Gaga Over Googie?

A Seattle Denny’s stirs up a divisive debate.

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Interior of Manning's Cafeteria in 1964

Credit: Eugenia Woo

The old Manning's Cafeteria building in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, so striking when it first opened in 1964 that it was called "The Taj Mahal of Ballard," appeared fated for demolition this spring. Denny's, the tenant for the past 23 years after Manning's went out of business, had moved out in September. And Benaroya Companies, the Seattle developer that bought the property for $12.5 million in 2006, intended to sell it to another firm that wanted to raze the building and build condos.

But Benaroya made a strategic mistake. Confident the Manning's building wouldn't qualify, the developer nominated it for landmark status—a common practice among developers who want to preempt any future construction delays.

To the surprise of many, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board decided to consider the nomination, sparking a heated controversy over whether the building should be preserved as a landmark of Googie architecture.

"The Manning's is located at one of the most high-volume traffic intersections in Seattle, and it's one of our most recognizable buildings," says Eugenia Woo, board member of Docomomo WEWA, a preservation advocacy group for modern and recent past structures. "Designated or not, it has always been a landmark in this neighborhood."

Most longtime Ballard residents can't remember driving down 15th Avenue through the heart of the commercial district without passing the Manning building's Vikings-meet-the-Jetsons eaves and huge glass windows.

But many residents consider the building, boarded up since Denny's left, an eyesore. "We don't believe this building is an extraordinary example of Googie architecture," says Marc Nemirow, a senior executive at Benaroya, which argued that Denny's had substantially altered the structure. "The designation of this building as a landmark seems an extraordinary misuse of the term."

 "The Denny's restaurant building in Ballard is not valuable enough to be saved," said an editorial in The Seattle Times entitled "Not Gaga over Googie." "It has swooping lines, but so does a much better-known Seattle creation: the Space Needle."

When the Manning's opened, patrons dined under a dramatic vaulted ceiling and George Nelson bubble lamps that hung above the booths and tables. Over the years, Ballard became a target for development, and many buildings were torn down to make way for condos and malls. The Manning's building, designed by Clarence Mayhew, a San Francisco architect, is now one of Seattle's last remaining examples of Googie architecture.

Googie developed in Southern California in the late 1940s, its name derived from the eponymous 1949 Sunset Boulevard coffee shop built in the archetypal style. Used mostly for roadside architecture, it was meant to be futuristic and conspicuous enough to catch the attention of passing drivers. By the '60s, travelers in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and other West Coast cities passed innumerable gas stations, diners, and motels festooned with Googie's signature starbursts, swooping roofs, and boomerang-shaped appendages.

Googie has struggled, however, to gain legitimacy among architects, preservationists, and the public. Since it was most often used in commercial buildings, the structures were constantly altered to appeal to the changing tastes of consumers. Googie's informal style has led some critics to deem it incoherent and muddled—ultimately, not a style at all.

"Googie has been seen as throwaway architecture, but roadside buildings are part of our history and important documents of how we lived," says Alan Michelson, the head of the Architecture and Urban Planning Library at the University of Washington, who wrote two historical reports about the Manning's and spoke at hearings to encourage landmarking the building. "We can't just preserve courthouses and theaters because laws were made there or people have romantic memories of them. History is more complex than that." 

Since many Googie buildings were constructed in the past 50 years, they often aren't old enough to be landmarked, and many have been torn down. In 1994, the oldest McDonald's in America, located in Downey, Calif., and built in the Googie style, faced demolition and was included on the National Trust's 11 Most Endangered list. Though the McDonald's was saved, in January 2007 another Googie building in Downey, Johnie's Broiler, was partially torn down.

"Recent architecture and vernacular architecture are often neglected," says Michelson. "Preservation needs to broaden its focus and acknowledge that this is just as much a part of our historical past as high architecture."

As for the Manning's building, the preservation board voted 6-3 in February to grant it landmark status. Benaroya is now appealing the ruling, a process that could take a year or more. If the appeal fails, the developer plans to pursue a lawsuit filed in county superior court that challenges the designation. In the meantime, the building will likely remain boarded up.

"Without a willing new owner or tenant to keep the building economically viable, it will become a white elephant on a major corner of a rapidly changing neighborhood," says Christine Palmer, preservation advocate at Historic Seattle, a nonprofit group. "The current owner has repeatedly stated that he has no plan B, so he is likely to let the site deteriorate until he can unload it." And so the battle continues.

 

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