Denny’s fans hunger for a historic grand slam

Times Staff Writer

This city’s historic landmarks include the majestic St. James Cathedral, the elegant Paramount Theatre and, best-known of all, the towering syringe known as the Space Needle. Soon this list may include a Denny’s.

This month, a city board opened the way to give historic landmark status to a recently closed Denny’s restaurant in northwest Seattle, a decision that has left some questioning the city’s selection process.

The landmark designation, if approved next month, would prevent demolition and stop development of a condominium complex.


“I pass the building every day, and I think it’s ugly and depressing,” said Louie Richmond, spokesman for the Rhapsody Partners development company.

“But we understand art is very subjective. Some people think Barry Manilow is a great artist.”

The 1964 building sits boarded up and marked with graffiti on a busy corner in the Ballard neighborhood, across from a Walgreens drugstore and a Safeway supermarket.

A local commentator described it as looking like “a Norwegian stave church crossed with a Japanese pagoda” -- one of Seattle’s few remaining examples of Googie architecture.

Ironically, it was the developer who submitted the nomination for landmark status, expecting it would be denied -- a common tactic: Nominating a building preempts others from doing so and allows the developer to shape the presentation.

But the strategy backfired this time when the city approved the nomination.

The building in question is 44 years old; many cities require structures to be at least 50 to qualify for landmark designation.


Seattle’s requirement is 25, and some have wondered aloud whether any structure less than a half-century old should be considered historically significant.

“This building is an icon,” said Stephen Lee, chairman of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board. Landmark designation requires the support of at least seven of the board’s 12 members when they meet Feb. 7; approval is expected.

This would be the first Denny’s to receive landmark status, company spokeswoman Debbie Atkins said. Known for its comfort-food menu and 24/7 schedule, Denny’s calls itself the nation’s largest “full-service family restaurant chain,” with more than 1,500 outlets, the vast majority in the United States.

The Denny’s in Ballard was once a vibrant social hub, but it wasn’t the building’s first tenant; a Manning’s Cafeteria, part of a small restaurant chain, occupied it for the first 20 years.

When it opened in 1964, the building’s design was different enough to be considered exotic around these parts: The Taj Mahal of Ballard, some called it.

The architect, the late Clarence Mayhew of San Francisco, was a well-known practitioner of the Googie style, named for Googie’s Coffee Shop that stood at Sunset and Crescent Heights boulevards.

Los Angeles was the epicenter of Googie, which is marked by “swooping roof forms, large areas of glass, bold colors and futuristic signage,” said Alan R. Michelson, head of the architecture and urban planning library at the University of Washington.

When Denny’s took over the building in the mid-1980s, the company considered razing it, but enough residents protested and the plan was scrapped. The building remained a Denny’s until September.

By that time, Ballard had undergone a dramatic change.

Once a quaint, if quirky, neighborhood of nondescript houses and small businesses, it stands at the cusp of becoming one of the city’s trendiest districts. Big-box stores, designer homes and towering condos continue to take over swaths of land.

Many longtime and former residents lament the disappearance of the old, low-key Ballard. And it’s that sentiment that drives many of the building’s supporters.

“Denny’s is a reminder of what Ballard used to be,” said Don Potter, 59, a former longtime resident who lives in Everett but still works at a furniture store a block from the former restaurant.

“Everywhere you look, there are condos going up. There’s nowhere to park. Neighbors don’t know each other anymore,” Potter said. He recalled a time in the 1970s and ‘80s when all his neighbors in Ballard were retired Norwegians (the neighborhood was long a Scandinavian enclave) or old hippies.

The neighborhood was affordable back then, he said. And the Manning’s/Denny’s restaurant was a place to meet friends for a nice meal for a few dollars.

“The restaurants now, it’s like $30 a plate,” Potter said. “Denny’s was for regular people.”

From the sidewalk, the building’s curving roofline is clearly visible, as are the condominiums rising all around it. The old restaurant is dwarfed and, in its present state, almost pathetic.

But history isn’t always elegant, Potter said, echoing the sentiments of many.

Sometimes it’s ordinary, and, on occasion, even tacky.