The Ballard Manning's/Denny's diner that has been a controversial candidate for historic protection was officially designated a city landmark by the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board on Wednesday, Feb. 20, on a 6-3 vote. Oddly, it won out because the building, with a distinctive swoopy roof, is actually, well, a landmark in the old-fashioned sense.
Much has been made about whether or not the building should be saved from the wrecking ball. The owners, Benaroya, and the developer, Rhapsody Partners, have been hoping to use the corner site at 15th Avenue Northwest and Northwest Market Street for a mixed-use development with condos. Preservationists have argued that the diner was built by an important Bay Area modern architect, Clarence W. Mayhew (first reported here on Crosscut), and that it is an excellent example of 1960s Googie-style roadside architecture.
However, both claims took a beating at the designation hearing. Like a political candidate attacking an opponent's strengths, Benaroya and Rhapsody brought in consultants to dismantle the diner's claims to fame. A consultant from California, Judith Sobol, said, in essence, that she knew Googie, she grew up with Googie, her family went to Googie eateries, and the Ballard Denny's was not Googie. She said that the style generally emphasized space age and futuristic shapes (like the Space Needle) and that the Ballard structure was a mish-mash of historic styles. Architect and preservation consultant Larry Johnson, also working for the developers, got the laugh of the evening when he cited it various ethnic influences and described the diner as "Scandigooginesian." The message: It's an architectural outlier.
Another consultant, Tim Rood, an architect and guest lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, took aim at the building's designer. His argument, in short, was that proponents of the diner were making a mountain out of a Mayhew. He said that none of Mayhew's other works have been landmarked, that he'd won only one major award, and that the Manning's was atypical of his noted works. He even claimed that Mayhew's proudest work, his own home, was designed by another architect.
The various claims by the hired guns were rebutted. Alan Michelson, a champion of the diner and head of the Architecture and Planning Library at the University of Washington, was seething at the claims. He had the support of a number of authors and scholars who are expert of both Googie and Mayhew, including architecture critic Alan Hess, who has literally written the books on Googie. Hess' categorical judgment: "definitely Googie." Hess has written several letters supporting the building's landmark designation.
As it turned out, the landmarks board, while influenced somewhat by the negative presentations, decided that it really didn't matter in the end. They were more concerned with two other issues. One was the physical condition of the structure and whether or not it still had its architectural integrity. The interior of the diner was essentially gutted by Denny's in the early 1980s and the exterior has been altered and damaged by weather over the years. Based on physical condition, the staff of the city's preservation office submitted a recommendation that it not be designated a landmark.
But there was one criteria for being a landmark the board could not so easily dismiss or overlook. It is the sixth on a list of six, and it's called category "F." To be a landmark, a structure need only meet one of the six criteria. "F" reads as follows:
Because of its prominence of spatial location, contrasts of sitting, age, or scale, it is an easily identifiable visual feature of its neighborhood or the city and contributes to the distinctive quality or identity of such neighborhood or the City.
What the board found undeniable is that almost everyone in Seattle has an opinion about the building – they said they'd received scores of letters and a letter asking them to save the building signed by 600 Ballardites. The controversy has also received extensive media coverage – the designation meeting was packed (standing room only) with many reporters and TV cameras in attendance. There are few people who don't know the building by its look and location. Indeed, for decades, people have used it to navigate the city, as in "if you're coming to Ballard, take a left at the funny old Denny's." Whether it's Googie or an agglomeration, whether it was built by a Mayhew or a nobody, it has become an indelible part of the cityscape with its most quirky attributes – especially that funny roof – intact. It's visually identifiable, distinctive, prominent in location, and very Ballard.
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