BALLARD AVENUE HITS HIGH TIMES. There is pride among property owners on Ballard Avenue. Once it was a place of squalor and dilapidation, but there now is an exhilarating resurgence in the historic district. Amber Trillo photo.

Ballard Avenue Once rundown, now sparkling

A love of old buildings and a desire to preserve history on Ballard Avenue is a common link among a group of property owners who have helped revitalize the area.

In 1982 architects Gene Morris and Gordon Lagerquist found themselves intrigued by the potential of the triangular shaped 1896 Ballard Livery and Transfer building. A chain link fence surrounded it after the City of Seattle had declared it derelict.

The upper floors were rotted out and the building was considered a danger to the public.

Morris and Lagerquist stood across the street and studied the storefront windows covered with boards. Glass was broken or missing from the second floor windows and pigeons had taken up residence, leaving a dirty mess.

"We liked the shape of the building. We thought it was a charming flat iron style," said Morris. They purchased the Ballard Livery and Transfer building in 1982 and renovated it for their offices.

Ballard was known as the "Shingle Capital of the World" in the late 1800s. Stores, saloons and hotels opened on Ballard Avenue to serve the growing number of mill workers.

When the Great Depression hit the country in the 1930s, many lumber mills closed. Some businesses on Ballard Avenue closed their doors. Others relocated to Market Street where the 1923 Ballard Building had been established. Market Street was wider and better suited to accommodate the growing use of the automobile as a mode of transportation.

Ballard Avenue had seen better days by the time Morris and Lagerquist decided to invest in the building. Other structures on the street were in similar disrepair.

"The place was run down. Ballard was a hard drinking place when we moved in. Other buildings were beat up," said Lagerquist.

Back then it was not uncommon for the two architects to show up for work and find an ambulance picking up someone who had been beaten up.

"Ballard Avenue was rough place to go with 19 taverns. We were obsessed with having the building and rehabilitating it," said Lagerquist. Despite the street's dark reputation, the two architects were infatuated with buying and rehabilitating the building.

"It was very run down with a lot of boarded up businesses. There were a lot of flop houses," said Heritage Consultant Kay Reinartz, the editor/project director for the "Passport to Ballard" book.

Art Olsen, co-owner of Olsen Furniture and a major property owner in the area, was more kind in describing Ballard Avenue's shady past.

"There were more working class taverns for the wood mills and fishermen. It was not in decline, it was taking a rest," he said.

When Ballard Avenue was declared a landmark district in 1976 by the city, the Ballard Avenue Landmark District Board was created. This group is charged with preserving the historic character of the street.

When new property owners come in or new businesses open up, Board members review their plans. Plans must preserve the historical architectural integrity and aesthetics of the buildings.

Reinartz said more energy was focused on historic preservation in the 1980s to 1990s.

Rob Mattson, director of the City of Seattle's Ballard Neighborhood Service Center said that for many property owners, their buildings are more than an investment. There is an emotional attachment.

"Owners came in and liked the older look. They took pride in ownership and got the ball moving. That really helped secure the way it looks today," said Martha Obenauner, archivist chair for the Ballard Historical Society.

Artist Ginny Ruffner was looking for a studio that was close to the Ballard Locks and Fisherman's Terminal back in 1995. She decided to buy the Cors and Wegener Building, built in 1893.

Ruffner renovated the building for a studio and live-in space. She is most well known for her glass art. In addition, she paints and does metal art. Now she has five apartments upstairs that she rents. The second floor was once the office of the Ballard News.

Local celebrity chef Kathy Casey was working out of her home and looked around the city for a place to establish the Kathy Casey Food Studios and her Dish D'Lish deli. Casey does food and beverage concepts and product development for local, national and international clients and has published a number of books.

In 1996, Casey and her husband John purchased three adjoining buildings, The Theisen and Chopard blocks, along with the Owl Saloon on Ballard Avenue. The buildings date back to 1894.

Casey said the couple had "borrowed and saved for years," to buy their own building.

"I really liked this spot. When you walk in, it feels good," said Casey.

Ballard Avenue is now alive with trendy restaurants, nightclubs, boutiques, specialty stores and a bustling music scene.

When the Casey's moved in 20 years ago, the area did not resemble what it is now.

"The street was very different at the time. It was light industrial and blue collar," said Casey.

Commercial photographer Robert Vinnedge and his wife Judith Lascola, a glass artist, began renting the Eagle Building next to Marvin's Garden in 1998. It was built in 1908 at a cost of $15,000 for the Fitzgerald and Hynes Department Store. The Ballard Aerie of Eagles also called the building home as the printing plant for the Ballard News-Tribune.

Vennedge and Lascola rented the top floor because they both needed studio space and a place to live. When the building's owner decided to sell a few years later, the couple jumped at the opportunity.

"It was a high selling price, but it was worth it. We were in the right place at the right time," said Vinnedge.

"The whole neighborhood was attractive to us. We loved the neighborhood. We love old buildings and preserving historic district architecture," said Vinnedge.

Fixing old buildings is labor intensive as every new owner learned.

Morris said the Ballard Livery and Transfer building was a huge "birdhouse." "The place was run down," he said.

Morris and Lagerquist had problems getting a bank loan, until Morris's father-in-law, who was good friends with a banker, intervened on their behalf.

The middle of the building was opened up to build a winding staircase. They lowered the floor to add a mezzanine. Now it's three levels with an inviting open feel.

Using a photograph taken in 1937 as a guide, the two architects reproduced the wood exterior. They installed windows that are exactly like the old ones.

Old buildings are expensive to upgrade. One of the big costs is seismic improvements to withstand earthquakes. Ruffner's upgrades held up well in the magnitude 6.8 Nisqually earthquake of 2001. None of the glass art on her shelves fell down.

When John and Kathy Casey bought their buildings, there was a lot of grease from former tenants who ran an auto body business, marine industry shop and other uses.

It was also home to the Ballard Theatre, owned by businesswoman S.J. McEntee.

The Casey's saved money by doing much of the demolition work themselves. "It was really fun refurbishing in here. We put a little more into it. There's a great sense of reward," said Casey.

A mural, reading "Steamboat Trade, A Specialty," in white lettering painted over black bricks is a key feature of the Kathy Casey Food Studios. "You can see the old dust marks and pencil marks from 100 years ago," said John Casey.

In a sitting room, an intricate marble floor remains from a marble cutter who once set up shop there. "Every line is perfect. The gaps are excellent," said John Casey.

Vinnedge said his building was very rough cosmetically when he and his wife purchased it.

"When we resumed ownership, we renovated the entire exterior. We did all the stucco, iron work, decorative trim to accommodate the landmarks district specifications," said Vinnedge.

Inside they put in new walls, sheet rock, floors, electrical, paint and heating.

Obenauer said there is pride among property owners on Ballard Avenue.

"Change is good. Always with the new, you have to celebrate the old. You have to know who came before you," Obenauer said.

Morris finds the resurgence of Ballard Avenue exciting. "It's nice to have a cafe across the street to have coffee, sit down and relax," he said.

"It has been fun to watch the change and still remain in character. The nice thing is, this is a historic district. There are laws in effect to protect this character," said Kathy Casey.

While their building was being renovated, Morris and Lagerquist often saw a Japanese American man watching with interest from across the street. It turned out that his family once owned a laundry in the building.

The Caseys have met people who have connections to their historic buildings. "Old timers stop by with pictures. A lot of people have stopped by for a peek," said Kathy Casey.

Ruffner likes walking down the street and saying hello to other property owners. "It's a living and breathing neighborhood. It's easy on the eyes. I love the vitality and pedestrian nature here," she said.

Vinnedge finds the area very convenient. He and his wife own one car and seldom have to use it.

"We have good dining, wine bars, pubs, coffee shops, a hardware store and drug stores. Everything is available by foot. It's fantastic for that reason," said Vinnedge.

When Vinnedge and Lascola moved to Ballard in 1998 it was a quieter area. Now it is getting busy and filling up fast. "I've noticed a big difference in activity. We like the way the street is developing," said Vinnedge.

Olsen Furniture, started by Harold Olsen 73 years ago will be gone soon. The store, run by son Art and Dick and daughter Sonja has closed and may become another furniture store. The Olsen's owns 12 properties on their block of Ballard Avenue and Leary Way.

Art Olsen said the family tries to rent their buildings to a nice blend of businesses that fit into the community.

Kathy Casey gives credit to Olsen's and the late Al Mycon, another property owner on Ballard Avenue known for providing artists with affordable rent, for providing opportunities for small businesses.

"He (Art Olsen) chose interesting tenants to rent or lease to. Businesses good for the neighborhood," said Kathy Casey.

"Small is what makes this country go," said Art Olsen. "We have lots of wonderful renters here. Everyone wants to be here. Ballard is celebrating its 100th birthday and still has a small town feeling to it."

The Ballard Historical Society recently completed a project installing historic markers on Ballard Avenue buildings. The markers explain the local history of each building. The "Walking Tour" guide to Ballard Avenue is also available. It can be picked up at the Ballard Library. Visit

We encourage our readers to comment. No registration is required. We ask that you keep your comments free of profanity and keep them civil. They are moderated and objectionable comments will be removed.