Rediscovering Ballard's soul
As Ballard Avenue undergoes a renaissance, the Ballard Historical Society wants new arrivals to be aware of its colorful history.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A building boom is on in Ballard, with the inevitable worries about congestion; more than 2,100 condos and apartments are under construction or under permit review.
But as Mary Fortino walked recently along Ballard Avenue Northwest, surrounded by historic old buildings that go back a century, she worried about something else, too:
How much will the new arrivals know about Ballard's soul?
As president of the Ballard Historical Society, such stuff matters to her.
"We don't want to become another bedroom community of Seattle," Fortino said. "We don't want newcomers to be a person who gets in their car, goes to work and comes back at night, without engaging in their community. They're in a special neighborhood."
That's why she spent two years ensconced in the archives of the Seattle Public Library while her husband was at work and their three children were in school.
Fortino boiled that research into one-paragraph texts that were engraved on 12-by-16-inch steel plaques, most of which were bolted in April onto 26 buildings along Ballard Avenue Northwest. The plaques are also engraved with old photos that show the buildings in their early days, when this was the neighborhood's main business street. The avenue lies within the Ballard Landmark District, designated by the Seattle City Council in 1976.
After years of boarded-up buildings, the avenue is going through a renaissance.
There are upscale wine bars and taverns catering to a young crowd, plus small stores and art galleries. Celebrity chef Kathy Casey has set up shop on the avenue, including a food studio that advertises customers can sit in "Louis XV gilded chairs."
Fortino hopes those strolling by the galleries will read those plaques.
She can still envision the saloons frequented by the shingle mill workers who once were the area's lifeblood.
Shingle mill capital
By 1896, Ballard could claim to be the shingle mill capital of the world; by 1904, nearly 20 mills were producing 3 million shingles a day, according to the city's Department of Neighborhoods.
The young men employed at the mills put in 10-hour days, seven days a week, and lived in boarding houses in which rooms had not much more than a bed and sink.
Fortino talked about a Ballard doctor from those days whose major business was dealing with men who had cut off fingers at the mill.
So it was no wonder locals said there were more bars in those four square blocks than any similar-sized area west of the Mississippi. More than a third of the 26 buildings that got a plaque at one point housed saloons.
Besides drinking, another favorite activity at the saloons was betting on bare-fisted boxing, Fortino said.
In April 1901, the mayor of Ballard even issued a declaration that the fights would cease for 44 weeks because they served "no purpose than to develop the brute forces of human nature physically and intellectually, and debase the young men."
Fortino said she doesn't know why the mayor chose 44 weeks in his declaration, but believes the mayor thought that length of time "would cool down" the fighting.
At 22nd Avenue Northwest and Ballard Avenue Northwest, Fortino pointed to where the Ballard City Hall once stood. The site now is known as Marvin's Garden, a tiny park named after Marvin Sjoberg, a local character who died in 1989.
That's something else Fortino wants newcomers to be proud of — that Ballard was a city of its own for 16 years.
Annexation for water
But Ballard didn't have an adequate water supply; Seattle did, and it wasn't going to share it without annexation.
The book, "Passport to Ballard," a neighborhood history, tells of the day in May 1907 when carriages carted Ballard's municipal documents to Seattle. Ballard City Hall "was draped with black crepe, and the flag on the city flag pole hung at half-staff. The faces of those crowding the streets were a mix of smiles and sad eyes blinking back the tears."
As she walked along the avenue, Fortino spotted Art Olsen, 62, through the display window of Olsen Furniture, in business in Ballard for 74 years.
The store, at 5354 Ballard Ave. N.W., is where a dry-goods store operated a century ago, followed by a clothing shop.
Olsen and his brother, Dick, and sister, Sonja, took over the family business started by their dad, Harold Olsen. They've just closed their business and are selling off the stock.
It wasn't that they were doing badly financially, Art Olsen said — it was just time to play golf and go skiing. Another family-run furniture store will be taking over.
Olsen remembered that his dad told a striking worker at a plywood mill that he could pick out furniture and pay when he was back at work.
"All kinds of deals were done on a handshake," Olsen said. "It was a nice way of doing business."
A short distance from the store, Brad Hale, 41, runs a one-man design studio in a triangular, brick, ground-floor office at the junction of Ballard Avenue Northwest and 20th Avenue Northwest. Its history includes being a saloon, community hall, theater and bank.
Hale is thrilled at his location, which he's been renting for two years.
"I feel the energy of the people that were here," he said. "It still seems to possess that magic. Broadway, Capitol Hill, California Avenue are all neighborhoods in Seattle that have gone through their transition. With Ballard, this is the last time you'll actually see a neighborhood be discovered."
No shortage of stories
Fortino doesn't tire of telling the stories of the buildings.
There's the building in which the owners decided to expand, pulling out their saloon to the middle of the street and putting it on pallets while renovations were done.
There is where the Bartell Drugstore No. 4 was opened in 1912.
That's the site of the old Ballard Theater, run by a pioneer businesswoman who booked only films and vaudeville performers she found suitable for children.
Will the new condo owners care?
"Seattle has become such a huge city that its individual neighborhoods are losing their character," Fortino said. "We want to tell people that you live in a very special place. You should honor it."
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or email@example.com
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.