The Wedgwood neighborhood in northeast Seattle acquired its name and identity in the 1940s with the work of developer Albert Balch. Balch filed a plat plan on July 31, 1941 for a forty-acre tract of land (five square blocks) on the west side of 35th Ave NE from NE 80th to 85th Streets, which Balch named Wedgwood.
Balch did not deliberately set out to name the whole neighborhood, but his new housing development gave such a “sense of place” that the Wedgwood name was soon adopted by local businesses, the community club and a new elementary school. Wedgwood became the epicenter of the Balch construction and real estate businesses when he built his own offices at 8050 and 8044 35th Ave NE, which he used for the rest of his life.
The first group of Wedgwood houses had a unified appearance with all of the houses in consistent scale (size) and setback (distance from the curb). Balch asked Clyde Grainger and Harlan Thomas, architects of the original Wedgwood, to design houses with New England/Early American motifs including Colonial and Cape Cod styles. The house styles were all similar, and Wedgwood was a completely finished development with curbs and sidewalks.
As an allusion to English estate properties, Balch put in gateposts as entrance markers on 35th Ave NE at NE 81st Street. The gateposts, reminiscent of an estate entrance, are ornamental-only but they do give a sense of arrival.
Now more than seventy-five years later, we are seeing tear-downs of small, 1940s and 1950s Balch houses all around the Wedgwood neighborhood, with new kinds of designs, materials and house forms coming in. It can be visually jarring to see the contrast between old, traditional architecture and the new styles.
What are houses in Wedgwood “supposed” to look like? Do new kinds of house forms and materials “fit in” with Wedgwoodian house culture?
Balch’s beginnings in Wedgwood
Albert Balch launched out to build the first Wedgwood houses in 1941 just before the start of World War Two. The first Wedgwood houses were designed in styles derived from the American Revolution, called “Colonial.” This style with motifs which evoked American patriotism was enormously popular again during the years of World War Two, when people felt that America was under attack from foreign empires.
The colonial-themed houses in Wedgwood conveyed stability with symmetrical form: windows arranged on either side of a centered front door, mullioned windows, decorative storm shutters and clapboard cladding which hearkened to early American colonies. Design motifs might include a lantern-like porch light, a reference to Paul Revere’s ride during the American Revolution.
The “obvious” front door of a colonial-style house, including a direct pathway from sidewalk to front door, gave each house an open, approachable look. Balch filed protective covenants for the Wedgwood development which prohibited front fencing. In this way, the symmetry and form of the houses was always visible and the covenants prevented the closed-and-barricaded look which would be created if there were high fences in front.
One of the most recognizable features of traditional house styles such as Craftsman, Cape Cod and Colonial is a pitched roof with a gable. The gable is the triangular front formed by a sloping roof. This gable form was considered so typical of Wedgwood houses that it was requested as a design element when the grocery building at 8400 35th Ave NE was remodeled to become QFC in the year 2000. The QFC store has a gable front, though it is only ornamental, with the stained wood siding meant to recall the cottage-like Wedgwood houses built in the Balch era of the 1940s.
Planning ahead for the post-war housing demand
Albert Balch was an excellent salesman who always looked ahead to “the next thing.” Balch would anticipate and strategize on how to meet the needs of consumers, and he correctly predicted that when the war was over (in 1945), soldiers returning to civilian life would create increased demand for housing. In anticipation, during the 1940s Balch continually contacted long-time landholders and acquired these properties for future building. His land acquisitions included the future Wedgwood #2 and Wedgwood Park on the east side of 35th Ave NE, where Balch marked the corner of NE 82nd Street with another set of gateposts.
On the west side of 35th Ave NE, the area around the present Wedgwood School at the corner of NE 85th Street and 30th Ave NE became Wedgwood #4 with a gatepost entry marker at NE 86th Street. The Wedgwood Rock plat is from NE 70th to 75th Streets, 25th to 29th Avenues NE. Wedgwood numbers #3 and #5 were created partly out of land which had belonged to the Picardo family at the top of their hill along 30th Ave NE, with the entrance to the development from NE 82nd Street.
Keeping the traditional look in the early 1950s
A look at Balch’s later housing tracts shows that he did not keep building the exact same designs. He did adopt newer architecture over time, but in 1945 to 1955, under the pressures of post-war housing demand, many of his houses were in very simple traditional forms.
Balch was a patriotic person and after World War Two ended in 1945, he wanted to help provide housing which would be within the reach of servicemen applying for their first home loan under the government program known as the G.I. Bill. In the period from 1945 to 1950 Balch built small, affordable houses in a style called minimal traditional, devoid of much decoration.
After World War Two, the supply of building materials could not keep up with demand, so Balch and other builders tried out some alternatives such as cement block houses. The use of cement block saved on wood framing and nails, and eliminated the need for wood siding.
Balch still managed a traditional look in the cement block houses in the Wedgwood Park tract by designing houses with a pitched roof, a centered front door and decorative shutters at the windows. The floor plan was ranch style (also called rambler), meaning spread-out with all the rooms on one floor. As in other Balch developments, all of the houses in Wedgwood Park had the same set-back (distance from the curb), were in similar forms with no houses radically-different from one another in scale or height, and were a finished community with curbs and sidewalks.
Balch and modernist architecture
As a salesperson Balch knew that he always needed to keep ahead of consumer trends and tastes. Over time Balch’s housing developments evolved to bigger houses. These houses could be described as ranch style with a more modern, streamlined look and no “historic references,” such as the porch columns, storm shutters and mullioned windows of Colonial styles. When the house is split-level it is sometimes called a “raised ranch.”
Balch himself had four children with the last born in 1940, so he was aware of the demands of family life and he began building houses with more bedrooms and bathrooms. The 1950s houses in Wedgwood plats #3 and #5 also showed the influence of the new, popular activity of watching television. Balch homes began to be built with a recreation room which could be used for a children’s play area or for a television den.
Balch did not shy away from new trends in architecture. Although it is not as evident in Wedgwood, Balch did work with some modernist architects for houses which were completely different from the traditional Colonial styles.
The house at 8504 43rd Ave NE designed by James J. Chiarelli and Paul Hayden Kirk in 1948 is in a radically different form with no windows looking out front, and with trees and plantings instead of a front lawn. This house is the only one of its type on its street, with traditional Balch houses surrounding it in the neighborhood.
Perhaps bothered by creating just one house which was so different from its neighbors, Balch then created tracts of Wedgwood #3 and #5 in modernist styles all consistent within the development. Wedgwood #3 and #5 are between NE 77th to 82nd Streets, just west of 30th Ave NE. The houses were designed in Pacific Northwest Modernism by Paul Hayden Kirk. These houses today look “normal” to us but were considered “the latest thing” when they were first built in the late 1950s.
Not only did Balch want to keep up with architectural trends but he also knew that, in the relatively prosperous era of the late 1950s, many homeowners were ready to buy a bigger house in Wedgwood.
Wedgwood developments built later in the 1950s include Wedgwoods #3 and #5, west of 30th Ave NE and south of NE 82nd Street. These houses designed by Paul Hayden Kirk have their “backs turned to the street” and emphasize family rooms on the view side. In these developments Balch maintained the same values as in earlier projects, that of harmonious appearance by building all of the houses in the same height, scale and set-back. Balch never built one house at low-scale and a much larger house next to it.
New house forms in Wedgwood: what values are being expressed through house design?
It has been seventy-five years since Albert Balch began building houses and creating Wedgwood. Inevitably some houses are worn-out and in need of remodeling or complete replacement. While I understand this, it is difficult for me to see completely different house forms going up alongside older houses. It is jarring to the eye because the new houses are so much bigger and are in completely different form from their neighbors’.
In the new architecture which we see in 2017, the first thing we notice is that the form of the house is not traditional: it does not have a pitched roof with a gable. The roof line may be a single slope (called a shed roof) or an inverted pitch called an Umbrella House, referred-to by neighbors as owl-like in appearance. When a house is not traditional in form, we say that it is without cultural references, so its form is practical rather than historical.
Instead of wood siding we see a product called HardiPanel (trademarked) which is made of cement fiber and is resistant to both moisture and fire. We see the modernist tendency for the front door to be de-emphasized, and often there is no front lawn. Many of the new houses have no backyard, either, and are built to the lot line (taking up the entire buildable lot) and the house is two-stories high. This makes the new houses stand out in Wedgwood which, up until the present decade, had almost no two-story houses.
What are the values expressed by this new form of architecture? We see the use of materials which are believed to be durable and practical (HardiPanel), rather than traditional. The house has no fireplace and instead it may have very sophisticated electronic heating and ventilation systems.
Similar to the modernist trend of the late 1950s, the new modernist houses often do not have windows on the street side or the windows are placed very high, so that it is not possible to look in from outside. This expresses practicality and safety, since the home’s windows may not need curtains and the height of windows helps safeguard the house from outside intrusion. In this day and age when there are many break-ins, a new modernist house might tend to look like a fortress as it is built with these practical considerations and with electronic home monitoring systems.
What should a Wedgwood house look like?
In The Architecture of Happiness, author Alain de Botton writes:
What works of design and architecture talk to us about, is the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them. They tell us of certain moods that they seek to encourage and sustain in their inhabitants. While keeping us warm and helping us in mechanical ways, they simultaneously hold out an invitation for us to be specific sorts of people. They speak of visions of happiness.
To describe a building as beautiful therefore suggests more than a mere aesthetic fondness; it implies an attraction to the particular way of life this structure is promoting through its roof, door handles, window frames, staircase and furnishings. A feeling of beauty is a sign that we have come upon a material articulation of certain of our ideas of a good life…..
The notion of buildings that speak, helps us to place at the very centre of our architectural conundrums the question of the values we want to live by – rather than merely of how we want things to look.
In the 1940s and 1950s Wedgwood was a neighborhood of young couples all in the same age group, who were starting out with hope of a new and better life following the end of a terrible war. Their traditional values of home and family led them to admire traditional architecture and a homesite which included lawns, landscaping and a backyard. The influx of young families in the same age group and the similarity of the houses in Balch’s developments in the 1940s and 1950s, tended to create a sense of social equality among neighbors.
At present, a typical block in Wedgwood might have some retired people who are longtime owners of their houses, and some younger people including two-income households. Now there is disparity of age groups as well as incomes represented in houses in Wedgwood, with some people clearly having more money to spend on newer and bigger houses.
Tear-downs and new houses in Wedgwood
What are the values and the “visions of happiness” which we want a Wedgwood house to express in the present era? The values reflected in the design of the modern-era houses are based upon the fact that people are not at home as much as they used to be. Unlike the 1950s when many women in Wedgwood were housewives, today many Wedgwood couples are two-income. A higher level of home security is needed because the house is empty during the day. A lower level of home maintenance and yardwork is wanted since some Wedgwood homeowners now have neither the time for nor interest in mowing a lawn.
The Wedgwood “way of life” now means that there will be disparity among the house styles on a block: older versus brand new; small and simple versus big and expensive. It is likely that smaller houses in traditional form in Wedgwood will continue to be replaced with bigger, more costly and more sophisticated houses in modernist architectural styles.
While a new house may be built of improved materials, it remains to be seen whether its occupants will consider the value of interaction with others on their street and in the Wedgwood neighborhood.