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Originally published February 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 21, 2008 at 11:05 AM

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Surprise: Denny's declared landmark

Call it a Grand Slam of Googie proportions. A city board stunned developers, preservationists and Ballard residents Wednesday by voting...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Call it a Grand Slam of Googie proportions.

A city board stunned developers, preservationists and Ballard residents Wednesday by voting 6-3 to designate the boarded-up Denny's Restaurant at Northwest Market Street and 15th Avenue Northwest a landmark — based largely on the visual punch the structure's Googie-esque roofline delivers to passing motorists.

The Landmarks Preservation Board's decision — which rejected its own staff's recommendation against the designation — represents a significant setback for the property owner, the Benaroya Companies, which acquired the site in 2006 for more than $12 million and intended to sell it to a condominium developer.

The owner's representative, attorney John McCullough, warned the board before the vote that it would lose its credibility if it designated the structure as a city landmark.

After the vote, McCullough said the matter may be appealed to the city's hearing examiner. Under city rules, the board's staff members will now draw up an agreement that outlines what must be preserved.

The board reviews and approves that agreement, which is forwarded as an ordinance to the City Council for action.

The board's vote represents "a victory of sentimentality over the laws under which the board is supposed to operate," McCullough said.

Most city landmarks are designated based on several criteria, but the divided board took the rare step Wednesday of basing its decision on just one — that the building is "an easily identifiable visual feature of its neighborhood" and contributes to the identity of Ballard.

More than 600 people, including national experts on Googie architecture and staff members from the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, supported the designation.

Many residents spoke fondly of the razzle-dazzle, space-age charm the building had when it opened as Manning's Cafeteria in 1964. (Denny's Restaurants took it over in 1983 and shut down the restaurant late last year.)

"Ballardites proudly called it the Taj Mahal of Ballard," said Mildred Andrews, a local historian.

Back then, diners could look to the rafters and enjoy the vaulted ceiling.

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"It was the greatest vaulted ceiling in the city of Seattle," said Charles Jenner, who led the construction of the structure and spoke to the board.

Googie or not?

The building was designed by San Francisco architect Clarence Mayhew for Manning's Cafeteria, a local business that in its heyday had more than 250 stores in 12 Western states, Andrews said.

Its soaring, parabolic roofline is evocative of the "Googie" architectural style that started in Southern California and dominated in the 1960s, an era of American optimism amid the Cold War race to conquer space, said Alan Michelson, head of the University of Washington's architecture library and a preservation supporter.

The Googie style got its name from a Sunset Strip coffee shop designed in 1949 that featured upswept roofs, large plate-glass windows and boomerang shapes and starbursts.

Judith Sobol, a preservation consultant hired by Benaroya's team, and architect Larry Johnson said the Ballard Manning's structure was not a quintessential Googie-style building, citing a smorgasbord of various styles, including Polynesian, Scandinavian and Googie elements.

Johnson drew chuckles when he referred to the building's style as "Scandigooginesian."

Preservation-board members were divided over whether the building was truly Googie and decided to avoid basing a landmark designation on its architectural style.

"I think the building is whimsical, not Googie," said board member Molly Tremaine, who voted against the landmark designation. "It doesn't say 'I'm an architectural wonder.' "

The city said as much when it gave the Seattle Monorail Project — which had planned to build a Green Line station on that corner — permission to demolish the structure several years ago.

The Monorail project foundered, and Benaroya bought the property.

Landmarks Board Chairman Stephen Lee persuaded a few of his peers who were on the fence to support designation. Lee, who lives near the building, said he's always thought of the structure as a visual landmark.

"The building still has enough integrity to convey its distinct visual presence in that urban fabric," Lee said.

Ken Alhadeff, whose family restored the Majestic Bay Theatre in Ballard, said the board ignored its role in balancing the rights of property owners with public interest in preservation.

"OK, so now what?" he asked. The building is in such bad shape, it has no use, he said. "We can take part of the roof and put it on the corner."

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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