Albert Balch, developer of Wedgwood, constantly watched trends and looked ahead to anticipate “the next thing” in the building of houses and neighborhoods.
Balch saw that in the period following the end of World War Two, people were spreading out into the suburbs of Seattle. In the 1940s Balch began to acquire land to do development projects in outlying areas such as Shoreline and Renton. In 1947 Balch filed a plat for a development called Parkwood at North 155th Street, east of Aurora Avenue on Stone, Interlake and Ashworth Avenues.
Text and photos in this article are protected under a Creative Commons Copyright. Do not copy without permission. Except where noted, all photos are by Valarie.
Balch builds out in Shoreline, north of the Seattle City Limits
The first Parkwood houses built in 1948-50 were very modest, with only two bedrooms, one bathroom, and a total of less than 900 square feet of living space. The houses had either a single-car garage or a carport, and were set on gently winding streets in the midst of tall trees, reminiscent of Balch’s original Wedgwood project.
With his great ability to achieve what customers wanted, in his Parkwood building plan Balch helped veterans fulfill the dream of owning their own little home where they could live with a wife and family in the post-World-War-Two years.
Especially in the period of 1948 to 1950, many of the first Parkwood houses were constructed of cement block. Balch and other builders tried this method of construction to save cost and get around the shortage of some materials (even nails were in short supply.) Despite their minimal design, Balch won awards for the attractive Parkwood development. He was able to build within the price restrictions for GI loans, which was government financing made available for war veterans to buy houses. Despite the need to hold down costs, Balch delivered quality construction and finished all the streets and sidewalks in the development.
The original Parkwood had only 59 houses, built over a ten-year period. Parkwood houses built later in the 1950s did have more square footage and had three bedrooms. Balch later expanded into more Parkwood divisions and other developers picked up on the theme, giving their projects similar names such as Park View or Parkwood Lane. As had happened in the 1940s with Balch’s original Wedgwood, the name Parkwood caught on as the name of the neighborhood.
In the same way that the name for Wedgwood School was derived in 1953 from the trend in community identity, in 1961 an elementary school on N. 155th Street was named Parkwood. Today Parkwood is one of fourteen neighborhoods which make up the City of Shoreline. The naming of neighborhoods such as Wedgwood, Parkwood and other areas is one of the legacies of Albert Balch and the post-war growth of the Seattle area.
Balch and Business Networking
The concept of business networking existed long before social networking sites such as FaceBook and LinkedIn. Albert Balch never used computers or cell phones in his lifetime (1903- 1976) but he was extremely active in business groups and in volunteer organizations. The basic principle of business networking through personal contacts and participation in groups, is to give input and help to others, and receive info and business opportunities from group members. Balch networked with other homebuilders to present a united front in zoning and construction issues and he was active in the need to establish trade-apprentice programs for construction skills. In the 1940s Balch served as president of the Seattle Real Estate Board and president of the North End Brokers Association. Balch was one of the founders of the National Association of Home Builders, and served as a director for many years.
Balch stayed active with the UW Alumni Association and with other groups in hobbies or interests, and these all gave him business contacts. He belonged to the Automobile Club of the State of Washington and with his son shared an interest in classic cars. In the 1960s Balch helped revitalize the Pioneer Association of the State of Washington and served as its president from 1964 to 1967. During his term, Balch worked with Seattle banking pioneer Joshua Green to track down descendants of early Washington Territory families and put their names into an updated membership directory. Balch was credited with obtaining more than 3,500 new members for the Pioneer Association. (Source: “Albert Balch Honored,” Seattle Times, July 23, 1967, page 99.) Probably some of the contacts with descendants of early settlers would have been lost without Balch’s work. Today, the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) serves as the central contact point for descendants of Seattle pioneers, continuing the association.
An example of Balch’s ability to network, which led to business opportunities, is the purchase of the land which became the Parkwood development in Shoreline. The land was purchased in 1947 from Bert Lobberegt, a member of the large interrelated group of immigrants from Holland who had settled in Wedgwood in the early 1900s. It is very likely that Balch, with his great ability to meet people, had visited the Lobberegts at their grocery store on 35th Ave NE at the corner of NE 60th Street, close by the View Ridge development where Balch had gotten his start as a builder. When they wanted to sell the property they owned in Shoreline, the Lobberegts chose to sell to Balch whom they knew and trusted, having seen the development work Balch had already done.
Networking with Architects, Changing Architectural Styles
In his house-building work Albert Balch adapted to changing times and new architectural styles. In the early 1940s he had worked with the firm of Thomas, Grainger & Thomas to build very traditional-looking Colonial and Cape Cod houses in the original Wedgwood. In some later developments such as Wedgwood Rock and Wedgwood No. 2 which were started in the mid-to-late 1940s, the house styles by Grainger, Thomas & Barr could be described as minimal traditional. The houses had minimal decoration and did not have classical references such as porch columns. The houses in the late-1940s plats were sometimes even smaller than the original Wedgwood houses, because there was difficulty with obtaining construction materials and with holding down costs to meet the strictures of house price within loan regulations for war veterans.
The Northwest Modernism movement in architecture
During the late 1940s and into the 1950s Balch houses began to follow the trends of Northwest Modern architecture. One of the most startling projects, because of its contrast to other Balch houses, was the James J. Chiarelli & Paul Hayden Kirk-designed house at 8504 43rd Ave NE, built by Balch in 1948-1949.
This house was built as a showplace, sponsored by the Revere cookware company to promote affordable houses built with quality materials and highlighting the use of copper, such as in a copper-sheathed fireplace or a kitchen range hood.
The design principles of the Chiarelli-Kirk house were the complete opposite of Balch’s former house projects. Instead of having an open, obvious front door facing the street, as had been done in the original Balch houses, the Chiarelli-Kirk house had almost no windows facing the street and it was even a bit difficult to find the front door. Instead of a sidewalk leading straight up through a lawn to the front door of the house, the Chiarelli-Kirk house is set in natural plantings (no lawn) and the path to the front door is indirect. On the interior, instead of closed-off room spaces, the interior living space is one large room with glass looking out over a backyard garden.
Paul Hayden Kirk houses in Wedgwood
Balch again worked with architect Paul Hayden Kirk when building houses in Wedgwood No. 3 in the 1950s. The houses designed by Kirk in this plat are “minimalist” in that they are without exterior decoration. They show Pacific Northwest Modern design principles in the use of natural wood siding, a lot of glass for letting in natural light, and a house form made up of geometric volumes; that is, when you look at the house you see it as rectangles, planes and lines, such as the roof line. The houses appear “turned away from the street” because areas of family activity such as the living room and kitchen are on the back of the house instead of the front.
Houses in Wedgwood No. 3 and No. 5, built in the 1950s, show the changing ideas of Americans toward children and family life. Balch began including dens or basement family rooms where children could play, a new idea since older house forms did not designate specific areas of a house to children’s use. The rise of television-watching in the 1950s also impacted house design, as some people wanted a separate den or family room for that activity.
Into the 1950s Balch also began building houses with two-car garages in response to increased car ownership. Wedgwood No. 3 and No. 5 are located on the hillside above today’s Dahl Field and the P-Patch, and their streets are very suburban-like in that there are no nearby arterials or stores within walking distance. In the 1950s it became much more common for housewives to have a car for driving to the grocery store and other errands, as housing expanded into residential areas without a nearby commercial district.
Balch’s last development in Wedgwood
One of the last plats Balch did in Wedgwood was Cascade Manhattan Heights in the Maple Creek Ravine area. Platted in 1962, houses built there in the mid-1960s could be described as Mid-Century Modern, with some Asian influences often seen in Pacific Northwest Modernism.
The houses in this plat have low-pitched roof lines instead of the steeply pitched gables of Craftsman and Colonial houses. The gentle roof slope which appears to be hovering, is one characteristic of Asian design influence as well as pagoda-like gates and rock gardens at the entrances of homes.
In addition to plats in Wedgwood and in suburban Seattle areas such as Shoreline and Renton, Balch also did development projects on the Olympic Peninsula in the Sequim and Port Townsend areas. I have not included discussion of these, because the scope of the articles on this blog is to explain how the Wedgwood neighborhood developed and why it looks the way it does, largely because of the influence of Balch’s work.
The legacy of Albert Balch
The Jack Jarvis column in the Seattle Post Intelligencer newspaper of September 9, 1965, said of Albert Balch, “Autographs? He’s Got Em.”
From many world capitals have come inquiries to embassies in Washington, D.C. and to prominent persons and business firms in Seattle: Who is Albert Balch? And the word goes back that he’s a home builder, a man of substance with a good reputation in the community.
Sometimes the replies add that his Balch Collection of autographs of the great and the near-great totals nearly 3,000 now and that it is kept in the Seattle Public Library. And that’s what the queries have been about: Balch’s requests for autographs, preferably on or with a picture.
It all started for Balch many years ago when he was a high school boy in Blaine. “I used this as an excuse to meet people,” he explained to me.
The above article, written when Albert Balch was sixty-two years of age, showed that he was going strong and just as enthusiastic as ever. Throughout his lifetime he had continued to collect autographs and had enjoyed the challenge of going on for more. During the busy years of his real estate work, Balch had employed an office assistant to write letters of request for autographs, so Balch was able to keep up his hobby. Balch’s zest for life was evident when he told John Jarvis of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer,
I’m interested in so many fields of endeavor that I don’t have any favorites among the autographs,” he said. “Each one is important. It’s a tremendous thrill to get one – but then I go on to the next one.”
In the last eight years of his life, 1968 to 1976, Albert Balch was in declining health. He was phasing out of his career as a developer not only due to health and aging, but also because of a severe slump in the Seattle-area economy. By 1971 the “Boeing Bust” of massive layoffs had caused a complete standstill in house-building in Seattle, because the population of Seattle had decreased instead of increasing steadily as in previous decades.
In 1973 came the final newspaper article telling of Balch’s donation of more autographs to the Seattle Public Library. The collection of several thousand autographs is today kept in the Seattle Room, 10th floor of the downtown library.
Albert Balch officially retired from his real estate work at age 70 in that year of 1973, and he died in 1976. The legacy of Albert Balch to us is his enthusiasm and dedication in all that he did, including his volunteer work in organizations, the establishment of builders’ associations and in his well-planned streets and houses in Wedgwood.