In 1940 the Wedgwood neighborhood did not yet exist in northeast Seattle. There were vast tracts of undeveloped land and except for Hansen’s Tavern at NE 85th Street, there were no other businesses at that intersection on 35th Ave NE. The other three corners of that intersection were vacant until the 1950s.
In the years from 1941 to 1959 the NE 85th Street intersection and the surrounding blocks were transformed by a visionary developer, Albert S. Balch. The neighborhood acquired the name of “Wedgwood” in a gradual process, taken from the name of Balch’s first plat of houses.
Today the Wedgwood neighborhood is defined by its commercial corridor along 35th Avenue NE, between NE 75th to 95th Streets.
Who created the Wedgwood neighborhood?
The developer of the Wedgwood neighborhood, Albert Balch, was born in 1903 in Gem, Idaho. He finished high school in Blaine, Washington, and graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle.
In 1934 Balch was thirty years old, married and about to become a father, and his natural ambition and drive caused him to want to improve his status for himself and his family. Balch was working as a salesman of radio advertising for Fisher Communications. Along with co-worker Ralph Jones, the two men quit their jobs because they thought they could do better in real estate. They dared to take a big risk in the face of the “down” economic times of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Balch & Jones succeeded in developing and selling house lots in View Ridge, centered along NE 70th Street east of 35th Ave NE. After five years’ experience Balch was ready to do even more, so in 1941 he launched out on his own to build what became the Wedgwood development.
Balch found a forty-acre tract on 35th Ave NE at NE 80th Street which had been owned by the Jesuits of Seattle University for about twelve years. They had considered moving the university to this site in northeast Seattle, but changed their minds and then sold the property to Balch. When Balch acquired the acreage, it still had a log cabin built by the original resident, Charles Thorpe, which had been used as a chapel by the Jesuits.
Balch’s plat name becomes the neighborhood name
Balch’s first plat which became the original group of Wedgwood houses was built in 1941-1945 on the west side of 35th Avenue NE from NE 80th to 85th Streets. The plat name was Wedgwood and this name eventually caught on as the name of the neighborhood.
In the period after the end of World War Two in 1945, young couples were attracted to Balch’s Wedgwood development which had curving streets where trees had been preserved, and which had charming homes in traditional architectural styles by Harlan Thomas and Clyde Grainger.
Nearby new businesses which began after the war, began calling themselves “Wedgwood” and by 1954 the new elementary school on NE 85th Street was named Wedgwood, setting the name and identity of the neighborhood. A community club was established with activities for young families with children.
Balch’s offices in Wedgwood
Into the 1940s Balch acquired more land from investors who had been holding undeveloped properties for decades. In 1946 Balch bought land from the Kittredge family, which was several lots on 35th Ave NE nearest to the corner of NE 82nd Street.
In 1948 Balch established an office at the corner of NE 82nd Street, 8050 35th Ave NE, which remained his home base for the rest of his career.
After Balch’s death in 1976 the building was used by another real estate company, Eastman, until 1995 when 8050 35th Ave NE was acquired by the Seattle Audubon Society.
Balch wanted the Wedgwood neighborhood to have a range of services including stores and offices, so he built a row of medical-dental buildings on that block next to his office, which was also land acquired from the Kittredge family. The office buildings were designed by Grainger & Thomas, the same architectural firm Balch had worked with for the original plat of Wedgwood houses in the early 1940s. The medical-dental buildings were constructed in the period 1948-1952.
For the real estate arm of his business, Balch expanded next door to 8044 35th Ave NE. That is the reason for the shared parking lot with 8050, and is the reason for the C-shaped sign which was in front of the 8044 building. The last business in this building moved out in January 2018. My efforts to get the 8044 building historically landmarked were not successful, and the building was torn down on August 8, 2018.
The story of the C-shaped sign
In the 1940s Balch purchased the right to use the brand name Crawford & Conover for his real estate sales outlet and he put that name on the C-shaped sign in front of 8044 35th Ave NE. It was an old Seattle name which he thought would lend prestige to the business. Balch was a member of the Pioneer Association of the State of Washington and served as president of the organization in the 1960s. Balch knew many descendants of early Seattle families. He knew C.T. Conover and admired the heritage of the company.
Balch’s buildings today
Today the block of former medical-dental buildings, as well as the Seattle Audubon Society office at the corner of NE 82nd Street, are caught in development difficulties because of lack of action from Seattle City Council on addressing zoning issues. The grant-funded study completed in 2014 by Wedgwood volunteers called the Future of 35th Project, advocated for an upgrade of zoning in this block to require any new buildings to have retail storefronts.
Seattle City Council’s Land Use Committee never acted on this zoning proposal and as a result, we are starting to see tear-downs with townhouses going up instead of the retail storefront buildings which Wedgwood residents want. Businesses are closing or moving away due to the crowding and threatened removal of all parking on 35th Avenue NE. It remains to be seen whether the historic heritage of Albert Balch and his plan for the Wedgwood commercial district will be preserved.