A HistoryLink article by Greg Lange tells of the large-scale layoffs of employees at Boeing Aircraft which set off a recession in Seattle from 1967 to 1972. The population of Seattle plummeted as people left town to find work elsewhere. Two local real estate agents thought it would be funny to put up a billboard about the exodus, saying, “Will the Last Person Leaving Seattle – Turn Out the Lights.”
Besides Boeing employees, many other people such as restaurant workers lost their jobs when the population of Seattle decreased and small businesses could not sustain themselves. In that time period the Wedgwood neighborhood in northeast Seattle had been established and growing for about 25 years and was beginning to show signs of the end of one era and the start of another. We can see how the slowdown in the economy affected Wedgwood at the start of the 1970s, with fewer and fewer small, locally-owned stores, and the coming of more banks and larger chain stores. Gas stations went out of business, too, because of higher operating costs and fewer customers.
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Wedgwood acquires an identity in the post-World-War-Two years
The Wedgwood neighborhood in northeast Seattle was thinly populated until the 1940s. Wedgwood became a boomtown only after the end of World War Two in 1945, when young couples wanted to marry, find affordable homes and start new lives. Their lives had been on hold during the war and there was pent-up demand as not many new houses had been built during the 1930s and 1940s.
A developer, Albert Balch, had the fortunate timing to acquire vast tracts of land in what would later become Wedgwood in the 1940s and 1950s. Balch was a patriotic person and in the post-war period he intentionally built houses which were within the price parameters of home loans for war veterans.
In 1941 Balch had begun by acquiring a five-block-square tract of vacant land which he platted as the Wedgwood Addition with a layout of streets and lots. With government support for the build-up of housing in the pre-war years, Balch built 200 small houses which war workers were given priority to buy.
The first Wedgwood housing tract was from NE 80th to 85th Streets on the west side of 35th Ave NE. The cottage-like homes were so attractive that the Wedgwood development won awards and became a model for Post-World-War-Two housing projects. Balch’s charming cluster of houses complete with sidewalks, paved streets and with trees preserved, became the standard for good development.
As Wedgwood grew with more and more houses being built in the 1940s and 1950s, businesses were drawn to the shopping center around NE 85th Street to provide goods and services to the new residents in the growing neighborhood.
Except for the Hansen’s Tavern block at 8501 35th Ave NE (present site of the Wedgwood Ale House), by the 1950s Balch had gained control of the other three corners of the intersection of NE 85th Street. Balch became his own urban planner, reserving these sites for commercial development which would serve the needs of the surrounding residential areas. The present-day heart of Wedgwood at NE 85th Street is the legacy of this benevolent developer, Albert Balch, who wanted to create a community.
Local businesses began to adopt the name “Wedgwood” for themselves, and in the 1940s and 1950s there were more and more listings: Wedgwood Café, Church, Gardens, Market, Medical & Dental, Paint & Glass, Pharmacy, Shoe Service, Tavern and Tradewell. Wedgwood’s identity seemed fully set when a new school was built and the name Wedgwood School was chosen as of April 1954. Wedgwood activists formed a community club to discuss neighborhood concerns, and they set the “boundaries” of Wedgwood at the same lines as the school attendance boundaries.
Wedgwood’s business district in the 1940s and 1950s
While we can understand the growth of the commercial district of Wedgwood in response to growing population in the 1950s, the types of businesses in early years were not always what we would expect. One of the puzzling factors in the early growth of Wedgwood was the proliferation of gas stations. As of 1958 there were at least twelve gas stations along 35th Ave NE in the 1.5 mile stretch from NE 65th to 95th Streets. Some intersections, such as NE 70th and NE 95th Streets, had gas stations on three corners.
Another factor in the early growth of Wedgwood was the lack of any sort of overall plan for commercial areas. Only land owners themselves could determine what would be built, and in this Albert Balch can be thanked for creating a cohesive business district at today’s heart of Wedgwood, the NE 85th Street intersection.
In Wedgwood’s growing years some buildings only lasted a short time before being replaced with another building on the same site. The original Safeway store, built in 1951 at the corner of NE 75th Street, was torn down in 1965. The new, bigger Safeway was placed at the back of the property so that there was a vast parking lot in front, visible along 35th Ave NE. The Safeway remodelling displaced the Dairy Queen which had been in a free-standing building on the parking lot. The Dairy Queen moved to 7320 35th Ave NE, present site of a pizza business.
Site use: from gas station to a bank
In 1961 the first bank to come into the Wedgwood neighborhood was Seattle First National at 8401 35th Ave NE. After only eleven years in that first building, in 1972 the bank moved up one lot to the north and built a new building at the intersection of NE 85th Street, address 8425 35th Ave NE.
For about twenty years or a little more, from about 1948 to 1970, there had been a gas station at that southwest corner of NE 85th Street, which was removed to build the new Sea-First Bank (present Bank of America).
The above photo of the Wedgwood Texaco was taken in February 1949 when there was snow on the ground. The photo looks southwest towards the tall trees in Balch’s original Wedgwood development between NE 80th to 85th Streets, west side of 35th Ave NE, where trees were preserved among charming Cape Cod cottage-style houses. Each house had a one-car garage and Wedgwood developed as a car neighborhood where people drove to work. Surrounded by houses with car owners, it is not surprising that the Wedgwood business district had a lot of gas stations in the 1950s.
The Wedgwood Texaco was on the corner of NE 85th Street from about 1948 to 1970, with a ground lease from Albert Balch and with a series of owners of the gas station. The earliest listed owner was Richard E. Thompson, a neighborhood resident who lived at 3011 NE 87th Street. Later in the 1950s, owner Gene Laabs ran ads in the Wedgwood community newsletter, the Echo, as pictured at right. Later owners in the 1960s called the station the Wilson & James Wedgwood Texaco.
We may speculate on the reasons why the Wedgwood Texaco gas station closed. It may have been affected by the Mid-East Oil Crisis and the Boeing Bust of 1967-1972, as many other gas stations closed in that era, as well. We also can look to the maturing of the main intersection of Wedgwood at NE 85th Street which by the end of the 1960s was built up with stores, including a Tradewell grocery. The closing of the gas station at NE 85th Street represents the growing dominance of banks and larger stores in Wedgwood.
The maturing of the Wedgwood neighborhood’s business district
By the early 1970s the residential areas of Wedgwood were filled up, with almost no more vacant lots for building houses. The commercial districts along 35th Avenue NE were filled in, as well, and were starting to turn over to a second-generation in ownership and in types of stores.
In Wedgwood of the 1950s there were quite a few local store owners, such as the Gagnon, McVicar and McGillivray families, and there were a lot of small stores in the neighborhood. Gradually the small stores were replaced by larger chain stores, fewer gas stations and more banks.
In 1972 Bud Gagnon took the opportunity to sell his Wedgewood Pharmacy property to University Federal Savings Bank, which was searching for a site. This bank was the second or third one to come into the Wedgwood neighborhood. The Wedgewood Pharmacy building which had been at 8517 35th Ave NE only since 1955, was torn down in 1972 to be replaced by the present brick building (currently Wells Fargo).
The present US Bank building (former Peoples Bank) at 8702 35th Ave NE was moved onto the lot in 1971 and it may have opened a little before the University Federal Savings at the corner of NE 86th. Property records show that the Peoples Bank building was originally at 1011 NE 63rd Street, built in 1961. The building was moved to Wedgwood in 1971.
This branch bank (US Bank) closed as of January 2021 and the property has been put up for sale. It is likely to be bought for redevelopment unless a buyer intends to use the present building. This closure and sale shows the continuing evolution of the Wedgwood business district as we wait to see “what’s next.”
It was not until the early 1970s that the Wedgwood commercial district was completely built up with stores and businesses. Those of us who grew up in Wedgwood tend to think of the “sameness” and duration of businesses and buildings but actually within our lifetimes there have been trends and types of businesses in Wedgwood, which have lasted perhaps twenty years or so, before giving way to another type of business. Wedgwood no longer has any 7-Eleven stores, or Dairy Queen, or a hardware store like McVicar’s or a variety store like McGillivray’s. At present Wedgwood has some businesses which had not yet been invented in the 1950s such as a yoga studio, an orange theory fitness workout studio, and Starbuck’s Coffee.
Wedgwood now has chain stores like Rite-Aid, QFC, and Subway sandwiches, and instead of gas stations Wedgwood now has a lot of banks: there are seven of them in the half-mile from NE 73rd to 87th Streets. There are four insurance agency offices and an Edward Jones investment office, signifying a more sophisticated business atmosphere for Wedgwood.
The end of the gas station era in Wedgwood
In the late 1960s-early 1970s, the Mobil gas station on the Morningside electrical substation site at the northwest corner of NE 86th Street also closed. The circa-1970 closures of the Wedgwood Texaco and the M & M Mobil left no gas stations in the heart of Wedgwood in and around the business center nearest the intersection of NE 85th Street. The opening of banks in Wedgwood was part of the 1970s demise of gas stations and small stores. The coming of more banks and big stores signified the maturing of the economic environment in Wedgwood.
“Billboard reading “Will the Last Person Leaving Seattle…,” HistoryLink Essay #1287 by Greg Lange, 1999.
Census and city directory listings, via Seattle Public Library.
Property records: Puget Sound Regional Archives, Bellevue, WA. The PSRA is the repository of the records of King County. See my house histories article on this blog for more info about researching property records.
Seattle City Clerk’s Neighborhood Atlas: neighborhood “boundaries” are arbitrary but are meant to give residents a sense of investment in the places where they live.
Thank you to the readers of the “You Know You Are From Wedgwood IF…” Facebook page, who inspired this series of articles about Wedgwood’s gas stations and neighborhood stores.