Fans of preserving modern architecture had two victories to celebrate after the meeting of the Seattle Landmarks and Preservation board on Wednesday, Jan. 2. Two mid-20th century modern buildings had their landmark nominations approved and now head for an official designation hearing early next month, Feb. 6, where their fate will likely be decided.
Interestingly, the two buildings anchor opposite ends of modern architecture's bell curve: One is a sleek high-rise box of reflective glass that epitomizes the sophisticated International style, the other a swooping 1960s Googie diner with all the chic of a Stan Boreson polka.
The first is downtown's Norton Building, a marvelous late-1950s reflective box that is one of the last examples of its kind in Washington. The building was built by Northwest timber baron, businessman and patriarch Norton Clapp. It was one of the first buildings to be nominated by the city as part of a controversial new city initiative to pro-actively nominate important downtown structures. While some downtown building owners have objected to the city's nominations, the owner of the Norton Building did not – they only expressed hope that the board would show some future flexibility if they need to make changes or upgrades to continue to offer Class A office space in the downtown core.
The second was the Ballard Denny's/Manning's "Taj Mahal," which has been covered extensively on Crosscut, which first sounded the alarm that the building might be landmark-worthy last summer. The building is currently owned by Benaroya Companies and sits on the site of a planned condo development on a key intersection – Northwest Market Street and 15th Avenue Northwest – that many regard as the gateway to the Ballard business district. It was built in the mid-1960s as part of the Manning's restaurant chain, a company founded at the Pike Place Market in 1908 as the city's first premium coffee company (the Starbucks of its era). It was designed by Clarence W. Mayhew, an important modern architect from the San Francisco Bay Area. The building was saved from demolition once before in the mid-1980s when Denny's took it over.
While the vote for the Norton Building was a no-brainer (it was approved unanimously by the board), the Ballard diner posed a more difficult problem. For one thing, the current owner and the prospective condo developer, Rhapsody Partners of Kirkland, want to tear it down and submitted the nomination to the board in the hope that it would be denied. As Benaroya's attorney Jack McCullough told the board, they were "not looking for a positive outcome."
The property owners felt completely blind-sided by the fact that there was any question about the building's significance. For one thing, the Seattle Monorail Project had planned to tear it down for a station. When the project went belly up, Benaroya picked up the property, confident that the site and been cleared in a review of possible historic sites along the route. However, the monorail project was not required to look into buildings fewer than 50 years old, so the Denny's was never researched. Marc Nemirow of Benaroya said the diner looked "like it ought to be torn down and replaced."
To get the landmark hurdle out of the way, the nomination was placed in the hands of an architectural consultant, Larry Johnson. He was hired after the first consultant, hired by the developer, Mildred Andrews, was let go, reportedly for being too sympathetic to the Denny's.
Johnson put together a nomination package [5.4 MB PDF]. At the meeting, he did a PowerPoint presentation that frequently seemed designed to put the building in the worst possible light. Highlighted, for example, were pictures of the Denny's boarded up. The restaurant was still operating this fall when it suddenly closed. The owner insists this was not a ploy to make the place look worse, but Johnson certainly took advantage. He used grim shots of the now-boarded-up diner, when other perfectly good pictures were available – some even included in Johnson's own written report. One opponent called the tactic "cynical." The pictures were meant to underscore Johnson's argument that the building met none of the six criteria for a landmark and that the building was too altered and too junky to be a viable landmark.
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