This is the fourth article in "Roots of Tomorrow: Urbanism in our Blood," a weekly series on northwest urbanism. Read Part 1, "How bikes led Seattle's first roads renaissance, Part 2, "Meet Seattle's first bike vigilantes," and Part 3, "The car that broke the back of Seattle's bike craze" here.
In 1914, a local newspaper ad extolled the virtues of commercial artists and their value in selling ideas to the public. The commercial artist, the ad said, wasn't making "art for art's sake," but focusing on "how effective his picture will be as a salesman."
The man who placed that ad was James S. Ditty, a Seattle photo-engraver, designer and illustrator, who also worked for the feisty Seattle Star, the daily newspaper in which the ad appeared. Ditty was also a man who followed his own advice and, by doing so, accomplished something amazing in local history — envisioning modern Bellevue.
James Ditty. Photo: Karen Shurr, James Ditty Sr. Family
More than a mere dreamer, James Ditty was an early advocate of urban planning, of looking ahead and figuring out how and where to accommodate growth. He tested these skills first on the Eastside’s first arts colony – a small intentional community known as Beaux Arts.
Today Beaux Arts is a rather exclusive Eastside community, tucked into the woodsy lakeshore suburbs just north of I-90. Well-tended by its inheritors, the enclave maintains a collection of uniquely historic residences that have been called an "extraordinary mirror of the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement." Before Ditty came along though, Beaux Arts was just a 50-acre stand of undeveloped old-growth forest, its future resting on the whims of a group of local artists and newspapermen.
"Back about the time of the Russo-Japanese war [1904-5], a group of art enthusiasts were holding art classes in the old University of Washington building left vacant by the removal of the university to its present location," Ditty remembered. "It offered cheap rent, if any, and for a while filled the need for those hopefuls who as usual had more ambition than money. Out of this group an idea was born. Let's start an art colony where we can live together, work together and play together."
With the financial backing of Capt. E. W. Johnson, a millionaire who had made it big in shipping and mining in Alaska, the colonists found and purchased a 50-acre site east of Lake Washington. The site was subdivided into lots and over time Ditty and the group began to build Craftsman cabins and homes tucked amid old-growth forest.
James Ditty's Beaux Arts house. Photo: Karen Shurr, James Ditty Sr. Family.
They held land in common, some of it reserved for artists' work sites or community gatherings. Ditty even shaped his yard to be something like a neighborhood amphitheater for outdoor performances.
Dancers perform in the yard of Ditty's Beaux Arts house. Photo: Beaux Arts Village Historical Archives
Beaux Arts didn't draw big name artists, but it did attract creative people, who marched to the beat of a different drummer and enjoyed living closer to nature than one could in Seattle’s booming metropolis. One notorious resident was a Christian or Theosophist "yoga cult", which allegedly practiced nudism and whose leader lived in sin with a woman not his wife. This created quite a scandal back in 1915.
Ditty and others still had day jobs in town, commuting across the lake via passenger ferry from Beaux Arts to Leschi and on by cable car. Ditty was among the Eastside's first regular commuters, working in Seattle, shopping for the family at the Pike Place Market, then returning across the lake to hearth, home and country life.
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