The western boundary of the Wedgwood neighborhood is Lake City Way NE, a highway whose official name is State Route 522. The road was first called Victory Way, then Bothell Way. In 1970 the name of the portion of the highway within the Seattle City Limits was changed to Lake City Way NE.
The highway was put through because of the meteoric rise in car ownership in the early 1900s. Automobiles made it much more convenient for people to live in outlying areas like Wedgwood and Lake City which were never served by any streetcar or other public transportation system. The romance of the road on Wedgwood’s western edge led to car-oriented businesses such as drive-in food. The road houses along Lake City Way NE often were built in “novelty architecture,” unusual shapes and designs meant to catch the eye of passing motorists.
The first car arrived in Seattle in 1900 and by 1920 there were 137,000 cars registered throughout Washington State. People began changing their lifestyles due to car use, including living farther away from their place of employment. During the 1920s the idea of a family vacation by car began to develop. Inns which were at first called auto courts and later were called motels, provided lodging for travelers who came in their own cars. People began to shop by car, driving to fresh markets and finding businesses which had the allure of being outside the City Limits.
Tanks and other mechanized vehicles were first used during World War One, and when the war ended in 1918 public interest in automobiles increased even more. After the war, part of the route of the present-day Lake City Way NE was created and was called Victory Way in commemoration of the war. The highway eventually extended from Seattle out to Bothell, and auto-oriented businesses sprang up along the roadside. Road house restaurants which were only reachable by car were one of the most common types of businesses along the Bothell Highway, as it was renamed in 1930.
From Salt Lake City to Seattle
Maxon Lester Graham was an enterprising businessman in Salt Lake City who had great success with a southern-style fried chicken restaurant which he started in 1925. In 1930 Graham established Seattle and Portland branches of his franchise and he and his wife Adelaide moved to Seattle. Perhaps he considered these West Coast cities to be the best business environment because of the increase in population, roads and car travel in western states.
M.L. Graham’s intention was clearly to capitalize on the popularity of southern-fried chicken, the increasing ability of Americans to drive a car to wherever they wanted to go, and Americans’ new desire to use disposable income to eat out at restaurants. Graham may have understood the term “coon chicken” to mean a southern-fried cooking method, but others understood the term to be a derogatory racial reference to black people. Opening the Coon Chicken Inn at 8500 Bothell Way NE in Seattle, Graham took out a full-page ad in the Seattle Times newspaper of August 31, 1930:
“The best fried chicken you ever tasted! That’s a mighty strong statement, but you’ll agree after visiting Seattle’s newest, most unique eating place that it’s a mighty true one. Coon Chicken Inn brings to Seattle and the Northwest a nationally-famous method of cookery, and provides a novel, pleasing restaurant at which you’ll enjoy eating. Good food served in a cheerful atmosphere! A service that will fit in with your every plan—party, after-theatre affair, or the wish for a splendid meal! Throughout America our splendid foods have pleased the most discriminating palates. Coon Chicken Inn is not ‘just another restaurant’—it is an innovation providing a pleasurable change from the ordinary café—a new eating place whose cuisine is considered in a class by itself, head and shoulders above the average.”
In Seattle the small but growing community of black people reacted immediately to the caricature portrayal of black people in the Coon Chicken Inn logo. From 1930 to 1949 when Mr. Graham closed the Coon Chicken Inn of Seattle, he was often confronted with labor protests and civil rights objections to the restaurant. A lawsuit was filed but Mr. Graham got around it by changing the restaurant logo from “blackface” to blue.
Novelty architecture along the road
The Coon Chicken Inn architecture was meant to be eye-catching for people traveling on the highway. This was a typical strategy for road houses and was also used by another nearby restaurant, the Jolly Roger. The Jolly Roger was built in Art Deco style with a tower to make it very visible at 8721 Bothell Way (present site of a Shell gas station). The Jolly Roger owners cultivated a slightly-naughty, speakeasy aura for their restaurant, since it was outside of the City Limits at that time. They built upon the public perception that north Seattle outside the City Limits, was a little wild.
Graham’s next enterprises
It is not known whether Mr. Graham closed the Coon Chicken Inn in 1949 due to civic pressures or if he simply felt that the restaurant was not profitable. He removed the offensive coon-head logo and leased the building to another tenant, who had a furniture store there from 1950 to 1959. Then in 1960 Mr. Graham had the building torn down.
In 1960 Seattle was in the beginning stages of preparation for a World’s Fair called Century 21. The fair was to have a space-age theme and the architectural theme of the fairgrounds (today’s Seattle Center) was of futuristic buildings such as the Space Needle.
Perhaps inspired by the modernist, space-age trend and hoping that a new, eye-catching restaurant building would attract an influx of World’s Fair visitors, M.L. Graham commissioned a well-known Seattle architect of the Modernist era, Roland Terry, to design a new restaurant building in space-age style.
The new restaurant at 8500 Bothell Way NE kept the road house tradition of novelty architecture but with a Modernist twist. The hexagonal building has an undulating roof line and color panels which give the impression that the restaurant is a space ship whirling in place, a tribute to the Space Needle which became the symbol of Century 21.
For the next ten years, 1960 to 1970, the new restaurant seemed to be having an identity crisis as it changed names and changed the type of food service offered. At first the building opened as Club 19, and as before, Mr. Graham did not run the restaurant but leased it out. After about five years the restaurant became Top’s Drive-In, indicating a more casual, take-out food service meant to attract the car traffic on the highway.
In 1970 there were two more changes. The highway was officially renamed Lake City Way NE up to the Seattle City Limits at NE 145th Street. Also in that year of 1970 another lessee, Ying’s Drive-In, was found for 8500 Lake City Way NE. Incredibly this take-out and delivery food service lasted until March 2016 (45 years).
The road house tradition continues
M.L. Graham died in 1977 and his restaurant building at 8500 Lake City Way NE continued to operate with Ying’s as the tenant under a new owner.
Over the years, Lake City Way NE has been widened and it continues to have many car-oriented businesses such as car sales lots, gas stations, fast food and drive-through restaurants.
The newest tenant at 8500 Lake City Way NE is a Seattle man who has renovated the building and opened Growler Guys on November 19, 2016. The building has been rehabilitated to have indoor dining as well as grab-and-go food, plus beer taps.
Commenting that Growler Guys will be on the “going home” side of the road (i.e. northbound) the new restaurant operator said that he hopes people will stop for food and beer on their way home from work. In this, the new restaurant will continue in the road house tradition on Wedgwood’s slightly wild western edge.
Census and Seattle City Directory listings.
Construction records: microfilm library of Seattle Office of Construction and Inspections, 20th floor, Seattle Municipal Tower.
Definition of Googie architecture.
Growler Guys article in the Seattle Beer News.
History Link Essay 957, first car arrives in Seattle on July 23, 1900.
History Link Essay 5219, Washington Good Roads Association: info on cars and highways, car ownership statistics, Good Roads movement.
HistoryLink Essay 9191, Coon Chicken Inn, Seattle.
Shoreline Historical Museum: Lake City History Round-Up. Our thanks to museum director Vicki Stiles for her help with info on the history of Lake City Way’s road houses.
Other roadways through Wedgwood: The old Erickson Road was an earlier route to Bothell. Part of it is now called Ravenna Ave NE between NE 85th to 95th Streets. Erickson Road merges with Lake City Way NE at NE 137th Street.
Novelty architecture: here’s a blogger’s fun story about the Hat N Boots in Georgetown, a neighborhood of south Seattle.
Paul Dorpat’s column: recollections of the Jolly Roger and recollections of the southern fried chicken era of roadside restaurants on Lake City Way NE — there were a number of them with names like Dixie Inn, etc. Restaurant owner M.L. Graham later had a poultry business with an office at 9000 Lake City Way NE, just north of the Coon Chicken Inn.
Recollections of M.L. Graham’s grandson.
Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project: Coon Chicken Inn.
Spelling of Wedgwood versus WedgEwood.
Biography of architect Roland Terry.
The Vintage Roadside website offers summaries of the era of roadside diners and auto courts, before the advent of the Interstate Highway system. The Roadside Architecture website has gas stations, signs, statuary and more. The Preservation in Mississippi website does an every-Friday article specifically about gas stations.
Washington State Department of Licensing, statistics on car registrations.