Stephen Lee is not accustomed to being the center of attention. He heads the Seattle Landmark Preservation Board, an 11-member commission that typically receives three or four requests every two weeks to decide whether or not a particular building is worthy of landmark designation. His meetings usually attract a handful of attendees, if that many.
But when Lee and his board met for a routine meeting last week, four television crews, reporters from all the local papers and more than 100 community members joined them. The property to be considered: a shutdown Denny's restaurant in the city's Ballard neighborhood. "It was wild," says Lee, who describes the Wednesday night meeting as "the most excitement" he has seen during his six years chairing the board.
The crowd stuck around for two and a half hours to get the verdict: by a 6 to 3 vote, Seattle declared the former Denny's, built in 1964, a historical landmark, citing its importance as a local signpost; its swooping, Googie-style roof made it a distinctive marker of the neighborhood. "I truly think that it has a distinctive enough element in the community and its urban fabric that it should not be lost," says Lee, who voted in favor of saving the building. As a result, a lot of people are asking him, "What are you doing saving a Denny's?"
The battle over this particular Denny's has been brewing since the middle of last year when the building was nominated for landmark status. The controversy became more heated with last week's decision, a verdict that was largely unpopular among Seattleites, judging from the 200 comments left on a recent Seattle Times article. The majority did not take much pleasure in living in the city that landmarks a Denny's. "What a joke. Preserve an unstable boarded up, vacant building?" asks one reader. "It's going to just sit and be an eyesore for the foreseeable future."
The landmark status is particularly bad news for the property's owners. The real estate company Benaroya purchased the property in 2006 for $12 million. Now, their plans to develop a condominium complex are on hold as they begin to appeal the decision, a process that could take weeks, months or even years. "Here we are, having gone through the better part of a year without making any gains on the property," says Jack McCollough, the company's land use attorney. "With the time value of money and market changes, it can have quite a serious impact on us."
The same building that has inspired fierce opposition has also attracted an equally devoted group of supporters, largely community activists and preservation architects. They say that this building is a key example of Googie architecture, a movement from the 1950s and '60s that gets it name from a Sunset Strip coffee shop. That Los Angeles shop, designed in 1949 by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright's, features sweeping roofs, big windows and starburst and boomerang shapes—elements that came to be know as exemplars of Googie. Alan Hess, author of "Googie Redux: Ultra Modern Roadside Architecture," describes the movement as "an ultra-modern expression of structure in building intended to attract a clientele going about their day in an automobile." The style grew alongside the rise of car culture; the buildings' big, bright shapes were meant as signs to attract drivers—think McDonald's golden arches, which Hess cites as a classic example. Hess says that the Denny's building in Seattle has many of the requisite features—its "clean, abstract, sculptural" roofline shows, as he describes it, "aspects of modern sensibility, and a part of Googie. Part of the purpose is to make the building as its own sign."
Then there is also the historical aspect that has attracted supporters like Anne Forestieri, a 22-year resident of Ballard who, up until this project, had no background in community activism. To her, it's a funky building that gives the neighborhood character, especially in the face of a burgeoning number of condominium developments. And it's not just a Denny's. The building's original occupant was a Manning's outlet, part of a West Coast coffee-shop chain that started in Seattle's Pike Place Market, which some consider the predecessor to Starbucks. "They think we're trying to preserve a Denny's but it's not about that," Forestieri says. "We're trying to get the word out there, explain the significance of how it used to be."
Forestieri and a handful of other volunteers have been spending a cumulative 15-20 hours a day on the project, doing research, hosting community meetings and scanning the comments on the local newspapers trying to educate the public about this particular building. They have even worked with a local architecture firm to draw up plans for how a new condominium complex could incorporate this building, allowing for both development and preservation. "We are definitely not against development of the land," she says. "We want them to develop around this building."
But that does not seem to be in the cards, if the property owners have anything to say about it. "A lot of the preservation activists were speculating about how wonderful it could be if the building were lovingly restored," says McCullough, the land-use attorney representing Benaroya. "We pointed out at the meeting that the name is the preservation board, not the restoration board. All the board can do is preserve the status quo." McCullough says that the Benaroya Co. plans to appeal the landmark designation and is currently "evaluating options" of how to do so. But until then, the former Denny's stands, a minor victory—if not a grand slam—for Googie architecture.