March 2003: Preservation in the Ballard Neighborhood
By Heather MacIntosh

Originally an independent city, the Ballard neighborhood is in some ways still a world apart. Its age, geographic size, strong ethnic heritage, and exceptional historical society (with archives) make it a good place for preservation within the city of Seattle. As housing costs rose sharply in the 1990s, many first time home buyers and others priced out of neighborhoods close to downtown moved to more affordable Ballard. This influx of new, young residents has contributed to a shift in Ballard's neighborhood identity.

Money Magazine recently deemed Ballard one of the city's most livable, vibrant neighborhoods - this is a sharp departure from the long time Ballardian stereotype parodied on bumper stickers and Almost Live skits in the 1990s. Though the neighborhood is (thankfully) still home to many older residents with strong Nordic roots, a walk through its commercial streets illustrates a resurgence that may result in renewed preservation interest.

A Brief Overview

In 1887, Ballard's namesake, Captain William Ballard, along with Thomas Burke, John Leary, and Boyd Tallman platted the 720 acres north of Salmon Bay. Ballard incorporated as a city in 1890, but was annexed in 1907 as Seattle expanded its borders to its north and south. Ballard's industrial roots lay in milling and marine-related work. Known as the "Shingle Capitol of the World" at one time (in stark contrast to its neighbor, a self-designated "Center of the Universe"), the lasting character of the place is decidedly modest.

When Victor Steinbrueck and Folke Nyberg conducted their survey of the neighborhood in the late 1970s, they noted the "unassuming nature of the residential areas" and the "utilitarian ambience." This was due, not only to the quality of the building stock and the character of the residents, but to landscape features such as its gently sloping topography and lack of street trees.

They also noted, however, that Ballard was unique. Nowhere else in Seattle would one find building types ranging from the late 19th century to the present day within such a relatively small commercial area. Thankfully, from a preservation standpoint, the neighborhood's older buildings are clustered in sectors that demonstrate the area's commercial growth over time. Ballard Avenue, Market Street and 15th Avenue all have their own character. Ballard's waterfront industrial belt maintains a number of older brick and wood frame buildings that are unusual in Seattle today. Like Ballard, Seattle's roots are in industry. In Ballard's industrial zone, one can get a sense of what Seattle's waterfront was like in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Preserving the Best of Ballard

Though modest, Ballard's pride in its past is clear. The Nordic Heritage Museum, established in 1980, is testament to the neighborhood's commitment to preserving its unique heritage, and the legacy of Nordic immigrants in general. The museum serves a number of roles. It is a repository for artifacts, and an active cultural center offering changing exhibits, programs, and language classes. The Nordic Museum is a good place to start a self-styled driving tour of the historic neighborhood.

The museum's establishment came on the heels of significant preservation activity in the neighborhood. The community's awareness of Ballard Avenue's special significance, and the high integrity of its commercial building stock led to district designation. The regulatory overlay was the result of several meetings between the Ballard Avenue Association and the city's Urban Conservation Division. Mayor Wes Uhlman, a champion of historic preservation in the 1970s, signed the ordinance into law in 1976. Within days of the official designation, King Carl XVI Gustav of Sweden ceremoniously read the official proclamation asserting Ballard Avenue's special recognition and protection.

The district is a relatively small geographic area of recognized history. Given its many historic buildings, preservationists have a lot of opportunities to document and/or save some of the city's oldest houses and warehouses.

Historic Seattle has received a number of calls from Ballardites interested in landmarking their houses. Although these inquiries are great to hear, individual landmark nominations for relatively modest houses without dramatic histories are somewhat hard to argue. What would help is a comprehensive survey of Ballard's historic residential architecture, which would include a clear relationship between the area's socioeconomic history and its ethnic heritage. The coming together of these factors is clearly evident in much of its early housing stock.

Historic Seattle in Ballard

The mid-1970s was a very good time for preservation in Ballard. Two of Historic Seattle's projects from that period are located in the neighborhood.

In 1975, Historic Seattle saved two 1890 houses slated for demolition in the International District by moving them to Ballard Avenue. The pioneer houses were compatible with the style of early Ballard housing stock.

In 1976, Historic Seattle saved the 1911 Fire Station No. 18, located at 5427 Russell Way. Historic Seattle renovated the property for adaptive reuse, and the building now houses a restaurant and offices. The building, with its distinctive architectural elements such as its stepped gable parapet, and large overhanging eaves, lend a lot of visual interest to this office City of Seattle landmark.

This Old Ballard House

Last year, Ballard resident Mark Houston called to see if Historic Seattle could help him save one of Ballard's old farmhouses. The house, located on 14th Avenue NW, stood on the site of planned multifamily development. A walkthrough of the building provided a window through time. The house, built around 1907, is one example of a vernacular type no doubt common at one time in Ballard. This was no Sears catalogue farm house, but rather, an adaptation of a Nordic vernacular. The soffit of the narrow stair leading from the first floor to the second appeared to be the work of a shipbuilder. The joints between the narrow, closely laid wooden members were extremely narrow and looked to be watertight. I'd seen similar joining work in a 250 year old pub in London - also constructed by a shipbuilder.

Mark successfully negotiated with the property owner to move the building off site, in lieu of demolition. He is now nearing the end of his restoration of the building, which was moved about one half block away. The effort was nearly Herculean, as it involved a number of permits from Seattle's Department of Construction and Land Use, support from the department's director, newly instated Diane Sugimura, extreme patience on the part of the developer who had to wait while the bureaucratic parts of the move went through, and an aggressive effort to find financing.

From the outside, it might have seemed like a lot of trouble for a little house, but all this work was needed to save the building. Though the Steinbrueck-Nyberg survey recognized the building as a "community landmark" this carried no weight without subsequent designation. Mark may seek to landmark the building yet, but his personal strategy for preservation was highly effective and a model for those dedicated to saving Seattle's older small houses.

I also received a call last year from a group interested in surveying Ballard's historic houses linked to its Nordic heritage. This approach to an architectural inventory would be a great step toward a comprehensive plan to protect buildings like Mark's without so much effort and high drama.

It may be that Ballard's historic houses are surveyed as a part of the city's six year plan to inventory its neighborhoods. A prototype of this recent survey effort was first conducted in the University District, and is this year focused in Queen Anne. The Ballard Historical Society has recently compiled a collection of photographs from the Puget Sound Regional Archives taken during the late 1930s and early 1940s which would provide a great foundation for a neighborhood survey. This documentation is on file at the Ballard branch of the Seattle Public Library.

The Sunset Hotel

In February of 2003, the Ballard Avenue Landmarks Board approved preliminary plans for the building which will replace the Sunset Hotel. These plans came at the end of a gauntlet of meetings focused on the fate of the significantly damaged hotel. The building was of primary importance to the historic district, in part because it sits at Ballard Avenue's entrance. The hotel suffered a fire in 2000, and then was further weakened by the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.

The building's siting and significance within the district made the decision to allow demolition very difficult. After much deliberation however, the board eventually agreed with the owner that the building could not be feasibly saved.

Hopefully, the building will be the only historic casualty of the Nisqually Quake.

Part of the Solution

The Ballard neighborhood contributes quite a lot to our understanding of everyday historic architecture, and deserves more credit as a historic center. One of the best ways to preserve Ballard's character is easy and enjoyable - just go there. Shopping there, eating there, and getting to know "Ballard through the back door" contributes to the success of the businesses that are the stewards of great history. More obvious assets, like the Hiram Chittenden Locks, are not the only reason to visit.

If you are interested in participating in a potential neighborhood survey, contact the Department of Neighborhoods.

For more on cycling to Old Ballard on the historic Burke Gilman Trail, visit this website.

View last month's Neighborhoods article

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