In January 1972 a very unusual house-moving event took place in the Wedgwood neighborhood in northeast Seattle. Twelve small houses (600 square feet each) were moved from 40th Ave NE near Decatur School, to 7320 35th Ave NE in the business district of Wedgwood.
Behind a Dairy Queen building near the Wedgwood Safeway grocery store, the little houses were stacked up on a hillside and became an apartment complex. These little houses were the last vestiges of the long-running Shearwater controversy which had begun on the blocks around the present Decatur and Thornton Creek School buildings.
What was Shearwater?
From 1945 to 1965 the name Shearwater referred to a cluster of Navy barracks on and near the corner of 40th Ave NE and NE 77th Street. In 1966 the barracks were torn down, and from 1966 to 1972 Shearwater was used as the name for a developer’s plan of townhouses on those same blocks.
The developer’s townhouse plan was never fulfilled because of legal wrangling over zoning, as to whether single-family or multiple-family housing could be built on the Shearwater blocks. While waiting for the legal dispute to be resolved, the developer built the “little houses” on 40th Ave NE and used them as rental properties, meant to antagonize Wedgwood’s community representatives.
The first phase of Shearwater: 1945 to 1965
Shearwater in Wedgwood began in 1945 when Seattle Housing Authority built emergency housing for the huge numbers of people arriving in the city after the end of World War Two. Large numbers of servicemen relocated to Seattle to finish their term of duty, some at the nearby Naval Air Station in northeast Seattle.
Some military personnel who had finished their service after World War Two, wanted to settle in Seattle permanently, which caused a big demand for housing.
In 1948 the Shearwater buildings were signed over to the Navy. The barracks were then used exclusively for housing of those serving at the Naval Air Station on Sand Point Way NE. The name Shearwater was chosen because the ocean-going bird symbolized the Navy’s work.
The Naval Air Station was at 7400 Sand Point Way NE on the shore of Lake Washington, and the Shearwater housing was located only about a mile-and-a-half straight west, along 40th Ave NE at NE 77th Street in the Wedgwood neighborhood.
The 315 units at Shearwater were not concentrated on one street nor were they enclosed by a fence like “base housing.” Some of the barracks were on the present site of the Decatur and Thornton Creek Schools at NE 77th Street, with other barracks buildings scattered around on some surrounding blocks.
In their annual report for the year 1945, Seattle Housing Authority admitted that the Shearwater barracks were not very well-built due to haste and due to difficulty in obtaining construction materials. It wasn’t long until the barracks began to show deterioration. As soon as World War Two ended in 1945, the contrast between the barracks buildings and the tidy single-family homes in the Wedgwood neighborhood, became more apparent.
During the 1950s when the Wedgwood neighborhood was booming with brand-new houses, it was felt that the Shearwater barracks detracted from the look of the neighborhood. The newly-organized Wedgwood Community Club began to agitate for the removal of the run-down Shearwater buildings. This long-running saga is described in the Shearwater series of articles on this blog.
The second phase of Shearwater: 1965 to 1972
Finally, after years of effort by community and congressional representatives, Shearwater was closed in 1965. An auction of the property was held in December 1965. The winning bidder, George Apostol, received his official approval letter in February 1966 with the requirement that he must remove the vacant barracks buildings within ninety days. Mr. Apostol met that requirement on March 1, 1966.
The only building not demolished by or before 1966 was the former Shearwater Hall, which had been the office and community center of the Navy housing. After Shearwater closed, the community hall had been absorbed into the Decatur School property at 7711 43rd Ave NE. It was used for many years as an auxiliary classroom, a site of after-school programs and a preschool. Shearwater Hall/Decatur Annex was finally torn down in 2019.
After the sale of the Shearwater property at auction in December 1965, everyone expected that in 1966 Mr. Apostol would go ahead and build houses similar to those on surrounding streets in Wedgwood, but that did not happen. Instead, Mr. Apostol engaged in a vitriolic fight with the Wedgwood Community Club about what kind of houses would be built. At issue was the zoning, as to whether Mr. Apostol could build townhouses, or whether the zoning required single-family detached houses.
The third phase of Shearwater: 1972 to 2020
During his fight with the neighborhood association, in 1968 Mr. Apostol built at least twelve “little houses” measuring 600 square feet each, which he used as rental properties. Most of the little houses were placed along the arterial 40th Ave NE in the blocks from NE 75th to NE 80th Streets, prominently in view which was meant to aggravate the Wedgwood Community Club.
Finally in 1970 Mr. Apostol walked away from the Shearwater project, losing his entire investment, and the properties reverted to the bank.
In November 1971 another developer, C. Robert Suess, bought the little houses from the bank. He had the little houses moved to a property he owned at 7320 35th Ave NE. Mr. Suess had been contracted to build a new Dairy Queen on that site in 1964, so he was the property owner but not the operator of Dairy Queen. Behind the Dairy Queen, Mr. Suess stacked up the little houses on the steep hillside, making them into an apartment complex.
The Wedgwood Dairy Queen closed in about 1979 and since then the building has had a series of pizza companies, beginning with Domino’s and at present, Veraci.
The little houses, now called the Wedgewood Cottage Apartments, look as though they might tumble down the slope at any minute, and yet they have clung to the hillside for almost fifty years.
The end of the Shearwater saga in 2020?
As of January 2020 the property at 7320 35th Ave NE has been put up for sale, which includes the present Veraci Pizza building at the front of the lot and the Wedgewood Cottage Apartments behind it. We anticipate that a buyer might continue the lease to Veraci Pizza but might tear down the apartment complex and redevelop the site with townhouses. This would be an ironic finish to the Shearwater saga since the issue of townhouses was a source of conflict between previous developers in Wedgwood (Apostol and Suess) and townhouses are a continuing source of concern in the Wedgwood neighborhood today.
Changes in the built environment in Wedgwood
A neighborhood-history blogger of Portland, Oregon, has written,
“We know change is the only real constant in our neighborhood life, but it seems we’ve been saying goodbye to businesses and buildings more frequently than usual these days.” (Almeda Old House History, Portland, Oregon. “Another Neighborhood Goodbye: Food King Market,” January 31, 2020.)
In the present era, buildings in Wedgwood’s business district on 35th Ave NE are being torn down and replaced with townhouses. Current City of Seattle zoning regulations do not require that buildings along the arterial 35th Ave NE have storefronts, which has led to a decline in the number of offices and stores in Wedgwood.
In the past seventy-five years since the Wedgwood neighborhood began to acquire its identity, there have been different phases in the types and the appearance of the Wedgwood business district. Due to the zoning issue which has not been properly addressed by Seattle City Council, retail and other business buildings in Wedgwood are now being torn down with townhouses built in their place. It remains to be seen, now that the property at 7320 35th Ave NE is for sale, what will happen to the Veraci pizza building and the apartments behind it.
National Archives of Seattle, 6125 Sand Point Way NE: records of the Shearwater Housing, Currently this branch of the National Archives is threatened with closure due to the decision of a federal government committee on property use. All citizens of Seattle, Washington State, Alaska, Idaho and Oregon should contact their elected representatives to advocate that the National Archives branch in Seattle should not be closed.
Property record cards from the Puget Sound Regional Archives, Bellevue, WA, repository of the property records of King County.
Seattle Municipal Archives, third floor, Seattle City Hall: records of Seattle Housing Authority.