This picture shows the Shaw residence on 30th Avenue West, the family’s first home on Magnolia bought for $1,700, circa 1939. Photo courtesy of Greg Shaw
This picture shows the Shaw residence on 30th Avenue West, the family’s first home on Magnolia bought for $1,700, circa 1939. Photo courtesy of Greg Shaw

Magnolia is almost an island. Because of this, from the early settlement of Seattle to the present day, this fact has affected the neighborhood, its growth and values. 

Access was difficult early on, with timber, hills, tide flats and marsh separating it from the rest of Seattle. It took tons of fill to make most of the land mass where Smith Cove, the piers, Thorndyke Avenue on up to Interbay and Dravus Street now exist.

Many early homes by the water were vacation homes for some living “in town.” Wooden trestles helped some settle on Magnolia in the early years. And the Magnolia Bridge, built by 1930, also brought more here to live. 

But it was not until the late 1940s, after the World War II building boom, that Magnolia really began to develop.

Magnolia Boulevard was not even completed until the 1950s. Late development and access with only three entrances and exit points have helped Magnolia remain as a destination, rather than an integrated part of Seattle. Traffic never flows through Magnolia; it only goes to or from Magnolia. Retail development in the Village has remained limited because of this.

Modern Home Builders came in the 1940s and built hundreds of units for young families, many with covenants, which did not allow persons of color, except household help or even songbirds. 

Because of the Navy piers and fort, part of the housing stock was military housing, filled with families who would not make Magnolia a permanent home. This created some spots of density on Magnolia by Manor Place and on 34th Avenue, as they were built-out or replaced.


Changing home values

The Shaws’ parents’ first home was purchased in 1939 for $1,700. Located on 30th Avenue West between Tilden and Emerson streets, three adjoining 6,000-square-foot lots were available for $200 each, but they could not afford to purchase them at that time. 30th Avenue West remained unpaved until the mid-‘50s. 

In 1962, the Shaws moved east to a home on the other side of the alley on 29th Avenue West; the purchase price was $14,500. 

Across the street from this home, a home purchased for $375,000 in 2012 was rented and, two years later, torn down to make room for a large, newly built home, which just sold for $1.5 million, approximately 2,000 square feet larger and approximately 100 times the original purchase price of the Shaw parents’ home. 

The Wootons’ home, built by the patriarch in 1957 on a 2,400-square-foot corner lot, with five bedrooms and two baths — the lot cost about $900 and building cost under $20,000) — has appreciated (with some updating but without major renovations) to about $800,000.

There are no longer any vacant lots to build new homes in Magnolia; an existing home must be torn down. Approximately 10 years ago, a teardown could be purchased for around $300,000; currently, a difficult-to-find teardown now is closer to $600,000. Typically, a builder who pays $600,000 needs to be able to sell the finished home for approximately three times the purchase price just to cover all costs. The most expensive recent teardown cost nearly $1.3 million on Magnolia Boulevard.

At one time, different sections of Magnolia brought diverse prices. It used to be that homes on Magnolia were priced by location in the neighborhood: Homes and lots on the lower part of the east hill were less than those by 28th Avenue West, and those were more than those in the valley (Pleasant Valley, 32nd to 34th avenues West, running north to south). Those on the west hill went for much more; those closer to the boulevard and those with views, for much, much more. 

To new buyers looking for a home in Magnolia, it is more about the house — just being in Magnolia and not as much the location within Magnolia. Today, almost all parts of Magnolia support the sale of a new home at $1.5 million.


The changing neighborhood

“Magnolia is almost an island” has controlled destiny, keeping Magnolia, in some ways, close to the way it was 50 years ago. But for the first time, city allowances for densifying are beginning to change the face and size of this single-residence neighborhood, as single lots are becoming places of two large homes, replacing the small footprint of one small WWII home. 

Diverse architecture, mixed with Tudors or mid-century, is also becoming a reality. 

On the fringes of the neighborhood, single homes built on multi-unit-zoned lots are being torn down, and many small units, with few to no parking spaces, are being allowed. Where Gorman’s Automotive and three old houses stood on Gilman Avenue West two years ago, 25 units are now being built.

Speculation that this is just another housing bubble seems to be allayed by the fact that the economy is strong and experts like Windermere Real Estate and WFG National Title feel it will continue as-is for some time.

Today, with the proximity of Magnolia to downtown and the relative ease to get there, it’s mainly residential zoning, and good public schools have made it a much-sought-after place to raise a family. And much like New York, San Francisco and L.A., neighborhoods close to the city — with family amenities like great parks, good pedestrian ratings and mainly residential zoning — only seem to increase in value. This makes it difficult for older folks to keep up with taxes or downsize and stay in the neighborhood and community they have spent a lifetime contributing to and enjoying.

Groups like the Magnolia Community Council have added land use as one of their priority issues, in the hopes that the residential zoning is maintained in the years to come by city planners who seem most interested in density of all areas within the city limits.

GREG SHAW and MONICA WOOTON serve on the board of the Magnolia Historical Society ( To comment on this column, write to