Googie or not, it's a landmark

Against the odds, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board has voted to save a Ballard diner. Despite all the arguments pro and con, the final decision was really pretty simple.
Crosscut archive image.

The new landmark in Ballard, in June 2007, when it was still Denny's. (Chuck Taylor)

Against the odds, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board has voted to save a Ballard diner. Despite all the arguments pro and con, the final decision was really pretty simple.

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.

On that basis, they approved landmarking the exterior of the building. The interior has been too much changed; however, the reports on the physical condition note that it is restorable, with many of the original features, including a fabulous vaulted ceiling, still there. (The man who built that ceiling spoke to the board and called it "the greatest vaulted ceiling in Seattle"). However, the landmarks board cannot insist that an owner fix up or restore a building to its original condition. Benaroya has insisted that restoring the place is not in the cards.

Attorney John C. McCullough, working for Benaroya and Rhaposdy, said that the landmarks ordinance cannot deprive the owner of their economic use of the site and they will appeal the decision on that basis, first in discussions with the city preservation staff, then if need be before a hearing examiner. They can also appeal directly to the City Council, which must put the designation into law. He says he feels certain they can make the case that preserving the diner will rob them of their ability to make a return on their investment. They paid $12.5 million for the property, though the Manning's/Denny's building only takes up a portion of it.

The diner's proponents, however, have been working on Benaroya's problem and believe they have a scheme to save both the building and allow the developer to build their mixed use, condo high-rises on the site. Architect Ralph Allen of Grace Architects has come up with an idea [468K PDF] that could work by incorporating the structure into the new development and even play off its signature roofline – if the city will allow a rezone to let the developer build a taller building. That trade-off, Allen says, would be worth it: Ballard keeps its landmark and gets a high-density, mixed-use development on the gateway corner of the neighborhood. McCullough couldn't give his client's opinion on the matter, but he thought the proposal was unrealistic.

So the Manning's/Denny's is saved for now – unless the owner can find a way to wriggle out on financial grounds. If not, it might be time for Benaroya to begin sketching out plan B.

Another open question is how the Manning's/Denny's landmark designation will be received by preservationists and developers alike. The designation of the diner had the support of groups like Historic Seattle, Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, and DoCoMoMo-WeWA. Nevertheless, there are some in the preservation community, like architect Johnson, who is on the board of Historic Seattle, who felt approving it would be a mistake. And attorney McCullough warned the landmarks board that saving the Denny's would "lower the bar" and "undermine the board's credibility." Already, people have expressed shocked at the idea of saving a Denny's at all, and there continues to be upset over the city's recent decision to proactively seek landmark status for dozens of downtown structures. Could the diner become a poster child for over-reach, an attempt to save an architectural species ripe for ridicule?

On the other hand, for fans of modern architecture, it offers hope by giving recognition to 20th century building styles that are popular with the man and woman on the street and gaining recognition in academic circles, yet are still held in low esteem by traditional preservationists (who prefer saving mansions and monumental buildings) and by planners and developers who see them as impeding progress.

However, the impulse to save this particular building is really much more simple, as expressed by the landmarks board's decision. Said diner preservation activist Michelson: "We won because the building really is a landmark."

Update: Larry Johnson, the architect and preservationist hired by Benaroya and Rhapsody to author their landmark nomination in the hope that it would be declined, has not read my story today (he says he doesn't read blogs) but he did offer the following opinion about the Landmarks board's decision via email: "Ballard just bought themselves another Kalakala, unfortunately, this one won't be easy to tow to Tacoma. I see nothing but problems ahead. You can spin that anyway you want–as I'm sure you'll do. I remain a steadfast advocate for preservation–my bar just happens to be a bit higher than some. Preservation is about saving those things that are real–valuable things that our city, region, and or nation needs to retain in order to understand not only the past and where we've come from, but where we are going. I view the efforts to save a[n] ill conceived, poorly designed building in poor physical shape, designed by a second string California architect who had minimal understanding of our local climate, not preservation, but a lack of faith in the future. Perhaps, to some, this lack faith seems well deserved, but as an architect, I find this regrettable and disturbing." Also, in surveying the press coverage of the designation meeting this morning, I highly recommend the account by Peggy Sturdivant at the "At Large in Ballard" blog on the P-I website. She really captures the mood and intensity of the meeting.  

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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