How one artsy visionary grew Bellevue out of his horse pasture

Roots of Tomorrow: In the early 1900s, Bellevue was just a little junction with a thing for strawberries. That didn't stop James Ditty from imagining a major metropolis rising from his rural Eastside fields.
Roots of Tomorrow: In the early 1900s, Bellevue was just a little junction with a thing for strawberries. That didn't stop James Ditty from imagining a major metropolis rising from his rural Eastside fields.

This is the fourth article in "Roots of Tomorrow: Urbanism in our Blood," a weekly series on northwest urbanism. Read Part 1, "How bikes led Seattle's first roads renaissance, Part 2, "Meet Seattle's first bike vigilantes," and Part 3, "The car that broke the back of Seattle's bike craze" here. 

In 1914, a local newspaper ad extolled the virtues of commercial artists and their value in selling ideas to the public. The commercial artist, the ad said, wasn't making "art for art's sake," but focusing on "how effective his picture will be as a salesman."

The man who placed that ad was James S. Ditty, a Seattle photo-engraver, designer and illustrator, who also worked for the feisty Seattle Star, the daily newspaper in which the ad appeared. Ditty was also a man who followed his own advice and, by doing so, accomplished something amazing in local history — envisioning modern Bellevue.

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James Ditty. Photo: Karen Shurr, James Ditty Sr. Family

More than a mere dreamer, James Ditty was an early advocate of urban planning, of looking ahead and figuring out how and where to accommodate growth. He tested these skills first on the Eastside’s first arts colony – a small intentional community known as Beaux Arts.

Today Beaux Arts is a rather exclusive Eastside community, tucked into the woodsy lakeshore suburbs just north of I-90. Well-tended by its inheritors, the enclave maintains a collection of uniquely historic residences that have been called an "extraordinary mirror of the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement." Before Ditty came along though, Beaux Arts was just a 50-acre stand of undeveloped old-growth forest, its future resting on the whims of a group of local artists and newspapermen.

"Back about the time of the Russo-Japanese war [1904-5], a group of art enthusiasts were holding art classes in the old University of Washington building left vacant by the removal of the university to its present location," Ditty remembered. "It offered cheap rent, if any, and for a while filled the need for those hopefuls who as usual had more ambition than money. Out of this group an idea was born. Let's start an art colony where we can live together, work together and play together."

With the financial backing of Capt. E. W. Johnson, a millionaire who had made it big in shipping and mining in Alaska, the colonists found and purchased a 50-acre site east of Lake Washington. The site was subdivided into lots and over time Ditty and the group began to build Craftsman cabins and homes tucked amid old-growth forest.

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James Ditty's Beaux Arts house. Photo: Karen Shurr, James Ditty Sr. Family.

They held land in common, some of it reserved for artists' work sites or community gatherings. Ditty even shaped his yard to be something like a neighborhood amphitheater for outdoor performances.

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Dancers perform in the yard of Ditty's Beaux Arts house. Photo: Beaux Arts Village Historical Archives

Beaux Arts didn't draw big name artists, but it did attract creative people, who marched to the beat of a different drummer and enjoyed living closer to nature than one could in Seattle’s booming metropolis. One notorious resident was a Christian or Theosophist "yoga cult", which allegedly practiced nudism and whose leader lived in sin with a woman not his wife. This created quite a scandal back in 1915.

Ditty and others still had day jobs in town, commuting across the lake via passenger ferry from Beaux Arts to Leschi and on by cable car. Ditty was among the Eastside's first regular commuters, working in Seattle, shopping for the family at the Pike Place Market, then returning across the lake to hearth, home and country life.

It was nearby Bellevue though where Ditty’s urban visioning would play out most strongly. At the time, the town of Bellevue was little more than a crossroads – an agricultural community also home to a wintering whaling fleet and a yearly strawberry festival. Ditty served on the town school board.

By the 1920s, Ditty had come to believe that the town would one day be the center of a larger metropolitan community, expanding from old Main Street northward. So strong was his conviction that he purchased some 38 acres of "pastureland" around what is now Bellevue Way and Northeast 8th Street – modern downtown Bellevue’s ground zero.

"When we first bought the land, people thought we were crazy,” Ditty’s second wife Helen was quoted as saying in her 1981 obituary. “If you paid anything for land here, you were considered cheated…."

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Looking south along 104 Ave N.E. from the intersection of N.E. 8 St. Photo: Eastside Heritage Center.

But Ditty’s powers as an illustrator and salesman served him well. He set out to draw a picture of the future for all to see – an expansive urban vision of what Bellevue and the greater Eastside could one day become.

Ditty was certainly not the first real estate promoter to make big promises for Eastside properties. In the 1880s, developers touted the new town site of Kirkland as the "Pittsburgh of the West," Pittsburgh being the ultimate late 19th century model for urban success. Developer C.D. Hillman, not one to be outdone in the hyperbole department, promoted the early 1900s development of Kennydale (current home of the Seahawks) by publishing a birds-eye view that made it look as if it sat at the very foot of Mount Baker. He called it "The Garden of Eden of Lake Washington." Such hyper-enthusiasm was pretty standard in a region that boosters commonly called "God's Country."

But Ditty took things to a new level of specificity and modern practicality, debuting his concept in a February 1928 edition of the Seattle Star: "Here is Model City, Planned for East Side of Lake Washington," the paper boasted.

Ditty’s published bird's-eye view ran from Mercer Island to the Points communities, from the eastern shores of Lake Washington to the Midlakes area between Bellevue and Lake Sammamish. He saw a whole new urban infrastructure for the region: multiple bridges crossing the lake, one connecting Seattle's Seward Park with Mercer Island, beefed-up ferry service across the lake and a major north-south road running near where I-405 is today, a route that would connect the Eastside with Vancouver and Portland. He also envisioned a new "short-cut" to Snoqualmie Pass.

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Ditty's Vision: The Eastside of the Future. Photo: Karen Shurr, James Ditty Sr. Family

His plan included municipal golf courses, public beaches, yacht clubs, hotels, and pre-Space Needle observation towers. There were schools and athletic fields and at least eight airports. This being the 1920s, one stately dirigible — not just airplanes — floated over Ditty’s city of the future. There were factories and rail yards and sprawling residential districts. Mercer Island alone had multiple airports and two business districts.

The nerve center of it all was a dense cluster of high-rise office buildings where downtown Bellevue is today, complete with a central park and a large commercial district. Ditty wanted the men of Bellevue to think about the future.

Most of this would have seemed ridiculous at the time. A 1924 directory described Bellevue as "a town on Meydenbauer Bay six and a half miles east of [Seattle's] Pioneer Square, a banking and shipping point with four churches, telephones, railway express, and 16 daily boats to Leschi Park," historian J. Kingston Pierce reminded Eastsideweek readers in 1991. The population was 878.

But Ditty could see a modern metropolis emerging from his bucolic pasture, and he urged action. Here was land close to the center of the region's economic action, its geographic barriers easily overcome by modern technology. As the crow flies, Ditty reminded folks, much of the Eastside was "closer to Pioneer Square than is Green Lake." His imaginative powers, historian Pierce argued, were tantamount to those of L. Frank Baum, the Wizard of Oz author.

So he proposed that all small communities east of the lake incorporate as a single city. "This will give the officials a chance to establish zoning laws and provide for future growth before the city is sufficiently populated to make this so expensive as to be almost prohibitive," he explained. In other words, plan and prepare for growth, and steer it where it will do the most good.

He wanted to avoid the expensive disputes and chaos of growing cities that lacked good modern planning. "Using Seattle's growth as a measuring rod," he said, "it is not difficult to picture what 25 years more will bring for the city and its environs. That's what we are trying to plan for here, where we believe Seattle will live after industry drives it outside its present confines."

Decades before it happened in 1953, Ditty began pushing for Bellevue's incorporation. When local residents resisted his blueprint, he suggested that Seattle might annex the area – everything from Factoria to Yarrow Point. Bellevue's leadership, he proclaimed, was "incompetent to manage its affairs." While Beaux Arts had offered a sylvan residential getaway – a model of the pre-war suburban idyll – the sprawling Eastside was a land of urban opportunity that could benefit from the kind of planning and care Beaux Arts had received.

Many Seattleites ignored Ditty’s vision, mocking what they called "Ditty City." Even Bellevue residents were skeptical: It was still a country town, not a would-be metropolis.

In the end, the annexation did not happen. Instead, Bellevue grew on its own, the Eastside still unconsolidated. But Ditty did win his bet that growth would move northward.

In the 1930s, he developed a corner of his property with the Lakeshore Super Market – a move that gave him the title of Bellevue's first developer.

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NE 8th and Bellevue Way, the site of Ditty's Super Market. Photo: Eastside Heritage Center

Ten years later, the first floating bridge opened, providing a direct connection between the Eastside and Seattle. As World War II came to a close, Ditty sold off 10 acres to Miller Freeman and his son, Kemper Freeman, Sr. — for $40,000. The plot would eventually become Bellevue Square Mall.

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Bellevue Square under construction in the 1940s. Photo: Eastside Heritage Center.

In addition to the Super Market, Ditty developed the Bel-Lane Shopping Center and proposed a plan for managing increased traffic through downtown. A right-of-way he granted to King County through his property became Bellevue Way. He continued to be outspoken in civic affairs, occasionally feuding with the Freemans. At his passing in 1962 at age 81, Ditty left an estate worth more than a million dollars.

The mall put Bellevue on the regional map, and became the anchor for much of the downtown vision that has transformed the city since. Kemper Freeman Sr., his son, Kemper, Jr. and other Bellevue developers were thinking way beyond the suburban bedroom community – they hoped to germinate a modern city. Bellevue has been built and shaped by many hands, not least the Freemans', but it sprouted from Ditty's fertile mind and from his pasture.

And he lived long enough to see his Bellevue begin to emerge and to profit from it: "I sat on the fence, waiting for Bellevue to grow up," he once said. Today’s Eastside is remarkably like what Ditty imagined 85 years ago: The factories with smokestacks have been replaced by high-tech campuses like Microsoft's, the bridges float, the dirigibles never made it past the Hindenburg's fiery end, and the once-busy rail lines have mostly become trails. But the essentials of Ditty's metropolitan forecast have come to pass.

Most remarkably, his downtown Bellevue vision has been embraced by planners, urbanists and developers who are pressing for more density, more growth. They have even taken some of Ditty's old advice to heart: In planning a makeover of the Bel-Red corridor in the last decade, planners zoned it for transit oriented development to attract Sound Transit's East Link rail line, rather than rezoning after the route was selected.

A forest of office towers has risen like a sunrise twin to Seattle and Bellevue is now the 5th largest city in Washington, with a population approaching 130,000. Some credit for the Eastside of today goes to the man who said that artwork could make "forceful impression that there is an ideal place to live." James Ditty, visionary and co-founder of an artist's colony, made a piece of artwork that did just that.

This project is made possible with the generous support of 4Culture/ King County Lodging Tax Fund.

Particular thanks for this story are due to Crosscut intern Sara Kowdley, Julia Morse and the Beaux Arts Village Historical Society, Eastside Heritage Center of Bellevue, City of Bellevue, The University of Washington's Special Collections and Suzzallo Library, and the digital resources of the Seattle Public Library.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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