Photo by Peggy Sturdivant
The Ballard Carnegie Free Library is up for Historic Landmark status, and BNT columnist thinks that's the way it should be.

At Large in Ballard: The Light of Ballard's Eye

I needed a break from Ballard. As Martin and I flew east to humidity and an overfilled cottage gritty with 140 years worth of beach sand, we both felt thankful for a break from everything that had consumed us for the first nine months of the year; namely his mother's health, her move, her death. We needed to forget everything. That is, except plotting how to get to a remote beach.

Like Ballard, there are politics aplenty on Martha's Vineyard and a mix of tragedy to do with traffic fatalities and small town news (such as the ice cream break-in). But unlike Ballard, there I was an outside observer and didn't feel that I needed to get involved.

On the morning after Labor Day, there was the whine of bandsaws and the clack of hammers. My parents live in an enclave of 300-plus gingerbread houses that were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 2005. However, dating back to its founding in 1835 as a Methodist Revival tent camp, there have always been rules. Anything other than emergency repairs are forbidden between July 1 and Labor Day.

By the time we flew home last week I had willed myself not to give Ballard a thought. My brain was still sorting through the last swim, beating my mother at Scrabble on the beach, the outdoor shower and skunk population. For at least a little bit, I was still used to the slow rhythms of the days in cottages built in the 1860's.

That didn’t last, though; I didn't make it two steps past my own front door before Ballard had me in its grip again. Below the mail slot sat the latest issue of the Ballard News-Tribune, the one with Karoline Morrison's front page appeal for the City of Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board to dismiss architect Larry E. Johnson's landmark status nomination of the building she owns, known as Ballard's Carnegie Free Library.

I broke the number one post-vacation rule. Never look at your mail when you've been up for 20 hours.

I knew that the Ballard Carnegie Free Library Building had been nominated for Historic Landmark Status and that it was on the agenda for Sept. 19th. I knew that I should have sent in public comment by the deadline of Sept. 17th, but I had let the time slip away with responsibilities that were more pressing. Ms. Morrison loves the building but opposes the designation, an opinion she shared in her piece written for the BNT.

Vacation mindlessness broke like a thunderclap. I remembered the Landmark Board hearing for the old Manning's/Denny's and conducting oral history interviews with early Ballard residents. The same unlearned history lesson over and over again. Remember Joni Mitchell's “Big Yellow Taxi”? Don't it always seem to go, That you don't know what you got 'til it's gone, They paved paradise, Put up a parking lot.

In the case of Ballard, fill in that they took down Sunset Bowl, Manning's, the Washington Mutual next to Carnegie's, the trees behind the bank, and on and on. The nomination process for landmark status is just one stage in a four-step process, and even then it can't protect a library from becoming a pub, or a treasured memory of climbing up the steps to the formidable librarian from becoming just an archival photograph.

Almost 15 years ago I met Ruth Hughbanks as part of the Nordic Heritage Museum's “Voices of Ballard” project. She shared one major regret with me as we drove around Ballard one day. She deeply regretted when the City of Seattle sold the Carnegie Building in 1963, ending its 59 years as Ballard and then Seattle's library, that the Ballard Historical Society couldn't raise $65,000 to buy and maintain it. She died in 2001, after devoting 60 years to the Ballard community and Neighborhood Landmark efforts.

The Ballard Carnegie Building hasn't been a library in a long time; that alone would disappoint the building’s namesake, Andrew Carnegie, that old Scottish philanthropist. As a member of the Anti-Saloon League, I also doubt he’d appreciate the new 'Kangaroo and Kiwi' presence. I think he would support the Landmark designation if only to safeguard his one stipulation for his libraries, that there be an image of the rising sun with the words, “Let there be light.”

Historic Landmark, National Register … to say the criteria and implications are complicated is an understatement. But this is what I do know:

Ballard Avenue is one of only seven designated preservation districts in Seattle. There is a Board that watches out for its interest, down to the screws being used on signage (once verbiage and materials have been reviewed multiple times). I went through this firsthand with the Ballard Historical Society during the process to add two plaques inside the Bell Tower. Anyone proposing to do business on Ballard Avenue knows there will be review. It will take more time, it will be more expensive, the process may be frustrating. But the end result? Ballard Avenue is a jewel, and many businesses are happy to call it home.

My parents complain that since their house fell under Historic Landmark status in 2005 they can't use vinyl windows anymore, their neighbors had to build a fence and gone are the days of erecting sheds without a permit. However, despite their objections, the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association and its ornate gingerbread houses are perhaps the only surviving examples of a Methodist Revival community. That alone is cause enough for the designation.

My parents don't like to think of themselves as stewards. After all, who would choose to have a government entity dictate rules about what you can and can't do to your property? Unless, perhaps, the government is protecting trees that you love or the view that would be lost to a seven-story mixed used building.

It turns out that I can never really leave Ballard or its politics behind. Even as my parents bemoan the cost of the wood window and the restrictions on “improvements,” I am celebrating what is being preserved here and there. When the Vineyard bans fast food chains or reclaims land for public access, I am happy.

I don't think the Carnegie Building is in danger of being torn down to become a parking lot, but I miss seeing its beautiful facade without the 'Kangaroo and Kiwi' signage. I miss driving around with Ruth Hughbanks. And the short lived sense of victory when the Manning's Building was nominated and designated -- before it was demolished.

The nomination process has been too long overlooked since its original 1977 application, but it's not yet too late for Seattle's oldest extant Carnegie Library, and Ballard's original, to be declared a Historic Landmark. We can debate whether paradise ever really existed, or just complain when it's lost, one ray of Mr. Carnegie's light at a time.

Public comments will be accepted until 5:00 p.m., Monday, Sept. 17 to (include ‘Ballard Carnegie Library’in your subject line). Public is welcome to the hearing at Floor 40, Municipal Tower, Sept. 19 at 3:30 p.m. If the nomination is approved there will additional time for comment and a public meeting on designation.

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