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Tuesday, April 29, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Belltown's `Jell-O Building' Has Solid Ties To The Quivering Dessert

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

If you're one of those Seattleites who object to the proposed demolition of Belltown's "Jell-O Building," Kraft Foods - the owners of Jell-O - would like to thank you. Why? Because it's the "Centennial Year of Jell-O"! Not only that, but Seattle is America's sixth-strongest Jell-O citadel. We eat more for our size than does Chicago - and we eat almost as much as Oklahoma City.

Plus, there's the nature of the 1908 "Jell-O Building": once a waterfront hotel home to Jack Kerouac, later reclaimed and renovated by a succession of artists. Its current plight strikes a chord with Jell-O's historians; it's eerily similar to the struggle of their product. Both are sagas of small folks pitted against "commercial interests." Both are stories that feature invention, imagination and folk art. Most important, each has deep local roots.

At 100 years of age, Jell-O is wildly successful. Americans buy, on average, 1,134,239 boxes a day; 13 are sold every second. If a year's worth of Jell-O boxes were placed end-to-end, their length would stretch across three-fifths of the globe.

However, it was not always so. For many years, Jell-O's future was a quivering question mark. Jell-O once seemed small and insignificant; "uncommercial," a quixotic crusade. For almost 60 years, it struggled as an underdog.

Of course, Jell-O wasn't always known as Jell-O. A quick way to make desserts from gelatin was first patented in 1845 by the inventor and philanthropist Peter Cooper. Now remembered for Cooper Union (the New York academic institution he endowed), he also built America's first locomotive engine and helped lay telephone cable across the Atlantic. Cooper had great hopes for his boxed dessert, boasting that "requiring only the addition of hot water, it may be poured into molds and, when cold, will be fit for use."

Yet the man who conquered steam and oceans failed when it came to animal jelly. Housewives were forced to continue with sheets of gelatin - which they would clarify with egg whites and shells, then drip through "jelly bags," before laboriously turning them into "moulds."

From shaky start to stardom

It was a carpenter, Pearle Bixby Wait, who had the authentic Jell-O vision. Wait was also a cough-medicine maker in the quiet New York town of LeRoy. His next-door neighbor, a man named Orator Francis Woodward, had built a flourishing business around a beverage he called "Grain-O."

Perhaps seduced by small-town proximity, Wait felt that he, too, could make it in packaged foods. So he adapted Cooper's idea for gelatin. Wait added four fruit flavors (strawberry, raspberry, orange and lemon). His wife, May Davis Wait, called the creation "Jell-O."

For two years, Wait hawked Jell-O door-to-door. Yet he met with a total lack of interest.

In 1899, out of desperation, he sold the business to his next-door neighbor. For the miserable fee of $450, Jell-O joined Woodward's Genesee Pure Food Company. There, it must have seemed a logical partner for Grain-O. But after a year of wrestling with Jell-O, even Woodward was stumped. He, too, seemed to be losing his shirt over it. In desperation, he offered Jell-O to his foreman for the bottom-line price of $35. This superintendent, sensing a loser, refused.

Woodward certainly feared for his future. But as even the schoolchildren of LeRoy now know, Orator Francis didn't give up. After all, he was sure of Jell-O's possibilities; he just needed to convince the rest of America. So, instead of palming off his problems for pennies, Orator took the plunge and invested heavily. He spent $336 (almost what Jell-O had cost him) on a single ad in Ladies' Home Journal. It was 3 inches tall and stated boldly - if a bit deceptively - that Jell-O was "America's Most Famous Dessert."

That single ad was the tip of the iceberg; at the local level, Woodward went all-out. He assembled a stylishly dressed cadre of salesmen and sent them off in handsome, horse-driven carriages. They turned up at every local fair and picnic, every LeRoy tea, wedding or church social. At each celebration, they supplied free Jell-O - and they were generous with fancy, glistening molds.

Woodward didn't stop at saturation partying; he also dived into nonstop hyperbole. Jell-O became "America's Best Family Dessert! No dessert more attractive. No dessert half so good." And: "It's perfection. A sure surprise for the housewife!" Soon, he was adding "totally unique" recipes (such as the one for the "Shredded Wheat Jell-O Apple Sandwich") - always with dimensions and the killer promise, "Your tinner will happily make up the mould!"

Four years later, in contrast to Cooper and Wait, Orator Francis Woodward was a millionaire. Stoked on all-American salesmanship and early hype, a nation realized: It needed Jell-O! In the product's very first recipe book - 22 dishes - doctors were happy to endorse the product's healthfulness. Jell-O won medals at two expositions: in St. Louis in 1904 and the next year in Portland, Ore.

By 1906, no one even remembered Grain-O. Once the pride of Genesee, Grain-O was summarily jettisoned. Instead, all energies were spent on developing "dainties": Jell-O dishes bearing such titles as "Paradise Pudding." Not to mention the shiny "moulds," which were their natural partners.

From 1900 to 1925, Jell-O's success was solidified on a door-to-door basis. Recipe books in Spanish, Swedish, German and Yiddish were distributed by an articulate, well-dressed force of Jell-O devotees. They always emphasized not just the product's convenience, but its beauty and sculptural variety. Jell-O addressed Americans who spoke all languages, and it soon became a symbol of national unity. Immigrants at Ellis Island were ritually served bowls of Jell-O under signs that read "Welcome To America."

Integral to this success story are the shimmering molds (initially, always "moulds"). They were the salesman's icebreaker, a marvelous gift that could turn humble homemakers into visual artists. Molds were made in a wide range of materials: from simple tin to "pearlware," from "yelloware" to gleaming copper. Their range of motifs can be seen on our Jell-O Building, where lavish cornucupias mingle with flying fish, lobsters with Kewpie dolls, and stars with Lady Liberty.

Seattle's Jell-O saga

At the corner of Wall Street and Western Avenue are 400 of these astonishing molds. They were applied to the building in 1992, just after landlord Harbor Properties had repainted it. The 12 artists then in residence had suggested eye-popping colors: brilliant lilac with lime trimming. Much to their surprise, Harbor Properties used these colors, but they repainted only the building's top. The storefront below remained canary yellow.

To one resident, Diane Sukovathy, this scheme - although colorful - seemed incomplete. She began collecting Jell-O molds, then applying them to the lower building. Though she now resides elsewhere, Sukovathy remains proud of her handiwork. "I just couldn't stop myself from doing it! It was half a color idea and half a sculpture. But it took me seven months; it was quite a project." How did Suvokathy ever find all those molds? "Well, I'm a thrift-store nut, so I just kept looking. I'd drive up north as far as Marysville, just stop everywhere, then come back with 30 or 40."

But Sukovathy had a rule: spend no more than $1. No matter how great the mold, this was her maximum.

She also started a "donation box," which was bolted onto the building's corner. "I got maybe 40 or so molds from that, some of which became real favorites." Many donations came with notes on their provenance - or specific reasons why the donors were giving them.

The molds were complemented by a lavish garden, still vaguely visible all around the building. In it, Sukovathy combined sculptures with her landscape talents. "Really, I started that for the homeless people. I'm not trying to romanticize it, because Western Avenue's tough. But I'd be outside our building, gardening, and folks of every race and class would stop to talk with me." She pauses, then adds softly: "The molds, the garden, those are really public art. We all walk the same path; that's what they're saying."

Sukovathy moved from Belltown three years ago. She now runs a small firm called Jello Mold Landscaping. Lately, she's been removing some plants and sculptures, "just in case the building should not be saved." If it is preserved, she promises to re-install them. As for her molds, she hopes they can stay in Belltown.

A different view from the East

Vivacious Lynne Belluscio is curator of the LeRoy Historical Society. On June 1, she will cut the ribbons on its Jell-O Museum - a project in the works since 1993. Unlike the landlords of Seattle's Jell-O Building, Belluscio would "kill" to have it in her New York town.

To LeRoy, it epitomizes the Jell-O vision: art for everyone, as part and parcel of vital nourishment. And its inventiveness parallels that of Wait and Woodward. Says Belluscio, "There's no question about cooperating. We want that building represented here." She is, it must be said, a mover with tremendous moxie, one who started her museum from hometown pride. From an annual "Jell-O Jubilee," with a "ghost walk" past the graves of Wait and Woodward, it grew into a Kraft-backed cache of goodies: Jell-O boxes, posters, advertisements, autos, suspenders - and molds.

"The Jell-O Building?," she asks rhetorically. "I just love it! I mean, I love it! I'd like to get the whole thing flown out here. We would even re-install every mold." Conspiratorially, she leans into the phone. "It would be so special, coming from Seattle."

Local campaigners, of course, feel the same. They don't want to see their landmark yanked. But, they say, there could be cooperation. Says artist Cassandria Blackmore of the Campaign for Belltown Preservation & Culture, "There's no reason we couldn't have a sister site. Re-install the Cyclops and have a Jell-O Museum. That would certainly be a tourist attraction. As we've often said, Harbor could build around it."

Robin Wardle is Jell-O's promotions manager. She says she understands the locals' passion. "Jell-O is art, it's art on the table. We always say everyone has a Jell-O memory. Not just because of the taste, but because it's beautiful." Molds, she adds, are still central. "We still design molds for almost every holiday. This Easter we did wonderful 3-D molds. And, for the first time, we did Super Bowl molds."

Sukovathy doesn't want to lose her molds ("I hate to think of them leaving town," she sighs). But, like the neighborhood, she is waiting and watching. And, soon, our Jell-O consciousness will rise again. On Oct. 4, LeRoy is sending a present: a traveling version of its Jell-O Museum. Titled "There's Always Room For Jell-O," it will be housed in the Pacific Science Center.

To coincide with this Eastern-Western gesture of friendship, Jell-O is unveiling a new dessert it calls "Sparkling White Grape." Mixed with carbonated drinks instead of water, the "limited edition" specialty is its brand of "champagne." If Seattle's Jell-O Building is finally saved - or, even better, used to house another museum - Kraft may well break out an anniversary shipment.

Meeting today

Two of the groups trying to save the "Jell-O Building" are Citizens for the Preservation of Unique Communities (fax: 206-522-2630) and the Campaign for Belltown Preservation and Culture (telephone: 206-728-4217). CBPC meet today at 7:30 p.m. in the back room of The Speakeasy Cafe (Second Avenue and Bell Street). No permit to demolish the building has been issued. ----------------------------------------------------------------- THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT JELL-O:

-- When hooked up to an EEG machine, lime-flavored Jell-O demonstrates movements identical to the brain waves of a healthy adult.

-- When LeRoy, N.Y., opens its Jell-O Museum on June 1, celebrations will include a specially made One Ton Brick of Jell-O, created by a Rochester artist.

-- In 1996, astronaut Shannon Lucid managed to make Jell-O in space. Having tasted it, her Russian colleagues demanded she make some every Sunday.

-- Jell-O is still distributing Jell-O molds; in 1996, it parted with 10 million. Since then, it has given out more than 15 million.

-- With at least 300 Web sites, Jell-O is an Internet icon. Its official home page is http://www.kraftfoods.com

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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