Goodbye, Googie?

Seattle's landmarks staff recommends pulling the plug on a Ballard diner, an example of Googie-style architecture, that had been designated for preservation.
Crosscut archive image.

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

Seattle's landmarks staff recommends pulling the plug on a Ballard diner, an example of Googie-style architecture, that had been designated for preservation.

A May 19 memo from Seattle historic preservation officer Karen Gordon and city Landmarks Board staffer Elizabeth Chave recommends a course of action that would result in the demolition of the Ballard Manning's/Denny's diner, which was designated an historic landmark in February.

The city landmarks board voted to save the diner after the owners of the property, an arm of developer Benaroya, submitted a landmark nomination in the hope that it would be declined. However, after testimony and public outcry, the board went ahead and dubbed the diner a landmark in a 6-3 vote, despite misgivings by city staff. 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.

The next step is to negotiate a "controls and incentives" agreement that will determine what exactly would be preserved, if anything. The staff recommendation would allow the wrecking ball to swing. That agreement will be on the agenda of the Landmarks Board on May 21. Benaroya has said it will press a lawsuit against the city if the designation is not overturned. The lawsuit challenges the landmark decision and the entire landmarking process in the city.

In their memo to the board, Gordon and Chave say they have met with the owner at least four times and are convinced that there is no scenario in which the "character defining features" of the building can be preserved without "compromising their ability to realize a reasonable return on their investment." Part of the problem, they say, was the high price paid for the land in expectation that it could be developed. Benaroya paid some $12.5 million for the property after it was sold off by the defunct Seattle Monorail Project.

Supporters of the diner complain that the owner and developer have not seriously considered truly creative and collaborative approaches to adapting the building for a new use and by seeking to increase the height and density of the project through a re-zone. Benaroya has been clear from the beginning that it wanted to tear the building down and does not think it worthy of landmark status. In addition, the company's lawsuit claims the entire process is illegal and unconstitutional. The original landmark nomination was designed to put the building in the worst possible light, and Benaroya representatives previously have said that if the landmark designation stands, they will let the property fall into blight.

According to the memo, the Landmarks Board now has two options. One is to approve a "controls and incentives" agreement approved by Gordon and Chave that will not protect the building. the other is to forward their own recommendations to a city hearing examiner, who would decide the matter.

Support for saving the diner has come from local preservation groups like Historic Seattle, DoCoMoMo-WeWA, and the grassroots group Save Mannings. The battle over it has generated national publicity, including stories in Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, and Preservation magazine. It has sparked discussion about the preservation of modern structures and a debate over the city's own landmarks process. Critics have decried it as a case of overreach, while many preservationists have strongly defended the landmark designation.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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