The Decatur Annex building was on NE 77th Street at the corner of 43rd Ave NE, at the southern end of what is now Decatur School. The little white wood-frame Annex was the last building from the complex of Navy housing, called Shearwater, which was on the site from 1945 to 1966.
In 2018 neighborhood activists learned that the school district planned to tear down the Decatur Annex, and the activists brought the matter to the City of Seattle Landmarks Board to advocate for historic preservation. The Annex building represented the era of World War Two housing for personnel of the Naval Air Station in Seattle and a time when housing for Navy personnel was racially integrated.
At the City of Seattle Landmarks Board meeting on January 2, 2019, the Decatur Annex failed to get enough votes in favor of historic preservation. The large cedar tree on the corner of the lot was preserved when the Decatur Annex was torn down during the week of July 8, 2019.
This blog article is about the rapid pace of change in the Wedgwood neighborhood and the number of demolitions of buildings in recent years.
When I started this blog in January 2012 I did not anticipate that, as time went on, I would have to do so many updates to my articles as changes have taken place in the Wedgwood neighborhood. I wrote about some houses which I knew would eventually be torn down, such as the Big Green House.
There have been other demolitions which were unpleasant surprises, such as The Farmhouse, and I had to add a postscript on my blog article to tell that the house is gone now, and two new houses are in its place.
In this year of 2018 it seems that there are tear-downs all around. In August there was the demolition of 3103 NE 80th Street, a house built in 1956 which had replaced an older house that I wrote about (The House in the Road). Now ironically in its turn, the house built in 1956 has been demolished to be replaced by a newer-style house.
The clock is ticking for some other structures in Wedgwood which we know will eventually be torn down, such as the Blue House (no demolition permit on file yet, as of this writing.) Redevelopment plans are in-process for the site of the Wong’s restaurant at 9400 35th Ave NE, for the Wedgwood Food Market at 6256 35th Ave NE, and for the former NE Seattle Tool Library building at 2415 NE 80th Street.
Demolition occurred on August 8, 2018, for Albert Balch’s original real estate office at 8044 35th Ave NE. Balch was the developer whose first group of houses was in a plat named Wedgwood. The name spread and eventually became the name of the neighborhood.
I am very sad that my efforts to get this original Balch building historically landmarked were not successful, and I am very disappointed that Wedgwood’s community-planning efforts, including a request to adjust the zoning on this block to preserve the business district, have been ignored by Seattle City Council. What is wanted by Wedgwoodians is retail storefronts, but due to the zoning issues, townhouses are being built in former commercial sites.
The story of Shearwater and the remaining Decatur Annex building
Another demolition is of the Decatur Annex on the corner of NE 77th Street and 43rd Ave NE, on the south side of Decatur School. The Decatur Annex, pictured below, is the last remaining building from the former Shearwater Housing lived in by Navy families, built in 1945. As of the City of Seattle Landmarks Board meeting on November 21, 2018, the board voted to consider historic preservation of the Decatur Annex. The final vote was on January 2, 2019, and there were not enough votes in favor of historic preservation of the Decatur Annex.
Schools in the neighborhood have changed
The year 2016 brought the first new school building to be built in Wedgwood in more than fifty years, the Thornton Creek School at 7712 40th Ave NE. The Thornton Creek School shares space on a city block with the Decatur School at 7711 43rd Ave NE. Built in 1961, Decatur School was named as a tribute to the Navy families living in the neighborhood’s Shearwater Housing.
After the new Thornton Creek School building opened in September 2016, the Decatur School building was vacant for a year while being renovated. Decatur School re-opened in September 2017 with a specialized program, Advanced Learning. On the school site, the one remaining wood-frame Shearwater structure, called the Decatur Annex, was still standing at the northwest corner of NE 77th and 43rd Ave NE, though no longer being used. The Decatur Annex was demolished in the week of July 8, 2019.
The Shearwater saga in Wedgwood
There are not many people still around in Wedgwood who remember the long-running saga of the Shearwater barracks structures occupied by Navy personnel, located east of 40th Ave NE on and near the present Decatur and Thornton Creek schools block.
Shearwater was built in late 1945 by the Seattle Housing Authority for wartime use of civilian wartime workers at the Naval Air Station on Sand Point Way NE, about a mile away. A few families moved into Shearwater in December 1945, and eventually all 315 units were filled up. Ownership of the Shearwater site was turned over to the Navy on April 1, 1948.
After World War Two ended in 1945, the numbers of servicemen in Seattle actually increased, as people continued to serve out their enlistment or decided that they wanted to stay and settle in Seattle after the war. The post-war demand for housing in Seattle was so high that these supposedly-temporary structures, named the Shearwater Housing, were still occupied into the 1960s.
In a series of five articles on this blog I have told the story of how neighborhood activism coalesced in the 1950s around the “problem” of the Shearwater Housing and the City of Seattle zoning for single- or multiple-family housing in the area.
An early community group called Eastwood had organized to resist the building of an apartment complex along NE 75th Street, today’s Wedgewood Estates. Activists then applied to the City of Seattle for Wedgwood to be zoned as a neighborhood of single-family housing only, in order to prevent the building of any more apartments or duplexes, and to help get rid of the Shearwater barracks.
As of 1956, the combined Wedgwood District Community Club turned its attention to the blocks around Shearwater. Ultimately it would take efforts sustained over many years’ time, before the Shearwater housing was closed and the site sold to a developer. Shown below is the photo from the auction materials of December 1965. All of the remaining barracks buildings were finally demolished in March 1966, as per agreement with the winning bidder of the auction. The auction did not include the school block; the school district itself cleared those barracks buildings to create the large play area and field space for the school.
The Decatur Annex
When Decatur School was built in 1961 at 7711 43rd Ave NE, barracks buildings still shared its block, as shown in the close-up photo of 1963 below. Finally, the entire block was given for school use and the barracks on that block were demolished in December 1965. Other barracks buildings on surrounding blocks were removed by March 1966 as part of the agreement with the developer who had bought the Shearwater properties at auction.
After the clearing of barracks buildings from the entire school block, in 1966 an addition to Decatur School was built at its southern end closest to NE 77th Street.
One remaining Shearwater structure, the office and community center, was at the southernmost corner of NE 77th Street and 43rd Ave NE. This wood-frame structure was left in place and functioned like a school portable.
The Decatur Annex was used to help increase capacity for the school and provide a place for some activities such as art projects. Over the years the Decatur Annex building hosted various other programs such as a preschool.
Now that the Decatur School building has been renovated and is in use again, and the new Thornton Creek School has also added to the capacity for Seattle students, the school district said that the Decatur Annex is not needed. The school district’s plan, after demolition of the Decatur Annex in July 2019, is to replace it with a landscaped area for open space, and possibly some planting beds for use by Decatur students.
A hearing on the proposed demolition
On July 20, 2018, I (Valarie) went to the Seattle Public Schools headquarters to attend a hearing on the subject of the proposed demolition of the Decatur Annex.
While walking from the Sodo Light Rail Station to the school district’s office at 3rd Ave South & South Lander Streets, I noted that, just like everywhere else in Seattle these days, construction was going on all around. I had to ask a flagman how to get into the district’s office building, and he showed me where I could approach without being run over by a bulldozer.
The hearing was conducted courtroom-style, moderated by a hearing examiner, an attorney who contracts with groups for the purposes of decisions. The appellant was a representative of a group who challenged the school district to show that it had adequately reviewed all of the environmental, cultural and social issues of the Decatur Annex, as to whether the Annex should be demolished or not.
Representing the school district at the hearing on July 20th was the senior project manager of capital works, and the school district also called two witnesses. These witnesses were independent consultants from environmental and landscaping companies who had reviewed the project, with the results compiled in what is called a SEPA document (State Environmental Policy Act).
The SEPA checklist for demolition of the Decatur Annex states that:
“The building is to be demolished because it is in poor physical condition and does not support the educational programs at Decatur Elementary or Thornton Creek Elementary schools. Removal of the building was recommended as part of the departure process for the construction of Thornton Creek Elementary School under Master Use Permit application #3015707…… Following demolition of the building, the area will be regraded and landscaped.” (Quote from the SEPA checklist prepared by Environmental Science Associates for Seattle Public Schools.)
The “departure process” referred to in the above paragraph, was discussed in the community input in the year 2014 leading up to the construction of Thornton Creek School, completed 2016. In some items the school building would “depart from” the single-family zoning around the school site, and construction permits were applied for with these exceptions to Seattle’s zoning code. During the process, the community-member advisory committee to the Thornton Creek School project recommended that the Decatur Annex building be removed.
Testimony of consultants at the July 20, 2018 hearing
Paula Johnson of Environmental Science Associates (ESA), the consulting firm which prepared the SEPA checklist for the school district, testified at the July 20th hearing on how the site of the Decatur Annex had been assessed for any possible issues such as previous native American use or environmental contaminants in the soil.
The consulting company, Environmental Science Associates, had previously surveyed the entire block prior to the building of the Thornton Creek School, so their conclusions on the site of the Decatur Annex were similar. I (Valarie) had attended a hearing on February 27, 2015 on the subject of the building of the new school, so I was familiar with the list of potential concerns which were reviewed again at the July 20, 2018 hearing.
No soil contaminants or other issues have been identified on the site which would cause any problems during demolition of the Decatur Annex. There is also a contingency plan in place, called “inadvertent discovery,” in case the demolition workers dig up any artifacts which appear to be of historic value.
At the July 20, 2018 hearing at the school district headquarters, Kas Kinkead of Cascade Design Collaborative told of the environmental planning and landscaping for the Decatur Annex site. One “exceptional tree,” a large Western red cedar at the corner of NE 77th Street, has been identified and will be preserved. An arborist (tree specialist) will be present during demolition of the Annex, to ensure that the protective perimeter around the tree is maintained.
At the hearing on July 20th my friend and high school classmate Cynthia told the story of her family’s involvement with Shearwater. Cynthia’s parents, Tiburcio and Consolacion Mejia, were immigrants from the Philippines. Mr. Mejia enlisted in the US Navy and rose to become Chief Petty Officer at the Naval Air Station in Seattle, where he trained younger officers.
When the Mejia family transferred from Ohio to Seattle in 1956, they lived in Shearwater housing in the 7500 block of 43rd Ave NE. They overcame racial prejudice to become homeowners in the neighborhood in 1962.
Cynthia told of her growing-up years in the Shearwater community with its many children and the rainbow of colors of the Navy families, such as blacks, Filipinos, and some Japanese war brides. Cynthia’s mother Connie was a community leader and the present Decatur Annex building was the site of many social gatherings.
At the July 20, 2019 hearing on demolition, school district representatives agreed that the placing of a historic marker can be considered for the site if and when the Annex is demolished. Old-timers like Cynthia and me would like to preserve the memory of the Shearwater housing and its place in the history of the Wedgwood neighborhood.
Does the Decatur Annex qualify for historic preservation?
Subsequent to the hearing on July 20, 2018, a concerned neighbor applied to the Seattle Landmarks Board and the board accepted a nomination report on the Decatur Annex. At their November 21, 2018 meeting, the City of Seattle’s Landmarks Board heard the presentation of why the Decatur Annex could be considered for historic preservation. At the second hearing on January 2, 2019, the Decatur Annex did not get enough votes in favor of preservation.