Jell-O Building Shaky? -- Belltown Quivers With Activism Over Artists' Hq
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
Notices of Proposed Land Use Action (a part of the Master Use Permit initiative) are as common in Seattle as lattes. But when one went up on Belltown's "Jell-O Mold Building," at the corner of Wall Street and Western Avenue, the ensuing outcry surprised even its residents.
"We didn't even imagine anyone cared,"says photographer Cameron Garrett, who has lived and worked there for 12 years. The notice in question advises that his home, a shrine to Seattle community, arts and history, is being razed to make way for a new high-rise.
In a reflection of Seattle's profile, which now stretches 'round the world, passers-by, callers and e-mailers are reacting with anger. From Berlin, rock stars like Blixa Bargeld (of Einsturzende Neubauten, whose name means "Collapsing New Buildings") want to know: Does it actually have to happen? From London, author Kathy Acker asks how to complain. Call up a string of influential folks - from rocker Iggy Pop to cartoonist R. Crumb - and they all voice similar inquiries. Why would Seattle even think of killing the building?
Speaking from Los Angeles, building resident Steve Fisk says it makes him chuckle. In Northwestern music, Fisk is a linchpin figure, both as an artist and a record producer (Screaming Trees, Nirvana). What shocks him is not the building's death knell, but the sudden outpouring of objections. Says Fisk, "Rarely has Seattle understood what's good about itself. So it's real surprising to know they care. When artists like us move into low-rent buildings, we always know things will get better or worse. And, if they get better, we're always out . . ." The "Jell-O Building" has become a mecca for both Seattleites and visitors. It has been filmed for MTV, Comedy Central, PBS, AT&T. Musicians from the Foo Fighters'Dave Grohl to the members of Soundgarden frequent its Cyclops Cafe. One Seattle bus tour even rolls by its decor - which is also lauded on the World Wide Web (try http://seattlecafe.com/larry/kich2.html).
Behind all this is an artists' collective, now 12 years old, incorporated as "SCUD." The acronym meansSubterranean Co-operative of Urban Dreams, and was created by one of Seattle's more colorful characters, Hugo Piottin. Piottin was a French physics student who left college to explore Alaska, but who ended up running a club in Pioneer Square.
In 1984, Piottin joined two close friends, videographer Steve Itano and photographer Cam Garrett, in a search for some communal artists' premises. Says Itano, who now lives in L.A., "Our whole concept was to unite resources, and then find a place we could all live legally. And when we did unite, it was pretty unique."Why? Because the trio convinced Harbor Properties Inc., the monolithic land development firm, to lease them a building. It had been Western Avenue's Catholic Printery (formerly something known as Wizard Products Supply), and before that, it was a rooming house, the Sound View Apartments. The apartments were a successor to the Sound View Hotel.
"Here," says Itano, "was a large corporate entity partnered with artists and the artists had strong ideas."From the beginning, they included him, Garrett, Piottin, metal-sculptor Louie Raffloer (founder of Belltown's Black Dog Forge) and singer Ben McMillan (now of the band Gruntruck).
Five-strong determination was required, for the Sound View was almost totally derelict. Their newly formed corporation, SCUD, spent six months just making the building livable. It meant hauling off almost nine tons of garbage, then re-wiring, plastering, repairing roofing and plumbing. Piottin wanted to try running a cafe, so he both designed and built Free Mars, situated on the ground floor. Free Mars would serve as a metaphor for the structure's future. "At first," says Piottin, "it was kids and artists. Then the neighbors started coming in. Then - because we got reviews - the yuppies came. But it was fine with me; I wanted interaction."
Interaction suited the history of the building. Built sometime between 1908 and 1912, the Sound View Hotel once housed Beat writer Jack Kerouac. Plus, Belltown, where it sits, is a Seattle bohemia. Says Larry Reid, who has run three Seattle galleries, "My dad owned a gas station at Second and Bell and, right back to the '40s, that neighborhood always had artists. It's not like the artists suddenly came in with the '60s. Practicing artists were natives."
An ideal place for art
Certainly, SCUD joined a wealth of artists' houses, shared loft spaces and performance haunts. But, perhaps because of its hotel origins, its facilities proved ideal for art. "It was like a family house," says Ashleigh Talbot, an art-book maker, who joined a five-month-old SCUD. "We celebrated Christmas and Thanksgiving together, we shot videos together, and we made our art. Every time anyone else threw a party, we got just one invitation marked `To SCUD.' "
By 1992, condos were stalking Belltown, and landlord Harbor Properties wanted to re-paint the building. The co-op's "color committee" suggested purple and green. Laughs Itano, "We never thought they'd do it. We were ready to settle for blue and gray." But purple it became, with SCUD's contributed labor. Then, artist Diane Sukovathy added the Jell-O molds, gluing them to the wood of the structure.
Before long, says Itano, the molds were aproblem. "Harbor didn't want the building to be recognized, to turn into any kind of lovable landmark. They always wanted the option to pull it down quietly." To settle the ruffled feathers, Sukovathy offered trees - which, in bloom, she felt, would obscure the molds. SCUD collected $1,000 from each other, bought five trees, broke concrete, and planted them.
Many Seattle notables lived and worked at SCUD, like designer Art Chantry and photographer Alice Wheeler. Right now, 12 working artists fill the space happily. In addition to three initial founders (McMillan, Roeffler, and Garrett), there are Fisk and Seth St. John (both musicians), Lori Smith (a painter), Wilum H. Pugmire (a writer of Gothic horror), Kathy Hughes (a fabric artist), Gregory Musick (a set designer), Arthur S. Aubry (a photographer), Katherine Wolf (a sculptor) and Clint Cleveland (a computer artist at Headbone Interactive).
`Magical', says Crumb
Spaces like Garrett's and Fisk's are monuments to local history, to the creativity that makes Seattle resonate. It is spots like this that have fed the Newsweek pieces and lifestyle sections. Here's that couch where Kurt and Courtney used to sit; there's the table where William Burroughs held court. Like R. Crumb says: "It's a magical place. Like a treehouse of artists."
It remained so, even as the condos rose. Piottin sold Free Mars in '87 and, for two years, it was the Mars Cafe. As it closed, SCUD filmed a "testimonial", and their last interviewee was Gina Kaukola. Kaukola was then working at the Re-Bar, and planning her own Jack Kerouac-style road trip. But the camera sparked a revelation: Gina bought the cafe, instead of a pickup truck. In April 1990, she became SCUD's new tenant - with a restaurant she named The Cyclops Cafe.
Cyclops added to Piottin's vision. Free Mars had been favored by the Grateful Dead. Kaukola's cafe was home to grunge rockers, to MTV visitors, to a new cast of characters. Its regulars ranged from a Harborview pathologist to Greg Escalante, curator at California's Laguna Art Museum. Pearl Jam, who used the Cyclops as a frequent hangout, even gave Gina one of the band's gold records.
That was then and this is now. But the demolition Harbor now proposes comes on the heels of some special public summits - held by Denny Regrade Neighborhood Planning. These meetings solicited residents' views on their neighborhood's future (the invitation pamphlets read: "What Do You Think? Your Input Is Crucial. We Need Your Validation!"). And the central mission statement they evolved now reads:
"The Denny Regrade Neighborhood is an urban community concerned with quality of life built on 1) social equality, 2) economic viability, 3) environmental stewardship, 4) security and 5) respect for its cultural and historic traditions." Garrett Cobarr of its Committee for Commercial and Residential Uses points out the statements symbolize an ongoing process: "We're in the midst of discussing preservation of artists' housing - and one of our three Belltown examples is threatened! Plus, there's an overlapping concern: low-income housing."
Harbor Properties says its plan is to tear down the SCUD building, then replace it and the adjacent parking lot with a seven-story structure (one story higher than the building it will face). This will include retail space and 80 parking units, but "be sensitive to the needs of the area." Spokesman Denny Onslow stresses it is "apartments, not condos." But Belltown's present towers are festooned with banners, most of which read something like "LUXURY VIEWS: AVAILABLE." Many residents blame their size and "soul-lessness" for displacing locals and adding to the crime rate.
Plus, some are already needing repairs, wrapped in plastic shrouds and scaffolding. One of these is the Elliott Bay Plaza, directly opposite SCUD's building. Elliott Bay is about the age of the Jell-O molds.
Inside SCUD, the residents remain confused. They have long been used to living month-by-month. But now, every day, someone's calling about their future: from TV or radio, the Eastside or Holland. Says current resident Arthur S. Aubry, "This possibility has always hung over us. The larger issue is how others feel. And local people seem to feel they're being used. They think the city's being gutted against their wishes."
Locals like James Crespinel do feel strongly. Crespinel is a well-known artist-muralist, famous in Seattle for his large-scale Orca whales, Gravity Bar scene and larger-than-life Shawn Kemp. Recently, his work was on the front page of USA Today. He has been affiliated with Harbor Properties, but he hopes they realize SCUD is special. "I'm good friends with the guy whose name's on the notice board. But that doesn't change my feelings at all. To me, it matters just as much as Pike Place Market.
"They can leave that building," he adds. "Just incorporate it into their superstructure. And they ought to; it really is historic."
One group which is acting on such feelings is Citizens for the Preservation of Unique Communities. They contend the current proposal ignores its surrounding community - not just SCUD residents, but all of Belltown. Says committee spokesman R. Scott Lankford, a landscape architect who heads his own firm: "That building could be set anywhere in the world; it has nothing to do with Seattle at all. Yet you could build right around the existing structure; you would even save money by doing that. So why kill the goose that laid the golden egg? That building helped create an incredible draw. Plus it remains a viable, rare community."
There are other factors. "Jell-O molds may not a landmark make. But this is different. This is a 1910-era building, made out of old-growth, vertical-grain, solid fir lumber. It's built out of 500-year-old trees; and it's one of our most solid buildings."
Like many locals who are joining them, CPUC wants true consultation with the local residents. They want time to review the plan's true impact. And they want protection for the artists' community.
In L.A., fresh from a shoot for Nike, Steve Itano says he fully agrees. "If people just understood how that building functions, then they'd realize - it's a great model. It's self-made, self-run and self-policed. Rent is never late, there has never been trouble. They should look and say, `Hey, this thing worked out! This is a great model; let's see how we adapt it.' "
Like other SCUD artists, Steve Fisk says he's touched. "If I had one thought, I guess it would be wonder. Like, `Wow, it's all really pretty incredible. This funny old building, people have come to love it.' "
Comments on the Notice affecting the SCUD building should be faxed to the Department of Construction and Land Use on 233-7901 (telephone: 632-0966), to Mayor Norm Rice at 684-536O and to the head of Planning for Seattle on 684-5264. They must quote Master Permit No. 9604763. CPUC may be faxed at 522-2630.
Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.