The real story behind Ballard's 'anti-development icon'

By Brian Hagenbuch
Crosscut archive image.

Edith Macefield's house, dwarfed by the Ballard Blocks. Credit: Flickr user Ryan

By Brian Hagenbuch

Driving across the Ballard Bridge last week, I noticed the door to the boarded-up Macefield House was open. Intrigued, I took the first exit off the bridge, drove past Mike's Chili Parlor, and circled around the gunmetal grey cubes of Ballard Blocks, with its LA Fitness and freshly-inaugurated Ross Dress For Less, to the notch around back where the house is tucked, five floors of concrete rising on three sides. A guy in Carhartts was walking around inside with a tape measure: Nothing to see here.

Later in the week, a sign appeared over the front door: 'For Sale, 1550 SF Lot, Paul Thomas, The No B.S. Broker'. The sign included Thomas' website:

For anyone who does not know the story of the Macefield house, here are the Cliff Notes: Developers bought out almost an entire rundown block at the northeast end of the Ballard Bridge, but could not convince one little old lady to sell. The elderly woman, Edith Macefield, refused ever-increasing offers to sell her old two-story home, reportedly turning down a million dollars. (Side note: An anonymous source close to Ms. Macefield claims she was never offered near that much, that it was a rumor the developer started and the media molded into fact.)

Macefield continued to crank up her opera music and feed her birds as the future mall all but enveloped her house. From the right camera angle, the 1,050-square home looked dwarfed, like it was sitting at the bottom of a massive concrete funnel. The stunning image circled the globe.

As construction continued, Ms. Macefield became a local and national symbol of courageous holdout against development. Her legend grew even more after she succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2008. In 2009, it ballooned still more, so to speak, when producers for the Oscar-winning Disney movie Up used the house to promote the movie about an elderly widower who, flocked around by development, floats his home to mythical South American waterfalls on the buoyancy of thousands of balloons. Some media outlets began reporting that her story inspired the film, even though work on the script began in 2004, long before Ms. Macefield’s game of chicken with a shopping mall started.

Along the way, a Ballard tattoo artist inked, mostly on forearms, an estimated 40 free tattoos of the Macefield house with the word “steadfast” underneath. The Macefield Music Festival was founded, “inspired by the fiercely independent spirit of Ballard’s ‘refuse to sell’ resident, Edith Macefield,” according to the festival’s website. And a narrative developed that the old woman was standing up against greed and the inexorable bulldozer of progress.

This idea was slowly debunked, and most people with the “steadfast” tattoos understand that Ms. Macefield had no designs on starting a movement, nor was she even anti-development. She was just old and did not want to move.

The superintendent of the construction project, Barry Martin, began to care for the infirm Macefield, and the two became inseparable. Martin wrote a book about his time with Ms. Macefield called Under One Roof: How a Little Old Woman in a Little Old House Changed My Life. The book is clumsy and self-helpy, but made engaging by Ms. Macefield’s lucid, frank observations, and truncated — senile? — stories that hint at an epic life.

According to bits and pieces of conversation collected by Martin, Ms. Macefield may or may not have been a British spy in Nazi Germany who was imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp, escaped with 20 kids and housed them in a castle in England that someone gave to her to use as an orphanage. She may or may not have lived with one of her three husbands on a fig plantation in Africa where giraffes once craned their necks in and ate the fig pies she left cooling on the sill. She may or may not have bought a sax from a destitute Tommy Dorsey, played it with her (maybe) cousin Benny Goodman and hung out with Spencer Tracy.

But one thing we learn for certain from Martin’s book is that Ms. Macefield knew exactly where this orgy of development in Seattle has been, and where it is headed.

“Change is change. You know that building you are going to build, twenty years from now, they’ll tear that down too," she apparently told him. "They tore down the Kingdome just 25 years after they built it, you know. They still owed twenty million dollars on it. That’s just progress, Barry. That’s just the way things go.”

Ms. Macefield ended up leaving her home to Martin, who sold it to a shady real estate agent for $310,000, who in turn lost it to foreclosure. The house went up for auction on Friday, March 13, but ended up back in the hands of the bank because back taxes put it far over market value. Now the bank has it for sale.

Crosscut archive image.
The Macefield House's latest iteration.

Last week, in conjunction with the For Sale sign, someone again started a balloon wall along the chain link fence outside the 108-year-old home: "Please attach a balloon to the fence in honor of Edith Macefield and the Up! house," read a little white sign, next to a bucket of pens to write on the balloons.

The fence was stuffed with balloons jittering in the breeze, bearing inscriptions: "Steadfast", "Keep the Ballard charm", "Save this home", "Don't let progress squander your dreams", "Renovate, don't obliterate" and "Keep on smiling Edith".

The phrases written on the balloons indicate just how much misunderstanding still surrounds the legacy of Ms. Macefield. None of the phrases is further off than the last: While there are a lot of question marks surrounding her life and legacy, no one is claiming that the notoriously cantankerous Ms. Macefield was smiley.

What Ms. Macefield does represent is the end of a generational era in Ballard. That means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but for the Ballard music festival set, the beards and the tattoos, it means the end of the old Seattle authenticity — and affordability — they found in the historic port neighborhood.

It also heralded the arrival, in earnest, of a savage real estate boom: Ballard Blocks sold for $416 per square foot in 2010, the 13th highest price in the nation that year, according to Real Analytics Capital. Most likely, in the coming months, the Macefield house will be bought out, leveled and the lot will finally become part of the high-dollar commercial real estate that surrounds it.

And one gets the sense that Ms. Macefield, if she were still around, might be just fine with that, possibly even more inclined to take the side of the ‘no B.S. broker’ than the balloon wall.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Brian Hagenbuch

Brian Hagenbuch

Brian Hagenbuch recently relocated to Seattle after spending a decade in Argentina, where he worked for Reuters, Time Out and wrote for theater and film. He grew up in the Methow Valley.