'Googie versus Goliath'

The campaign over a 1960s Ballard neighborhood diner heats up, with community meetings, media spin jobs, and telephone polling. One key part of the debate: the building's overall condition. Is it sound enough to save, or is it a graffiti-covered tear-down?
Crosscut archive image.

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

The campaign over a 1960s Ballard neighborhood diner heats up, with community meetings, media spin jobs, and telephone polling. One key part of the debate: the building's overall condition. Is it sound enough to save, or is it a graffiti-covered tear-down?

The campaigns for and against the landmarking of a controversial Ballard diner are ramping up as a Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board meeting nears to determine the structure's fate. The owner, Benaroya Properties, submitted the landmark nomination late last year in the hope it would be turned down. They plan to sell the site to Rhapsody Partners, a Kirkland/Las Vegas company that plans to build condos, retail, and possibly a drive-thru Rite Aid. However, instead of rejecting the nomination, the Landmarks Board accepted it in January and will take a final vote on the matter on Feb. 20.

The debate and PR campaign on both sides hinges on a number of issues, some relevant to the landmarks laws, some a matter of public image. For example, the two sides cannot even agree on what to call the diner. The Benaroya people tend to refer to it as the "Ballard Denny's" because the Denny's chain was the last tenant of the building. The chain vacated the site last fall after operating there for some 20 years. The idea of "landmarking a Denny's" generally causes people to scoff, making the preservation process seem like overreach. Preservation proponents like to refer to the diner as the "Ballard Manning's" after the Pike Place Market-founded restaurant and coffee company chain that built it in 1964. One name tends to play down historic value, the other emphasizes local roots. The Seattle Landmarks Board refers to it diplomatically (and accurately) as the "Manning's/Denny's."

Another battle is over the issue of the diner's condition. Up until this fall, the Manning's/Denny's was a functioning restaurant that had been a neighborhood fixture for years. But anticipating demolition and on a month-to-month lease, Denny's decided to shut down. The windows were boarded up, and the exterior of the building was soon tagged with graffiti and peppered with "Ron Paul" signs. In short, it looks like instant blight.

That serves the owners' interests because they want to be able to swing the wrecking ball as soon as possible. After all, they paid $12.5 million for the surplus Seattle Monorail property without the slightest inkling that the diner might be of historic and architectural significance. On Thursday, Jan. 31, Benaroya took media on a tour to show off every flaw in the structure. It was well attended (many print reporters and at least three TV stations), and Benaroya was there in force with a bevy of representatives, including PR man Louie Richmond, representatives of Rhapsody and their architect, and Larry Johnson, a preservation consultant who assembled the landmark nomination for Benaroya, making the case against saving it.

The gist of their pitch: The landmarks process is about "preservation, not restoration." They conceded that the diner may once have been a great example of Googie architecture, a "box filled with light," as Johnson described it, with a cathedral-like ceiling and lots of glass. But no longer. The interior was remodeled by Denny's. There are booths, a counter that didn't exist before, an expanded kitchen area, the classic modern light fixtures were removed, much of the glass paneled over. Those alterations have destroyed the building's architectural integrity, they say. In addition, they point to cases of dry rot, water damage, weathering, repair, and reinforcement of pillars to make the case the "Denny's" is in poor condition and beyond "preservation."

In addition, they made their economic case. Mark Nemirow of Benaroya says he can see no financial model that will allow them to preserve let alone renovate it. Further, he points out that the mixed-use development planned for the site is in keeping with the city's and neighborhood's planning goals, although the final design and shape of the Rhapsody development has not been approved and has itself been controversial, apart from the diner debate. The architect for Rhapsody, Arthur Chang, says that if the project goes ahead, the designers will seek additional community input. Nemirow says Benaroya has no "plan B" if the building is landmarked but does admit they will have to develop one, if necessary. Despite previous threats, it is unlikely they would allow the corner to remain "blighted," as they suggested last month.

Nevertheless, the current image of blight is useful. The diner presents a bleak picture. The interior looks like what it is: an abandoned Denny's. It is damp, cold, dark, and musty. Holes have been punched in the false ceiling, exposing insulation and wiring, but this allowed reporters to see what was above: the arching, original interior beams that gave the original Manning's the look of an overturned wooden ship. Few could be faulted for leaving the tour with the impression that the place is a dump.

To reinforce that impression, Benaroya has hired a local marketing firm to conduct polling of Ballard residents to see how they feel about "the Old Denny's building." They have telephoned Ballard residents and questioned Ballard shoppers in recent weeks. Richmond says they plan to present to the poll results to the Landmarks Board.

A look at the wording of some of the poll's questions suggests that it is not unbiased. In political terms, it resembles notorious "push polls" that are used less to solicit public opinion than influence it by planting questions in people's minds. In addition to repeated references to "the old Denny's," it asks, "Are you aware that the old Denny's building will most likely remain in its current condition even if it receives landmark designation since this doesn't come with a requirement to restore it?" Of course, its current condition, at least what the public can see – closed, boarded up, and covered with graffiti – is unappealing. But it is the result of the development process – it was fully operational mere months ago. The poll also did not ask people how they felt about the alternative if the structure is not landmarked: that it will be torn down. Nor did it ask how people would feel if the diner could be restored to its old Googie glory.

The issue of condition is important but easy to misunderstand. Many local landmarks have been heavily altered or are in disrepair yet are listed, including the King County Courthouse, King Street Station, and the old Hat 'n' Boots gas station in Georgetown. The key, preservation consultants say, is whether there is enough of the original structure intact to "convey its significance," as the law asks.

I talked to a couple of people with experience in the process to get some clarification on this point. Mimi Sheridan, a historic preservation consultant and planner in Seattle who has no professional opinion in the Ballard diner case, says the important thing is to "identify the key features – that is, systematically list the features that define the style being discussed or other factors that might make a building significant. Then consider if enough of these features remain in good enough condition to convey the significance. It is not about renovation, but if original features remain beneath new cladding or a false ceiling, then they do exist." She said this is particularly important with regard to the exterior elements of a prospective landmark.

Eugenia Woo, a preservation consultant who has prepared local and national landmark nominations, is a Ballard resident, Googie fan, and is working to save the Ballard diner. She elaborates on the issues of condition and integrity:

A building could be in fair to poor condition but still be significant as along as it has integrity. There are derelict buildings out there that may have structural and/or cosmetic issues regarding condition, but if enough historic fabric or character-defining features are intact to convey the buildings' significance, then the buildings are still important and can be considered historically significant. A building does not need to be in pristine or excellent condition to be considered significant. Conversely, a building could be in excellent condition but lack integrity because it has been altered to the point that its significance is longer conveyed.

The essential question is whether, despite its flaws and alterations, the Ballard Manning's/Denny's still has enough essential character remaining to be worth saving. Proponents of landmark status, who believe it does, will have a chance to make their own inspection of the building soon. The Landmarks Board toured the site last week.

Preservationists are gearing up their effort, too. On Jan. 23, they held a community meeting at the Ballard Public Library to lay out their case for saving the building and generate community support. The audience was full of people with their own memories of the Manning's era, and there was much discussion about the company's history in Ballard, the history of Googie architecture, and a slide show about whether the design was influenced by Viking longhouses, a look that would have appealed to Ballard's old Scandinavian community, many of whom used the Manning's/Denny's as a gathering place. There was also discussion about how the diner might be incorporated into a high-density, mixed-use development on the site. One architect presented some rough sketches of how this might work, a win-win for everyone, if feasible. Many of the diner's most ardent advocates are architects who voice strong support for developing the site. Most want to see heritage preserved and top-notch development. They would love to see Benaroya come up with a creative plan B.

In the meantime, KCTS-TV (9) has been working on a segment on the controversy called, "Googie versus Goliath," which will air on KCTS Connects on Friday, Feb. 8, at 7:30 pm. It's a look at the landmarking process and the controversy surrounding the Ballard Manning's/Denny's battle.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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