The three blocks of West Highland Drive between Third Avenue West and Queen Anne Avenue North are among the most important tourist attractions in the city.
Anchored by Kerry Park with its fantastic views of the Space Needle, downtown, Elliott Bay and – on many a glorious day – Mount Rainier, this neighborhood has had a most contentious history. Its residents have always valued its beautiful vistas, and on many occasions over the last century, have come together to work to block unattractive developments that would obstruct the views or destroy the street’s historic character.
At the turn of the 20th century, anticipating a battle, neighbors on West Highland Drive purchased the block between First and Second Avenues West to prevent construction of an unidentified project they did not want; this site later became the Victoria Apartments. A couple of decades later, neighbors throughout the area contributed to the purchase of the lot across the street to protect it from development.
The lot was donated to the city in 1927 and is named for the Albert S. Kerry family, which contributed $20,000 toward its purchase. In 1971, in their father’s name, Kerry’s children also donated to the City the space frame steel sculpture “Changing Form” by Seattle artist Doris Chase.
According to Mimi Sheridan’s discussion of the history of Queen Anne apartment buildings (posted at qahistory.org), the construction of the Victoria Apartments in 1921 kicked off the 1920s building boom--to some degree. Its architect, John Graham, Sr., designer of many of the city’s most important commercial buildings (Bon, Frederick & Nelson, Ford Plant at Lake Union), ceremoniously announced the Victoria’s start in May 1921, saying that the “mammoth community apartment house” indicated a “fast reviving building situation in Seattle.”
In the 1970’s, a group of Queen Anne citizens formed United South Slope Residents, or U.S.S.R., to fight high-rise development on the south side of the hill. Alarmed by the construction of the tall building at 111 W. Highland Dr. that blocked the views from the Victoria and by a proposal to build a very tall building on West Comstock adjacent to the Victoria, citizens led by Art Skolnik, who served as the first head of both the city and the state’s offices of historic preservation, and other historic preservation advocates solicited 4,800 signatures on a petition insisting on low-rise development.
The city council responded to the uproar by modifying the zoning regulations for the south slope of the hill. Subsequently several developers filed hasty building permits to grandfather their rights under the old code. Challenging those developers who had sued the City to protect their permits, U.S.S.R. organized house tours and raised money to hire well-known and respected Seattle land use attorneys Thomas Goeltz, Susan Agid and Jerry Hillis who continued the fight in court on behalf of U.S.S.R.
As a result of their eventual victory in court, environmental reviews required by the State Environmental Policy Act must now evaluate the cumulative negative environmental impacts of projects rather than a narrow look at the impact of each development on its immediate surroundings. What began as an effort to protect Queen Anne’s south slope had far reaching impacts across the state.
The 1904 Park View Apartments were located across Second Avenue West from the Victoria. The Park View’s most distinctive feature was its fantastic view over Kerry Park, while its exquisite neighbor to the west, the J.C. Black House designed in 1914 by Andrew Willatsen, who apprenticed to Frank Lloyd Wright and whose work reflected Wright’s Prairie Style, stood out as one of Seattle’s most beautiful private residences. Both buildings have been demolished.The Queen Anne Historical Society nominated the Park View for landmark status and took the battle to the Landmarks Preservation Board, but the Society did not prevail. On March 16, 2005, the board voted against designating the Park View Apartments a City of Seattle landmark. The nomination contended that the building qualified for landmark status, “because of its prominence/spatial siting.” Sadly, the board disagreed.
The loss of the Black House, which stood at 222 West Highland Drive, is equally discouraging. Historians, preservationists, architects and local citizens not only loved the house for its beauty, but also for its association with Willatsen and Frank Lloyd Wright. For many years, its owner refused efforts to make the house a City of Seattle landmark. The Queen Anne Historical Society tried nominating the house as a City landmark in 1979, but the owner opposed the idea. The sale of the Black House in 2003 for over $2,300,000 to Ken Woolcot, a Seattle investor, signaled to some that the building had been saved. As one of the city’s architectural jewels, its demolition over the three-day Martin Luther King holiday in January 2004 broke hearts. Alas, three town houses are now being constructed in its place after seven years with the lot left empty.
Reacting to the unexpected demolition of the Black House, a group of neighbors met and united to discuss the possibility of working with the City to create a Special Review District for the blocks of West Prospect Street, West Highland Drive, and West Comstock, beginning at Queen Anne Avenue North and ending at Marshall Park by the Willcox Wall. The purpose of the District would be to create general design and maintenance guidelines for the area in order to preserve its special character. The goal was to develop guidelines with the agreement and input of the City and residents of this area. After hearing comments at three community meetings held at the Queen Anne Public Library by the Department of Neighborhoods, it became clear that the proposal was very contentious. When put to a vote of the homeowners of the proposed District, there were not enough votes to implement the proposal.
On the east side of the Victoria, lies the Ballard Mansion, built by sea captain and timber importer Martin D. Ballard. Ballard bought the property in 1900 and built his home in 1904 on the southwest corner of the property using exotic iron wood, teak – which he imported as ballast on his ships – and local Port Orford cedar. Converted to apartments, the imposing white colonnade of this Colonial Revival mansion continues to attract many an eye.
Across the street, on the south side of Highland Drive, lie two historic apartment houses, the 1926 Narada Apartments (55 West Highland Drive) and the 17,046 square-foot Harry Whitney Treat House (13 West Highland Drive). Architects Charles Bebb and Louis Mendel adopted a half-timbered style for the 64-room Treat House. At the time of its construction in 1905, it was by far the largest home on the hill. The porch and the south side were originally open, and the lowest floor had a ballroom, men’s gambling room and a stage.
In 2009, the owners put the Treat house on the market with the expectation that it would be demolished. Learning of the potential sale, the Queen Anne Historical Society immediately committed to its preservation and took steps to support its designation as a City landmark. Society members understood that the building had been compromised inside and out by the conversion to 15 apartments and the overlay of a brick veneer on the exterior. In fact, the owners of the house initiated the nomination process in the hope that it would be denied, leaving them or a succeeding owner free to tear it down to build a high rise apartment building in its place.
The battle to preserve the Treat House pitted the Society against Art Skolnik, hired as the building owner’s advocate. Skolnik, the very same man who championed the cause of U.S.S.R. in the 1970’s, argued that Harry Treat was a bit of rogue whose house shouldn’t be honored by landmark designation. The Society took the position that the building’s critical transitional value on the most important street corner in the neighborhood merited its designation. This time the Society prevailed, and the Treat House is now a permanently protected City landmark.
Few streets share the raucous history of West Highland Drive, but few places have such phenomenal views and such a valuable collection of historic buildings worth preserving. The stories of the battles to save this site and its fabric are important parts of Queen Anne history and worth preserving in their own right.