The Two Bells Bar and Grill has been the epicenter of a certain cozy, unpretentious, yet arty subculture for more than three decades. It’s been the “living room” for the Belltown music and arts scenes, and more recently a watering hole for PopCap Games and KNKX workers. It helped pioneer the shtick of rotating art shows on barroom walls, and has also hosted little theatrical and music performances.
And, like seemingly every small, cool, funky place in Seattle, it may be threatened.
A developer who doesn’t even yet own the Bells’ building or land wants to build another high-rise, mixed-use, apartment/retail blah blah blah.
The fact that the company doesn’t have the land the project would take up, and that the land’s not even listed as for sale, hasn’t stopped it from filing project documents about its proposal.
In theory, the project could take up the quarter-block’s other parcel, with a parking lot and the storefront building currently occupied by the Mary’s Place shelter network (which is getting new digs in the nearby Amazon campus), but leaving the Bells’ building intact.
The Bells’ building, with its Spanish-style façade and three gables, was built in 1923, originally housing Hewitt’s Cafe. It’s been the Two Bells since 1941. It assumed its current identity in the 1980s. Under the curation of the late Patricia Ryan and husband Rolon Bert Garner, it added a food menu built around hand-made burgers, soups, and salads. While it was then still officially a “tavern” (which, at the time in this state, meant beer and wine only), it moved beyond the schooners-of-swill formula as one of the first outlets for those newfangled “microbrew” beers.
Garner largely curated the monthly art shows, providing an alternative to commercial gallery exhibits. Various bar staffers organized spoken-word and live music shows.
The place was also lit brightly enough to read in, and made informally comfortable enough for women to feel safe in.
At the time Ryan and Garner started, that stretch of Fourth Avenue was a low-foot-traffic spot, especially at night. Belltown as a whole had a few new office and condo towers, but was still largely the low-rent outskirts of downtown. By making the Bells a “destination” spot, attracting customers from beyond the immediate vicinity, the Bells helped to “rebrand” Belltown as a “destination” neighborhood for dining, drinking, and cultural activity.
In 1999, Ryan had to retire due to illness. The business and the building were bought by Jeff Lee and Tina Morelli-Lee. They added cocktails and steaks, and enlarged the selection of craft beers; otherwise, they kept the Two Bells the Two Bells, a spot to hang out and relax; even as the surrounding blocks became much more hoity-toity.
By owning the building as well as the business, the Lees have been able to stay put, while so much else surrounding the Two Bells has been replaced by taller, newer, more upscale structures.
The Bells’ building was nominated for city landmark protection in 2007, but wasn’t placed on the official “landmark list.” Even if it were, that wouldn’t prevent any present or future owner from applying for permission to alter it, even to the point of razing all of it but the façade.)
If there have been any offers for the land on which the Two Bells sits, the Lees have turned them down to this point. Will they continue to do so?
The first few primary-election “ballot drops” revealed a few clear-cut answers.
For one thing, we now know Mike McGinn won’t be the Grover Cleveland of Seattle politics (you know, the ol’ non-consecutive-terms thing).
And we’ll have the first female Seattle mayor in 89 years, since the single two-year term of Bertha Knight Landes. (Don’t blame her for the tunnel machine named after her.)
And we know one of the potential female mayors in the general election will be the well-funded, carefully managed Jenny Durkan. I’m sure not the first observer to note how Durkan, an “out” lesbian, the first openly gay U.S. attorney ever, is the “establishment,” business-friendly finalist in the race.
At press time, Durkan’s November opponent will be either Cary Moon or Nikkita Oliver. [Editor’s note: Moon has since secured the second spot in the general election, defeating Oliver by just over 1,000 votes]
Oliver’s an attorney, teacher, and spoken-word artist, who’s counted on support from the activist left.
Moon’s an urban planner and civic activist, whose first public fame came when she led the unsuccessful drive to stop the waterfront tunnel.
Yes, the woman who tried to stop “Bertha” the machine may take up the mantle of Bertha the person.
CLARK HUMPHREY is a columnist on Seattle culture. “LOSER: The Real Seattle Music Story” is now available from miscmedia.com and other online sources.