Another roadside attraction is about to be demolished

Hold the wrecking ball. You know that funny looking Denny's in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood? It's slated to be razed for condos. So what? It turns out it's an important piece of modern architecture with historic links to Seattle's coffee culture.
Crosscut archive image.

The Denny's restaurant in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood (top and bottom), with a resembling information booth at the 1962 World's Fair.

Hold the wrecking ball. You know that funny looking Denny's in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood? It's slated to be razed for condos. So what? It turns out it's an important piece of modern architecture with historic links to Seattle's coffee culture.

Last week, the Ballard News Tribune reported that the landmark Denny's restaurant on the highly visible, very desirable corner of 15th Avenue Northwest and Northwest Market Street in Seattle is slated for destruction in early 2008. In a sense, this isn't news. The property was purchased by the Seattle Monorail Project. They were going to put a station on the site to serve the Ballard neighborhood, and it was assumed the Denny's was going to come down. But the voters nixed the Green Line, and the property was sold off. Now Ballard is booming and the highest and best use of the site, they say, is condos and retail. All of this is part of the too-rapid transformation of Seattle's low-cost, working-class, Scandinavian enclave into into a densely developed tribute to New Urbanism. The scale and speed of the change is shocking. Every week, there's a new story about the remaking of the face and fabric of Ballard. Chains are moving in, condos are rising, and the old character is disappearing. Some even say you better see Ballard before it isn't Ballard anymore. One longtime icon has been that tacky Denny's – and who, after all, is going to love a Denny's or consider it part of Ballard's heritage? But that distinctive roof, a kind of A-frame with a curl that has the look of a Norwegian stave church crossed with a Japanese pagoda, has always attracted attention and set it apart. And despite its rather seedy present appearance – how many Denny's have a hermetically sealed bar? – for decades this diner, especially in its pre-Denny's incarnation, was a major social center for old Ballard. I thought the building might be a refugee from the Seattle World's Fair of 1962 – various pavilions and structures found their way around the region after the fair. One became a pancake house in South Seattle; the Bubbleator is a greenhouse in someone's yard. If you scan postcards of the fair, you'll find a similar roof on the World's Fair Information Booth. I asked around, but no one seemed to know if the Denny's had been a fair building, but it's definitely of that era. I must have been holding the memory of that roof line in my head since I visited the fair at age 8. So I went down to the city's Department of Planning and Development and pulled the building permit and plans. My hunch about the fair was wrong, but what I found was way more interesting. It turns out the building was designed for the Ballard site in 1962 just after the fair and built in 1964. It opened as a Manning's Cafeteria, one of a small chain of restaurants. At its peak, there were about 40 Manning's in nine western states. Manning's was family-owned and founded in Seattle at the Pike Place Market as a coffee company in 1908 – so Starbucks wasn't the first coffee chain that started there. The original flagship Manning's is now Lowell's, a Market institution. The business expanded from coffee into cafeterias and food service. The Manning family relocated to the Bay Area in the 1920s, and so did the headquaters of the growing chain. That probably explains the most significant part of this architectural saga. It turns out the building was designed by a major Bay Area mid-century modern architect named Clarence W. Mayhew (1906-1994). Mayhew is primarily known as the designer of modern houses in the 1940s and '50s, many of them high-end commissions in the San Francisco suburbs where folks had space, view property, and money. But that era of architecture in California was also known for what we think of as modern roadside architecture, also know as "Googie" architecture, named for an early Los Angeles coffee shop that epitomized the style – the essence of which is post-World War II fast-food eateries, motels, gas stations, and Vegas casinos. It was cutting edge, it was commercial, and, unlike most modern architecture, it was popular, according to author and San Jose Mercury News architecture critic Alan Hess. Hess is the author of Googie Redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture (Chronicle Books, 2004), a guide to the genre. The Googie style of space-age motels and diners that look like car fins have, he writes, "become as much a symbol of the fifties as Elvis Presley or a '57 Chevy." It's the same era of architecture enshrined at the Jetsons-era Century 21 Exposition of 1962, the Space Needle perhaps being the ultimate example of Googie. It's been revived in the retro marketing of local condo project, Expo 62. You can see a gallery of Googie here and some examples of Seattle Googie here. Preservationists are particularly interested in Googie designs because many of these structures are being torn down just as critics and historians have found them to be important expressions of the modern, exuberant, high-tech suburbanism that defined the era. Modernism, says Hess, is more than the International Style. Mayhew's firm was in the middle of things. According to Mayhew's surviving partner, H.L. Thiederman, they did restaurants for Manning's in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and other western cities. Hess says, "I've just written a book that includes Mayhew as one of those excellent but neglected West Coast architects who deserve more attention." The Mayhew connection with the Denny's in Ballard was news to Hess, who calls the building "fascinating." Alan Michelson, head of the Architecture-Urban Planning Library at the University of Washington, says that when it comes to examples of Googie, the Ballard Denny's is "a pretty damn good one." He laments that "Ballard's changing too quickly" and that all traces of the old neighborhood are being wiped out. "The line should be drawn at some point," he says. In an email, Hess writes: "Is there any chance of saving the building? Is there any organized preservation group that can make a case for it? Even if you lose this one, it puts the issue of mid-century architecture on the map for future threatened buildings – and if it could be saved it would be a great piece of urban design!" The UW's Michelson says that tearing the place down won't do Ballard any favors. "People move to a place because of the quality of the environment including the historical environment, and you have to strike a balance. They don't need another six-story building there." The Denny's is "kind of a gateway structure to Market Street and sets the tone, it's unorthodox, sort of eccentric, symbolic of the whole place." So is there someone who will give this Mayhew building the attention it deserves? One group devoted to such causes is Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement, Western Washington – or DoCoMoMoWeWa, which sounds like a '50s doo-wop lyric. The group is the local chapter of an international group. It is committed to saving the mid-century modern architecture of the region, and they have worked to save a number of "endangered properties." They helped obtain city landmark status for the old Hat 'n' Boots filling station in South Seattle, for example. Another group that could step up is Historic Seattle, also dedicated to preserving of the city's architectural legacy. The subject of saving ultra-modern architecture is new enough that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has actually put out a booklet about why it's important, Preserving Resources from the Recent Past. These post-war structures are "too new to be considered 'historic' by many, but old enough to be in danger of alteration and replacement." Ignorance about their significance is a major issue. There is irony here: The unleashed, sprawling modernism of Googie was driven by growth. That's also the force that's reshaping Ballard and putting places like the Denny's in jeopardy. On the other hand, now that more is known about the background of the diner and the Clarence Mayhew connection, it's not good enough to say that the only vote that counts is the wrecking ball's.

  

About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.