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Score one for Googie

Ballard Denny's in 1964.

The former Denny's in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, aka Manning's Cafeteria. circa 1964. (Eugenia Woo)

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.

The building, however, had its passionate advocates, including Eugenia Woo of DoCoMoMO-WeWA, the modern architecture preservation group; Al Hess, California architect, author, and expert on modern roadside architecture; Andrews, the spurned consultant who submitted a letter to the board saying that she disagreed with Johnson’s conclusion and thought the diner may well be worth saving; Christine Palmer of the preservation group Historic Seattle; and a number of other architects and Ballard residents who submitted letters or came to testify on the diner’s behalf.

The pro-Denny’s case was led by Alan Michelson, head of the Architecture and Urban Planning Library at the University of Washington and an architectural historian who has done extensive research on Bay Area architects. He wrote a lengthy pro-nomination report that outlined why the building met several of the landmark board’s qualifications, notably that it “embodies the distinctive characteristics of an architectural style” (Googie); that “it is an easily identifiable visual feature of its neighborhood … and contributes to the distinctive quality or identity of such neighborhood or the city” (everyone passing by Ballard knows it); that it “is associated in a significant way with a significant aspect of the cultural, political, or economic heritage of the community, city, state or nation” (the Manning’s coffee/restaurant chain); and that “it is an outstanding work of a designer or builder” (Clarence Mayhew).

No one seemed to have a good handle on how the landmarks board would vote. During the course of the evening, the board issued death sentences on three charming old brick apartment buildings on Capitol Hill near Cal Anderson Park. They were almost unanimous that they failed to meet the city’s landmark standards. The buildings are being razed to be used as a staging area for Sound Transit construction. In addition, making the case for modern landmarks can be difficult. Older buildings are more easily regarded as historic while younger ones (less than 50 years old) often fall into arguments about taste rather than significance.

But as it turned out, the landmarks board agreed with most of Michelson’s points. Some members were downright enthusiastic about the diner’s qualifications. And at least one lamented that they hadn’t had the chance to save the old Twin Tee Pees diner on Aurora. Some members didn’t seem to want to let another unique piece of roadside architecture slip through their fingers. The nomination was approved by an 8-1 vote. Here’s a description of the landmark process and what the next steps are.

The vote stunned both proponents and opponents of the nomination, who immediately left the hearing room and formed two caucuses in the hall outside.

One group, mostly in suits and ties, could be called the “What the Hell” caucus. This consisted of the shocked representatives of the owners and developers who couldn’t believe anyone was taking the building seriously. Benaroya’s Nemirow said he was “surprised and disappointed.” The developer’s spokesman, PR man Louis Richmond, said they would continue to fight the landmark designation and predicted that no developer would want to develop the property as long as the building was standing. It’ll just become “another blighted block,” he predicted, and he criticized the process for not taking into consideration the financial implications of the decision.

The other stunned group, dressed mostly in black, consisted of pro-diner architects and preservationists. Call it the “What Now?” crowd. They pow-wowed to figure out how to bolster their case and counter the next moves of Benaroya and company. But everyone seemed shocked that the preservationists, fighting above their weight class, had won a round bout against the big boys.

It seemed like a vindication of modern architecture – even the kitschy, commercial kind – as landmark-worthy. It was also a victory for old Ballard, a community once defined by its quirky character, not just its proliferating condos.

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