After Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered an increase in military preparedness in the USA. This directly affected the Seattle area due to its nearby military bases and production of war-related materials like airplanes. For these reasons, industries began to hire more workers and Seattle started to pull out of the long economic depression of the 1930s. Real estate developers also began to see a demand for more housing as the population of Seattle began to increase.
A “plat” means any area of land for which there is a map of streets with lots marked for houses or other buildings. One plat of houses in northeast Seattle which began to be built in 1939 was called Fir Crest, built by M.W. Mylroie. The name “Wedgwood” had not yet been invented for this area of northeast Seattle because developer Albert Balch had not yet begun his group of houses which eventually gave their name to the neighborhood.
Balch’s beginnings in northeast Seattle
Albert Balch, the developer of the Wedgwood group of houses, was into “networking” before that word was invented. Before the advent of the Internet and social media like Facebook, people would read newspapers to find out what was going on in the world in general or in a specific industry such as real estate. There were many kinds of industry-specific newsletters and magazines, and many kinds of groups and associations.
Albert Balch was a “networker” who belonged to groups such as alumni of the University of Washington including his fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and he attended meetings of contractors and builders associations. We can assume that in talking with others and keeping abreast of trends in housing developments, Balch sometimes got ideas of what he would like to do in his own projects.
In the 1930s, both before and after Albert Balch and his business partner, Ralph P. Jones, started out with building houses in the View Ridge plat nearest to NE 70th Street, they spent time driving around to see what other builders were doing. One of the groups of houses which Balch may have seen, and which may have helped him formulate his ideas for Wedgwood, was the Fir Crest plat which began in 1939 from NE 88th to NE 90th Streets, 27th to 30th Avenues NE.
The Mylroie family in Seattle
Alfred W. Mylroie was born in 1873 in Wisconsin. He came to Seattle in the 1890s when people were coming from all over the USA due to the advertising of the city as the jumping-off place to the Yukon Gold Rush. Even a person who was not planning to join the gold rush knew that there would be other economic opportunities in Seattle. All kinds of commercial ventures were launched and there was a population increase with increased demand for housing. Alfred Mylroie became a house builder. He married and spent the rest of his life in Seattle.
Alfred and Lillian Mylroie already had three children with the youngest age ten when a fourth child, Maurice, was born to them in 1914. Maurice W. Mylroie had the advantage of being born to parents who were already well-established financially. As a young adult M.W. Mylroie started out in his own career as a developer with a piece of property which his father owned.
Like Albert Balch, Alfred Mylroie saw that the areas north of NE 65th Street which were still outside the Seattle City Limits in 1939, had a lot of vacant land and there was future potential for housing developments. Mylroie had purchased properties here and there to be kept for later development.
The Fir Crest plat is planned in 1939
Maurice was 25 years old when his father set Maurice to work to create his first group of houses. In July 1939 the plat of the Fir Crest Addition to King County was filed by A.W. Mylroie, his son Maurice and Maurice’s wife Janet. The plat map showed the layout of house lots on three streets, NE 88th, 89th and 90th. To the north was the Morningside Heights group of houses which had begun to be developed in the 1920s and which had many Craftsman-style houses. To the east of the Fir Crest plat was Earl J. McLaughlin’s, a plat which also had older houses in styles of the early 1900s.
The houses in the new Fir Crest would contrast with the early-1900s houses on the edges of the plat, but not too sharply. The Fir Crest houses retained traditional architectural forms such as a gable (triangular roof form) but were modern in other aspects of their form, such as minimal decoration.
To the south and west of Fir Crest, as of 1939 the land was marked as “unplatted.” That undeveloped land was owned by a man named L.Y. DeVries who lived in his house near the corner of NE 86th Street and 30th Ave NE. DeVries’ land was bought by Albert Balch in 1950 and became the Wedgwood development #4. Part of Wedgwood #4 was taken for the site of the new Wedgwood School, and DeVries’ house was moved across the street to 3000 NE 85th Street.
Before there was a Wedgwood, there was Fir Crest
The 47 houses in the Fir Crest plat were built over the time period from 1939 to 1941. The houses were advertised at the purchase price of $5,500, terms $600 down payment and $36 per month. The houses were in a style called minimal traditional, meaning that the houses were not an old style like Craftsman, but looked streamlined and modern because the houses had few decorative details. The “traditional” part of the house form was a pitched roof or hip roof, and many of the houses had a decorative gable form over the front entry.
The houses were built wide to the street and all with the same set-back, meaning the distance from the street to the house. The houses varied just enough in design so that they did not look too much alike, but the consistency of set-back and similar bulk, scale and height gave the Fir Crest development a harmonious look. All of the Fir Crest houses were on lots of more than 6,500 square feet with a good-size backyard.
Most attractive of all was the preservation of fir trees all around the houses in the Fir Crest plat which reduced the scorched-earth appearance of a new development. Real estate agent Tom Coppage who lived nearby, advertised Fir Crest as having “beautiful native trees that have been left standing to add charm and value to your home.” The real estate advertisement quoted one of the first purchasers who said, “We have the green country surrounding with all the city conveniences. We just couldn’t resist the charm of location and home.”
Did the Fir Crest plat inspire the first Wedgwood?
The above description of the Fir Crest plat – modern-style houses but with a traditional look such as a gabled front roof form, set in large lots and with the preservation of trees – sounds like the description of the first Wedgwood plat which Balch began in 1941.
We can imagine Balch driving along the streets of the Fir Crest project in 1939-1941 and getting ideas of what he wanted for his first development of houses which would be called Wedgwood. Balch could see the consistency of scale which led to the harmonious look of the Fir Crest plat, and the wonderful tall trees which gave Fir Crest an atmosphere of a country oasis in the city.
Whether or not Balch got his tree-preservation ideas from Fir Crest, we know that in 1941 he went ahead with the first Wedgwood plat on a very similar format.
The first Wedgwood development was on a forty-acre tract from NE 80th to 85th Streets, 30th to 35th Avenues NE. The site was heavily treed with only one structure, a log cabin, which had been the home of the original property owner, Mr. Thorpe the ginseng farmer.
The Jesuits of Seattle University had purchased Mr. Thorpe’s land in October 1929 with the intention of moving the university there, but the economic depression of the 1930s delayed the plan.
By 1940 the Jesuits had decided not to relocate Seattle University to a new site, and so they sold the northeast Seattle property to Albert Balch. The log cabin on the property had been used from 1929 to 1940 as the neighborhood’s first Catholic Church. When the property was sold to Balch, a new parish was formed and the church group began looking for another location. Available land on 35th Ave NE at the corner of NE 89th Street became the new Our Lady of the Lake.
In an April 1956 article in the Wedgwood community newsletter The Echo, Albert Balch was interviewed as to how he came to choose the name Wedgwood for his housing development. He said that he had let his wife Edith choose the name and that she was an admirer of the Wedgwood brand of pottery and fine china produced in England.
Although Balch did not specifically say so, we can guess that he thought the “wood” reference was an appropriate allusion to the wooded character of the property. Like Fir Crest, the new Wedgwood housing development would be built in among tall trees.
The house styles for Wedgwood were Cape Cod or Colonial, hearkening back to New England villages. Balch marked the entrance to Wedgwood with stone pillars like those of an English estate.
The original Wedgwood was Balch’s first development built on a whole site, where he could plan the layout of streets, lots and preservation of trees, and he could achieve the same harmonious look as he had seen in the Fir Crest project.
The next generation of houses
Today the Fir Crest and Wedgwood plats are more than seventy-five years old and we are beginning to see tear-downs of some of the houses. In Wedgwood the consistent look of the development has been marred by the building of some monster houses that are out of scale with surrounding houses, and new houses which are in jarringly different style from the original Wedgwood homes.
In addition to the age of the houses and needed upkeep, at issue is that the original Wedgwood and Fir Crest were built as starter-homes, some with only two bedrooms and one bathroom. The census of April 1940 showed that most of the first residents of Fir Crest on NE 88th Street were young couples who did not yet have any children.
Today a new house in Wedgwood can cost more than $800,000, is much larger than the original Wedgwood houses and has sophisticated systems of wiring, heating and media access.
At this writing, most of the original houses in the Fir Crest plat are intact, an oasis of quiet streets with small starter homes as originally built in 1939-1941.
A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia & Lee McAlester, 1992 edition. Page 42, roof forms; pages 478-479 minimal traditional architecture.
Census and City Directory listings: The census can be accessed on-line through the Seattle Public Library. On the 9th and 10th floors of the downtown Seattle Library there are city directories which include a reverse-look-up of addresses.
Coppage Realty: City directory listings how that from 1936 to 1951 Tom Coppage had his real estate office on Brooklyn Avenue in the University District. He later moved his office into one of Albert Balch’s commercial buildings at 8038 35th Ave NE. In the 1950s the Coppage family lived at 2562 NE 83rd Street in Wedgwood.
Newspaper articles: Seattle Times December 8, 1935, page 27, “Filing of the First Plat of a Subdivision (View Ridge)”; November 19, 1939, page 26, “Homes Speeded at Fir Crest”; February 25, 1940, page 20, “Tom Coppage Offers a Preview Parade Fir Crest.”
Current photos of houses: All photos by Valarie unless otherwise stated. I often take photos around Wedgwood but seldom does anyone stop and ask me what I am doing, and no one has called the cops yet.
Plat maps: on-line at the King County Parcel Viewer.
Property records: Original property tax assessors photos are from the Puget Sound Regional Archives, Bellevue, WA.
Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project: This on-line source of Seattle history is hosted by the University of Washington. In the essay Segregated Seattle, is listed some of the plats which had restrictive covenants prohibiting non-whites from living in the houses; sadly Fir Crest was among these.