Seattle Designates Derelict Denny's a Landmark, Sparking Debate

There's no question the graffiti-strewn, rain-rotted, boarded-up old Denny's is a landmark in the most basic sense: People refer to it when giving directions, as in, "Turn left at the Denny's."

But is the 44-year-old eyesore, with its swooping roof line, worthy of historical designation? Seattle's Landmarks Preservation Board thought so, saving the eatery from demolition and blocking construction of yet another condo complex.

The board's vote last month boggled many Seattleites, who consider the building tacky at best and don't buy the argument that it shares some architectural DNA with Seattle's most famous landmark, the Space Needle.

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"They're saving something no one cares about," said Jed Lutge, who was walking near the building recently on the way to get a cup of coffee.

The developer that bought the property for $12.5 million in 2006 cried foul, noting that no one trumpeted the restaurant's historical value several years ago when it was going to be demolished for a monorail station.

The company, BCC Mikie Ballard, is challenging the ruling and promises a legal assault on Seattle's landmarks ordinance, prompting a philosophical debate over whether, in a cookie-cutter world of strip malls and big-box stores, something is worth saving just because it's different.

"We've heard the arguments before from people saying it's ugly, it's this, it's that," says Eugenia Woo, a preservation consultant who worked to save the Denny's. "We're not just looking at high-style buildings or buildings for the rich and famous as buildings that should be preserved. Seattle was a working-class city, and Ballard's history comes from that."

Though the Space Needle is a prime example, few people here had heard of "Googie" architecture, a subcategory of Modernism named for a Los Angeles coffee shop, before the Denny's debate. The style, popular for roadside attractions such as gas stations and drive-ins in the 1950s and early '60s, evokes "Jetsons" cartoons, characterized by soaring roof lines, boomerang-shaped elements and bright colors.

The Denny's building was completed in 1964 at an intersection near downtown Ballard, then a blue-collar, Scandinavian enclave that has seen property values rise as boutiques, chic restaurants and condos have moved in. It originally housed a local chain restaurant called Manning's Cafeteria; Denny's replaced it in 1983.

The architect, Clarence Mayhew, may have been influenced by a Polynesian-style information booth at the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle, where the Space Needle was unveiled. In its prime, the building featured a vaulted ceiling, large windows and "bubble lamps" by the designer George Nelson.

Renovations have removed or masked those features, though. A dropped ceiling hid the original; dry rot and water damage took hold; metal braces were added to bolster failing wooden supports. Nowadays, it might not even be the most attractive building at its drab intersection, which also features a Shell gas station, a Safeway grocery store and a Walgreen's.

The owners argue that the changes compromised the building's integrity, and note that it has no sprinkler system and isn't earthquake-proof. Also, landmark status wouldn't require them to restore the building, only to preserve it in its current boarded-up state, which no one wants.

The company is pleading financial hardship in asking the landmarks board to reconsider. And it has sued in King County Superior Court alleging that the city's landmarks ordinance violates the state constitution.

Fans of the building still hope for a compromise, in which the developer would restore it — perhaps turning it into a restaurant or bar — and erect the condos around it.

"We're so quick to get rid of things," Shiloah Bosworth, a 23-year-old chef, lamented as she strolled nearby the other day. "They don't make those buildings anymore. Everything is square."