Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board voted 6-3 last week to designate a closed Denny’s restaurant as a city landmark.
The owner wants to tear down the boarded-up building and replace it with a mixed-used, retail/condo project anchored by a Rite-Aid.
But opponents say the building, which opened in 1964 as a Manning’s coffee shop and was a Denny’s for 20 years before closing in September, should be preserved. They claim it’s an example of something called Googie architecture. Steve Shepherd, vice president and director of communications for The Saint Consulting Group, explains.
To the average person who’s never heard of Googie, the former Denny’s looks a lot like an International House of Pancakes, with roofline flourishes taken from a Polynesian tiki bar.
The owner hired preservationists and architects of his own to argue — convincingly, it seems — that the structure isn’t even really Googie, but an amalgam of architectural fad styles they mockingly dubbed “Scandigooginesian.”
In the end, even sympathetic members of the landmarks board couldn’t bring themselves to declare the restaurant Googie.
But they declared it a landmark nevertheless, based on a city criterion that: “Because of its prominence of spatial location, contrasts of sitting, age, or scale, it is an easily identifiable visual feature of its neighborhood or the city and contributes to the distinctive quality or identity of such neighborhood or the City.”
Appeals are likely, and it’s questionable whether the landmark designation will stand. But the Googie-ites are not alone when it comes to claiming preservation of dubious architectural ‘treasures’ as justification to stop redevelopment.
The “preservation of the recent past” movement seeks to save everything from old bowling alleys and car dealerships to grocery stores and burger joints. These preservationists see the often-decaying structures as architectural gems representing recent genres as varied as 1960s Brutalism and “world of tomorrow” Ray Gun Gothic.
I’m sure the good folks of Seattle’s Ballard section no doubt love and cherish their boarded-up Denny’s. But in the course of work on behalf of clients wishing to redevelop outdated properties, we at Saint Consulting have seen another side of the nostalgic wish to ‘preserve the recent past.’
The movement runs amok — and squanders what tenuous credibility it has managed to build — when it allows itself to be cynically used by NIMBY neighbors or competing businesses whose true agenda is not preservation but blocking redevelopment that will bring new — and, yes, usually more intense — commercial uses.
These opponents really don’t care about preserving an unremarkable, outdated 1960s-era brick supermarket or crumbling auto showroom. Yet, aided by academics and “historians” pursuing their own personal professional fixations, NIMBY “preservationists” do find success — in causing endless delays that send development costs soaring to a point where the deal may collapse.
And the community is left with a shopworn relic from the 1950s architectural world of tomorrow.
Steve Shepherd is a vice president and director of communications for The Saint Consulting Group.