Laura K. Cooper
Ballard Library as viewed from roof of Ballard Building. CLICK ON IMAGE TO START SLIDESHOW

At Large in Ballard: From Above

Lowen Clausen never tires of the view from his home. He can watch mist on the Ship Canal, fog rising up from Puget Sound, tug boats pushing barges, the Ballard Bridge raising and lowering and the change of seasons on the library’s green roof. Clausen lives in a penthouse that he’d prefer people didn’t know existed. He lives on top of the Ballard Building.

Clausen’s path has taken in from a horseback riding Dane in Nebraska, to Seattle beat cop, author, business owner and to the top of Ballard. The view from the rooftop where he keeps his grill is 360°. His office is one floor below. Since he’s also owner of Ballard Health Club in the basement, one could say that he’s got the building covered, top to bottom.

If you look straight up the side of the building that corners at Market Street & 22th NW you can see columns on the terra cotta that speak to the building’s first incarnation: it was the Eagles Building. In the 30’s it was the site of Ballard’s hospital, along with medical offices and a pharmacy at the corner where the Starbucks is moving. In the late 1970’s it was that space that Clausen’s ex-wife Pat decided would be the perfect location for her Danish restaurant. She declared it ‘the heart of Ballard,’ no matter that it already housed a pizza place.

The building was then owned by a man always known as Torgie (for Torgerson). He spotted the future in Clausen, telling him, “In 5-6 years you’ll want to buy this building.” As Clausen recalls, he hated running the restaurant, but “Sure liked the building.” In the early 80’s he and partners, including his ex-wife Pat, did indeed purchase the building, converting the unused basement storage space into a nightclub, The Backstage, so as to generate additional income.

As long as Clausen controlled the nightclub he made sure there was no disruption to others in the building; even sold-out club nights left no trace the following day. He had been a beat cop and ran a tight ship. After he sold the nightclub it became somewhat of a nuisance to other tenants. In response to separate requests, Clausen looked to regain the downstairs space for a health club. He thought to lease it to an existing fitness franchise but wasn’t at all impressed by the candidates.

A former Lifetime Member of Olympic Health Club, Clausen wanted to create a quality club where varied ages would feel comfortable side-by-side (versus macho men grunting as though they were lifting 400 lb. instead of just 100 for example). “How hard can this be?” he asked himself, deciding he would start the club and his daughter Sonya would run it. “We’ve established who we are,” Clausen said, as Ballard Health Club approaches its 15th year, “A place where everyone can do what they want to do.” He admits he’s been very lucky with staff such as the club’s beloved yoga director MJ, “There from the day one.”

The Ballard Building has had a lot of tenant changes in the last few years; the Swedish medical offices moving to their new building, Lombardi’s closing after 20 years but Clausen can recall years when there wasn’t a single tenant change. The current renovation in order for Starbucks to acquire the larger corner space is more on the order of restoration for the most visible corner of 1927 building. The Ballard Starbucks has the distinction of being just the 18th store location (as of the end of 2010 there were 16,858). For Clausen and Starbucks this expansion represents continuity and a mutual commitment to the building’s historic beauty.

Meanwhile up in the penthouse that has been Clausen’s home for almost 20 years the panorama changes every minute. His floor to ceiling windows face south, looking over the top of the Ballard Bell, then towards Market Street and downtown Seattle. To the west is his deck, with the Olympics as backdrop from pre-sunrise to post-sunset. The apartment is spotless (the bright sunshine would have revealed even a dust mote) and modern. Children’s artwork is clipped onto a line but it’s hard to believe that several times a week Clausen’s home is overrun by his three grandsons, ages two, four and six.

Clausen lives, works and clearly loves the building. He knows all the tenants, from Great Harvest at its west end, through Secret Garden Bookstore that carries his books, and up through all five floors of new and longtime tenants.

Lowen Clausen said he and his partners always consider the building in 50-year terms, “Even if it’s not going to be our 50 years.” His daughter Sonya recently bought her mother’s share, becoming one of those partners. On that occasion she made a request to her father, “Would you show your new building partners around?”

To Clausen’s surprise the first person in the door for a celebratory tour was his oldest grandson Jay, age six. “Bapa,” Jay said, “I want to buy in too.” He produced $1.36. “Can I have part of the apartment?”
Oh, that lucky boy.

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