Saving Wedgwood: Historic Preservation and Best-Use Planning in the Commercial Zones

In the 1940s during World War Two the population of Seattle swelled with war workers, and in the 1950s the population continued to increase with people who wanted to make their homes here in the beautiful Seattle area.

Young married couples of the 1950s loved the affordable homes built by Balch in the new Wedgwood development.

In the 1950s in Seattle, a new generation of young married couples was starting new lives and wanted their own houses.  The thinly populated northeast Seattle area, much of which was still outside the official Seattle City Limits, began to fill up with single-family housing.

A developer, Albert Balch, acquired and built on tracts of land which became the Wedgwood neighborhood.  Wedgwood is centered around NE 85th Street with a commercial district on 35th Ave NE and with single-family homes to the east and west of 35th Ave NE.

The Wedgwood neighborhood in northeast Seattle has a linear commercial district along 35th Avenue NE.

Because Wedgwood did not come completely into the Seattle City Limits until 1954, Balch’s housing developments were not yet subject to City zoning regulations.  Balch did his own urban planning, reserving the intersection of NE 85th Street for commercial development along on the arterial 35th Ave NE.

Balch built office buildings at 8050 and 8044 35th Ave NE for his personal office and that of his development and sales staff.  Other buildings in that complex from 8014 to 8050 35th Ave NE were medical and dental offices.  But Balch did not know that his office complex contained a fatal flaw:  it was built in a block which up to the present time is still zoned residential, not commercial.

The gradual growth of the historic preservation movement in Seattle

A Victorian-style house doomed to demolition on the site of the Worlds Fair which became Seattle Center. Werner Lenggenhager photo collection, Seattle Public Library.

After the end of the 1940s war years, some people in Seattle wanted to sweep away old houses and buildings and create a refreshed post-war city of new, modern structures.  The World’s Fair held in Seattle in 1962, called Century 21, was built on lower Queen Anne by demolishing a neighborhood of houses dating back to the 1880s.  The area that was cleared for the Century 21 World’s Fair is today’s Seattle Center.

The urban renewal movement as it came to be called, next proposed the clearing of other deteriorated old areas such as the Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle.  But by the early 1960s some people were beginning to react to the wholesale destruction caused by the Century 21 project as well as the building of the Interstate 5 freeway which decimated neighborhood housing stock.  A preservation movement began among people who thought that old structures still had value.  Some people formed a group to resist the further extension of freeways and some people organized for preservation of historic architecture in Seattle.

In the 1960s some people felt that the Pike Place Market should be torn down and replaced with a new building.  Photo #77165 courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives.

A turning point came in 1963 when Seattle City Council adopted a plan to clear away the Pike Place Market and replace it with a shopping mall which would compete with suburban malls like Northgate.  In this plan, some of Pioneer Square would have been torn down, as well, because part of the proposal was to build a ring road around downtown Seattle with large parking garages at the four corners of the downtown shopping complex.  Public resistance to the plan was organized in a Save the Market campaign.

By the end of the 1960s the preservation movement had established itself with an official City of Seattle historic preservation department overseeing the historic designation of buildings.  In addition to individual buildings which have been nominated for preservation, Seattle now has eight Historic Districts which include all buildings within a several-block area.  These include Pioneer Square and the Pike Place Market, the first areas to be designated as historic districts in 1970-1971.  The most recently-designated historic district is the former Sand Point Naval Air Station at 7400 Sand Point Way NE in northeast Seattle, nominated for preservation in 2011.

Historic preservation comes late to northeast Seattle

The Jolly Roger restaurant was at 8721 Lake City Way NE. Photo courtesy of Shoreline Historical Museum.

After the establishment of the City’s preservation guidelines in the early 1970s, the first attempt to “landmark” a building in northeast Seattle was a citizen’s 1979 nomination of the Jolly Roger Roadhouse.  This 1934 structure at 8721 Lake City Way NE was an example of roadhouse architecture meant to catch the eye of drivers along the highway.

The Jolly Roger typified the entertainment culture of the 1930s and 1940s when couples would go out for dining and dancing.  The nomination of the Jolly Roger was not appreciated by the owner of the building as of 1979.  A fire a few years later, which completely destroyed the building, made the issue of preservation moot.

Lake City Branch Library

After the Jolly Roger, it was not until about 2003 that other buildings in northeast Seattle began to be examined for historic preservation, and the first ones to be nominated were libraries and schools.  The Northeast Branch Library and the Lake City Library, the Bryant, Cedar Park and Eckstein schools were all nominated to preserve the outstanding features of their architecture while some interior remodeling, additions and improvements were allowed.  The former Lake City School building at 2611 NE 125th Street, now converted to professional offices, was landmarked in 2009.

In the year 2014 the Theodora Home on 35th Avenue NE at NE 68th Street was landmarked.  The guidelines of historic preservation allow a change of use of a building, and so the long-time low income Theodora residence was converted to “regular” apartments and was renamed The MOD.

What are the criteria for a historic landmark?

The former Theodora, now called The MOD, is on 35th Ave NE nearest to the corner of NE 68th Street.

The historic preservation program lists six criteria for a landmark, and to qualify a building must meet one or more of the criteria.  The Theodora, for example, met three criteria identified as C, D, and E:

C) It is associated in a significant way with a significant aspect of the cultural, political, or economic heritage of the community, City, state or nation;

D) It embodies the distinctive visible characteristics of an architectural style, or period, or a method of construction;

E) It is an outstanding work of a designer or builder.

What buildings in northeast Seattle qualify according to the preservation criteria?

The Big Green House at 7321 35th Ave NE was hemmed in by commercial development until finally being torn down in 2015.

In the years before the Big Green House at 7321 35th Ave NE was demolished in 2015, I (Valarie) was often asked why the house was not eligible for historic preservation.  The house was very old, possibly the oldest building in Wedgwood, but “oldness” in itself is not one of the criteria for historic preservation.

Although the Big Green House stood out in Wedgwood, it was not associated with a broader historical context or specific event which would have made it worthy of historic preservation.  These criteria, numbers A, B and F in the list, are sometimes called the “George Washington” test, as in “did George Washington sleep here?”

Criteria A, B and F of the preservation standards speak to the impacts of people and of events which took place in a building:

A) It is the location of, or is associated in a significant way with, a historic event with a       significant effect upon the community, City, state, or nation;

B) It is associated in a significant way with the life of a person important in the history of     the City, state, or nation:

F) Because of its prominence of spatial location, contrasts of siting, age, or scale, it is an        easily identifiable visual feature of its neighborhood or the City and contributes to the           distinctive quality or identity of such neighborhood or the City.

Saving Wedgwood:  are Balch’s office buildings worthy of preservation?

Balch offices in 1962, with the Crawford & Conover real estate sign at right in front of 8044 35th Ave NE. Photo #76719 Seattle Municipal Archives.

It is my contention that Balch’s complex of office buildings from 8014 to 8050 35th Ave NE qualify for historic preservation under criteria A, B and F, because of Albert Balch’s contribution to post-war housing developments and the creation of the Wedgwood neighborhood.  However, I (Valarie) have not succeeded in getting the City’s Historic Preservation department to consider the Balch office buildings.

The fatal flaw of Balch’s cluster of office buildings is the zoning.  This block is now zoned residential.  In 2016 one building in the Balch office group, 8038 35th Ave NE, was demolished and replaced with townhouses.  In this month of June 2018 we anticipate that the building at 8044 35th Ave NE is going to be demolished and likewise replaced.

The Seattle Audubon building (at left) was Balch’s original administrative office.  At right was the real estate office called Crawford & Conover. Since the 1950s the original C-shaped sign was used by the current businesses.

The building at 8044 35th Ave NE has a C-shaped sign in front because that building was the original real estate sales office for the Balch developments under the company name Crawford & Conover.  Balch’s personal and administrative office was next door at 8050 35th Ave NE in what is now the Seattle Audubon Society office and Nature Shop.

What would Balch think?

The developer of Wedgwood, Albert Balch (1903-1976) was not opposed to newer forms of architecture, but I think he would be dismayed by the current lack of planning and the lack of support for the business zone in the neighborhood which he created, Wedgwood.

Balch built tracts of houses to the east and west of 35th Ave NE and he preserved the commercial district centered along 35th Ave NE to enhance the livability of the neighborhood.  He knew that Wedgwood would need a variety of stores and businesses.  In addition to the use of two buildings for his own corporate offices, Balch’s complex of buildings from 8014 to 8050 35th Ave NE was originally intended for medical and dental, to provide these needed services in the neighborhood.

These townhouse structures were finished in early 2016 on the former site of the Big Green House at 7321 35th Ave NE.

If Balch were to visit Wedgwood today, I think Balch would be concerned as to why there is not now better over-all planning for clustering the businesses along the arterial 35th Ave NE and for creating separation from the housing areas in Wedgwood.

I don’t think Balch would be favorably impressed by the townhouses which have been built, not only because of their unappealing architecture but because the townhouses loom so closely over the arterial 35th Ave NE and have been built in what should have been designated commercial zones.   Townhouses have been crammed into the former site of the Big Green House at 7321 35th Ave NE where the townhouses are incongruous with the commercial structures surrounding them.

Best-use planning:  preserving Wedgwood’s commercial district

Townhouses are being crammed into spaces of the former office buildings built by Balch.  The building in the foreground is 8044 35th Ave NE which is scheduled to be demolished and replaced by more townhouses.

At 8038 35th Ave NE where townhouses now stand in place of one of Balch’s office buildings, the townhouses are inharmonious with their surroundings and do not provide the retail storefronts which are wanted by the neighborhood.

Not only are these townhouses not a comfortable place to live next to the traffic noise on the arterial 35th Ave NE, but they are also crowding out the space needed for Wedgwood’s business district.  These are issues which City Council was asked to address when the Future of 35th zoning request was presented to them in 2015, but Council has never taken action on it.

Wedgwood is changing, and while we need to accept some changes, the lack of business-zone planning and the lack of interest from City Council representatives on needed issues, is something that we shouldn’t just accept without protest.  Due to the unresponsiveness of the current councilmembers who supposedly represent Wedgwood, it appears to me that the only solution is to plan ahead to the next election.  Northeast Seattle needs to elect more effective City Councilmembers who will address the needs of better zoning and support for the business district along 35th Ave NE.

Sources:

“Century 21 – The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, Part One,” HistoryLink Essay #2290 by Alan J. Stein, 2000.

A grant-funded, coordinated neighborhood design plan for what people want in future commercial developments along 35th Ave NE.

“Demolition of buildings on Century 21 Exposition/Seattle World’s Fair site begins on November 12, 1958,” HistoryLink Essay #10013 by Paula Becker, 2012.

The Future of 35th Project:  This grant-funded plan was developed with community participation in Wedgwood in the years 2012-2014.  Architectural planners served as advisers in the Future of 35th community meetings.  They guided the analysis of Wedgwood’s business area layout, and the project created a report and a request for City Council to adjust the zoning at the commercial intersections of Wedgwood (primarily at the cross-streets of NE 75th and 85th Streets.)  What was wanted was zoning regulations requiring retail storefronts, not townhouses, in the commercial zones of Wedgwood.  City Council never acted on this request.

Pike Place Market History, Seattle, WA.

The Seattles that Might Have Been,” by Eric Scigliano.  The Seattle Times, June 10, 2018.

Werner Lenggenhager, photographer, documented the old houses which were to be cleared away for the building of the Century 21 Worlds Fair site.

Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, Historic Preservation program guidelines.

Seattle Municipal Archives photo #77165 of 1968, Pike Place Market.

The Werner Lenggenhager Photograph Collection at Seattle Public Library has an on-line finding aid and listed categories.  The photos I used in this blog post are from the 1962 Century 21 World’s Fair category, sub-category Seattle Center before Century 21.

 

 

About Wedgwood in Seattle History

Valarie is a volunteer history writer for neighborhood history in Seattle, Washington.
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