Welcome to Madrona!
The Seattle Architectural Foundation hosted a Madrona neighborhood tour on September 20th. I’ve lived here since 1998 and have tried to learn as much as I can about my neighborhood. But this tour was an immense treasury of architectural history and appreciation.
Madrona’s first human inhabitants were Duwamish and Squamish Indians who hunted and fished along the banks of what would eventually be named Lake Washington. I was amazed to hear the tour leader say that there were once islands in Lake Washington (when the water level was several feet lower than now).
Queene Anne front door
In the late 19th century, much of the land on the downhill side of 34th Avenue was purchased by the Puget Land Company, which promptly built a lakeside hotel, trolley line from downtown, Japanese teahouse and other amenities, hoping to make Madrona an attractive locale for recreation. The trolley’s wooden trestle bridge that descended down to the lake along Yesler Avenue was in its day the tallest such bridge in the world. Eventually, homes were built, streets laid out and utilities installed so that Madrona became a residential neighborhood.
The 1903 Alaska-Yukon Exposition (housed where the University of Washington campus now stands) further popularized area when Lake Washington Boulevard was built to connect the campus to the lakeshore hotel and other nearby attractions. The Boulevard and many of its adjacent parks were planned by the Olmstead Brothers, who also designed the Boston Commons, Golden Gate Park and many others.
Madrona Queen Anne Victorian
Among its first residents were the Chinese who worked on the Northern Pacific Railroad. In the 1940s, this was the major Jewish neighborhood in Seattle (the first Jewish neighborhood was Yesler Avenue near Pioneer Square). By the 1960s, there was a strong African-American presence (though there were ‘White Only’ real estate covenants still in force in this neighborhood). The Black Panthers considered the area ‘friendly turf’ and even used the Madrona Playfield for military style drilling (imagine that!).
The tour leader told of a fascinating legend that Judge Alfred Battle, who built Battle House in a style reminiscent of a Southern plantation. The current owner of the house standing across the street claims that several decades ago a Seattle police officer built the home that he now owns. He claims that this his home contains an entry to a boarded up underground tunnel that leads to the Bussell House. Apparently, the Judge and police officer during Prohibition were bootlegging partners. This is a Seattle we don’t often hear about!
A great historical source about Madrona is Junius Rochester’s Last Electric Trolley
The preponderance of Craftsman style homes here attests to the early 20th century architectural style prevailing when many of Madrona’s first homes were built (1900-1910).
926 36th Avenue: a beautifully executed Craftsman historic restoration (with expansion)
Thankfully, many of these homes remain though a number of beautiful Craftsman have been torn down (or ‘desecrated’ in my view) in order to install megamasions (‘McMansion’ is a nice turn of phrase I think) in their place. For an example of such desecration, see Another Craftsman Comes Crashing Down.
I had a few quarrels with some of the specific information conveyed by the two tour guides; and with some of the architectural/critical approach of the guides. Before the tour, I asked the tour organizer if she would inform the tour leaders that I am especially interested in historic preservation issues (since we’re losing some of our best old local housing stock). I also asked my own tour leader during the tour if he would mention this topic. But there seems to be a prevailing value-free notion among at least some architects that you musn’t abuse the work of your fellow architects. For example, we passed the vintage Madrona gas station on 34th Avenue, whose current owner has assaulted the beautiful original Mission design by boarding up the arches in order to create new interior space. The tour leader’s comment on the renovation was (and I paraphrase):
While we recognize and appreciate the value of our historic buildings, we must also recognize that nothing in life is ever static. It is always a good idea to preserve our architectural heritage when we can. But there is also nothing wrong with change when it comes.
Madrona restored hearth
I thought it was a hazy, lazy cop out. Since the tour leader explicitly mentioned that he and others leading neighborhood tours never say anything bad about any of the homes on their tours for fear of possibly offending home owners, I began to wonder whether remaining values-neutral was a tendency common to the entire profession. Perhaps the architecture profession is a bit like other guild-like professions in which the practitioners band together to protect their own. If you live in close quarters with others of your kind you don’t want to sully your living quarters making it uncomfortable for both you and your fellows.
Another thought came to me which might explain this approach: an architect is always at the mercy of his client. He must please his client or lose the commission. Therefore, architects perhaps learn to tailor their ideas and attitudes more to please the client than to please themselves. I imagine that the life of most architects cannot be easy since very few have the liberty of a Frank Gehry to choose their projects. Very few have the liberty to make only the types of buildings they want to make. Maybe this makes architects very circumspect in expressing their true critical evaluation of the work of others.
Madrona Auto vintage gas station (‘historic preservation’)
At any rate, I think a values-neutral tour is a somewhat boring tour. I wish I could have heard a more critical approach to the architecture we were looking at. Not all of it can be good or great. I’d like to know about the good, the bad and the ugly.
The tour leaders made a few factual errors as well. While there may be many fewer madrona trees in Madrona than there were when Indians hunted here; to say that “few are left” in Madrona is an inaccurate statement that could be disproven by walking through Madrona’s greenbelt areas like the Leschi Natural Area (which I think of as in Madrona). Another comment that the only view of the List-Bussell House (and a poor one at that) was from the front is also not accurate. There are nicer and fuller views of the house from the street below it downhill to the east.
Despite my few caveats, this was an exhilirating and informative tour and I’m grateful to the Foundation for introducing Seattleites to their architectural heritage.
During the tour, which took place on a gorgeous, warm sunny fall day I took the following photos of Madrona interiors and exteriors:
Batchelder tile on Madrona Deli building facade
One of my neighbors wrote a wonderful meditation on historic preservations issues which I’ve included here (Seattle Historic Preservation). She notes that my own house built in 1906 has an unusual pagoda-style roof which might be attributed to the influence of the Chinese who lived in Madrona in large numbers at the turn of the century. For more photos of the interior and exterior of my home, take a look my Craftsman Home and Lake Washington galleries.