with a consistent look so that there were no extreme contrasts between some houses and others. He continued to build houses “wide to the street.” The houses got even wider as, in developments of the 1950s and 1960s, Balch added more bedrooms and built two-car garages instead of one-car. Whenever he acquired land which still had stands of Douglas fir trees, such as the forty-acre Wedgwood Rock tract, Balch again curved the streets and preserved the trees.
Among Balch’s legacies to Wedgwood are the preservation of trees and the harmonious siting of the development within the terrain, including provision for water run-off. Of the houses themselves, Balch said that he wanted to create communities. To some extent the feeling of community among the earliest Wedgwood homeowners was due to the social-leveling effect of everyone’s having similar houses.
As time goes on we have seen “infill” of types of houses in Wedgwood completely different from their surroundings not only in style, but also in bulk, scale and height. When one house on a block has been remodelled and is much larger than neighboring houses, it sends an uncomfortable message of the lack of social equity.
What is Wedgwood supposed to look like?
How do we define the “look” of Wedgwood now? Does a much bigger new house set in a street of original Balch houses “fit in” with the neighborhood? What about houses which do not have the traditional form of a pitched roof with gables?
In the present decade we have begun to see a lot of tear-downs of original Balch houses, replaced by houses in new forms and materials. The definition of a “Wedgwood house” is still a matter of controversy in the neighborhood today.
Another terrific article – well written, and chock-full of fascinating details. I love the contrasts between how streetcars and automobiles shaped neighborhoods.
Werner Lenggenhager is my new hero!
Good ol’ Werner L had the foresight to take photos and then give them to the library. His collection is being digitized and some of it is already up on the Seattle Public Library Historical Photos site.
Wow, I now know 100% more about Wedgwood and its houses. I enjoyed the tour. Thank you.