The Pink Elephant Car Wash -- itself architecturally unremarkable, but a beloved landmark nonetheless -- is among the many Seattle icons that may fall to developers' plans.
the Kirkland-based developer that would like to tear down the Ballard Denny's at the corner of 15th Avenue Northwest and Northwest Market Street, has hired local historian Mildred Andrews to research the building and write a Seattle landmark nomination.
The building came to the attention of preservationists when Crosscut reported
that the building's designer, Clarence Mayhew, was an important mid-century modern architect from the San Francisco Bay Area. The structure is considered by some experts to be an excellent example of post-war modern "googie" architecture.
The developer's plans have also come under fire
from local residents, business leaders and nearby developers who also worry that the proposed Rhapsody plan for the site isn't appropriate for the neighborhood's new walkability emphasis.
Andrews, a respected social historian and preservationist, says Rhapsody has given her "carte blanche," though she admits the developer "is hoping that the Seattle landmarks board will reject the nomination." It is not uncommon for developers and property owners to submit their own landmark nominations
in hopes of scuttling attempts by others to obtain historic landmark status for their properties. If a landmark nomination is turned down, it cannot be appealed (except by the owner) for five years -- by which time the structure may well be demolished.
Andrews says she is moving full steam ahead with no agenda and will let the chips fall where they may.
She has uncovered some interesting tidbits. Over lunch in Pioneer Square last week she shared some of her findings from newspaper archives. She found that the building of the Denny's building -- originally part of the Seattle-founded Manning's cafeteria chain -- has been well covered by the press. When it opened in 1964 its exotic curving roof line and vaulted interior caused it to be called the "Taj Mahal" of Ballard -- which may say as much about what passed for exotic in Snoose Junction in that era as it does about the building's design.
indicate the new Manning's made a splash when it was built. Edward Manning, a partner in the restaurant chain, described the unusual design in the Seattle Times
as a "marriage of Northwest and Polynesian longhouse in the idiom of Paul Bunyan" which, bizarre as it sounds, is very apt.
When Manning's closed and the Denny's chain considered tearing the place down in the mid-1980s, there was a neighborhood outcry to preserve the building, a favorite gathering place for Ballard's old-time residents and senior citizens. Denny's relented and remodeled the restaurant, including covering up the original high ceiling with a false one that is still in place. The original one, no doubt still lurking beneath the acoustic tiles, featured large curved ribs that resembled the inside of a wooden ship's hull. No wonder the old salts of seafaring Ballard felt at home.
Public outcry is comparatively muted today, indicative of just how much Ballard has changed since the mid-80s. The Manning's generation has died off or moved to the Norse Home.
Andrews said the Ballard Historical Society had no information about the site. The building was unquestionably regarded as a local landmark by residents 20 years ago, but now memories of the building's past, its origins, and its part of the local fabric seem largely forgotten.
The speed of change
definitely can play a role in historic preservation -- gentrified neighborhoods can hemorrhage institutional memory. But another problem is in judging the significance of recent structures.
On a car tour of North Seattle modern sites last week with architect Susan Boyle and preservationist Eugenia Woo, both of whom are on the board of DoCoMoMo-WeWA,
an organization dedicated to preserving modern architecture -- it was evident that some modern structures deemed important or interesting are visibly fascinating. Others are not.
In terms of visual no-brainers, Dick's Drive-in on 45th NE in Wallingford, is a googie classic. A little more upscale and ambitious, but still on the googie continuum, is Roland Terry's Canlis restaurant, the modernist dining redoubt above Lake Union on Aurora Avenue, indisputably of landmark caliber (the service too, which we established after stopping for cocktails).
But the tour also included a Seattle School District warehouse in the Cascade neighborhood in South Lake Union. It has a roof that ripples with pre-fab, folded plate concrete forms that look like the tops of so-many Quonset huts strung together. Such concrete forms were innovative in their era, and helped architects, engineers, and builders (from googie to brutalist) achieve new and affordable heights and interior spaces (think the Kingdome). It wasn't always pretty, but it is interesting when you learn a little bit about it. Nevertheless, for few people will it evoke much nostalgia.
Another category of modern structure that falls between landmark and kitsch are those that aren't of any real architectural significance but are simply iconic and beloved. A good example was at the end of our tour: the Elephant Car Wash
neon sign at Denny Way and Battery Street. The twirling pink elephant has been called many things over the years: one of Seattle's seven wonders,
one of our best examples of neon art,
one of our top ten local icons
, and one of the last holdouts of "old Seattle."
Groups like Historic Seattle
have fretted over its future.
may finally come in handy. Eugenia Woo mentioned that the car wash is on the Denny Triangle acreage put up for sale by the Clise family.
A quick check indicates she's right: the sign spins on a tiny wedge-corner of land that the Clises hope to sell to a single buyer who will transform the "blank slate" neighborhood with massive development.
So while Ballard's Taj faces the wrecking ball, the pink elephant appears to be an endangered species.