Another Denny's controversy?

As the old year ended, the ghost of Googie past paid a visit to the Northwest.

Crosscut archive image.

No longer standing: the Ballard Denny's. An empty lot is at the intersection. (Chuck Taylor)

As the old year ended, the ghost of Googie past paid a visit to the Northwest.

In Portland, preservationists are asking whether the Rose City's first Denny's is worth saving.

Shades of Seattle's battle in Ballard circa 2007-8. According to the Portland Preservation blog, here's the deal: The owners of the Galaxy Restaurant in Portland want to tear their building down and replace it with a new, one-story restaurant. But it turns out that the Googie building with the angled roof was previously Portland's first Denny's, opened in 1963.

The blog raises a couple of question for preservationists to discuss. One is, why tear down a restaurant simply to build another? That's wasteful and doesn't further either density or sustainability goals. Second, is the city's first Denny's worth saving as a matter of historical and architectural interest? A McDonald's and a Bob's Big Boy have been landmarked elsewhere, and Googie architecture has been found worth saving, including in Seattle where a former Ballard Denny's was voted a landmark, before being demolished.

The history and background of the Seattle and Portland structures are somewhat different, but both were built as part of efforts to create roadside diners for the 1960s Jet Age market. Both were built in styles rarer here than, say, California. The Ballard Denny's was razed to create more housing density with a multi-use building (still not yet built). Ballard Denny's advocates argued that their preservation case rested partly on the fact that the original structure was not built as a Denny's but rather a Northwest food and dining chain known as Manning's that began as a Pike Place Market coffee company, an enterprise that was itself a worthy part of local heritage.

The Portland diner doesn't have that pedigree, but that might not matter. Alan Hess, an architectural historian and expert on Googie who argued in favor of the Ballard structure, says the Portland diner is from a late-1950s prototype design by Armet and Davis, who were very influential in Googie architecture. He says that it could be worth saving because of the kind of character the structure adds to the city. (And speaking of that, remember that Portland has another building whose exterior is very much like the Ballard Denny's.)

However, Portland itself is a kind of monument to resistance to corporate influence. Will preservationists there get behind a former Denny's because Googie is cool, retro, and historic, or will they welcome the new to replace a structure built was part of the branding strategy of a national restaurant chain that many like to ridicule. Would it be okay to tear it down if a new use were much greener? What are the class prejudice issues in historic preservation, and should something as common as an old Denny's be dismissed because it's not hip? Will preserving the Denny's open a Pandora's box for preservationists, opening them up to public scorn, or will the former Denny's tap a more populist vein?

Let the debate begin. Or rather, continue.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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