When the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board unanimously nominated the Elephant Car Wash sign for landmark status in August, Kathleen Wolff teared up. For Wolff, it was the recognition her mother, Beatrice Haverfield, deserved but never lived to see. Haverfield was self-deprecating, “but, I think, on another level inside, she’d go, ‘Finally! Somebody’s noticed,’” Wolff said.
Haverfield, a neon designer who made a string of iconic signs — Dick’s Drive-In, Ivar’s Acres of Clams, the Elephant Car Wash — before her career was cut short by an eye-damaging car accident, has only recently begun to be acknowledged for her role in shaping the visual landscape of her hometown. Wolff thinks that’s due in part to her mother working in the male-dominated world that was advertising in the ’40s and ’50s.
While Haverfield’s story may have been overlooked, generations of Seattleites have certainly noticed her creations.
The worst of years
The 2020 closure of the Denny Triangle Elephant Car Wash in rainy, car-afflicted Seattle might not have made much of a splash if not for the multi-ton impact of the two large neon signs that marked the property for decades. The news that they would be removed from the site spurred shock, horror and, ultimately, resignation. It was 2020, after all.
When it comes to those local icons, it turns out the elephant in the room isn’t the 22-foot, light-up pink one: it’s displacement.
The elephants are luckier than many, however. They aren’t going far.
The larger of the two has joined the collection at the Museum of History & Industry, alongside the Rainier Beer “R” sign, the Lincoln “Toe” Truck and other Seattle ephemera. A MOHAI spokesperson said they hope to display the sign at the museum just three-quarters of a mile to the north of the former car wash.
The smaller elephant is also in the hands of a local institution: Amazon, Inc.
The company plans to install the 9-foot-10-inch sign just two blocks to the southeast of the old car wash later this year, decorating a plaza at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Blanchard Street in its sprawling South Lake Union campus — a block away from the Spheres.
“We were fortunate to be connected with the owners of Elephant Super Car Wash early in the process. Everyone involved wanted to make sure that the sign would be restored in alignment with how important of an art piece and landmark it is for the city,” Amazon spokesperson Zach Goldsztejn said in an email. “Most importantly, we all wanted to make sure that the Pink Elephant would remain local.”
(Goldsztejn asserted in his email that his responses to Real Change’s questions were “on background” and could only be indirectly referenced as coming from “an Amazon spokesperson.” General journalistic convention requires prior agreement for any information to not be on the record, which was not the case here.)
The sign is currently at a neon shop in SODO with experience restoring historic neon. Workers have consulted original designs to replace neon tubes and correct misalignment caused by repairs over the years. Wolff and other family members were invited to watch the process.
“We were careful to ensure that the restoration does not alter the original design or construction. Rather than strip and match the paint, we decided to mitigate any further damage from ‘wear and tear,’ and instead opted to clear coat the existing paint,” Goldsztejn said. “The overall intention was to honor the artistry of this historical artifact.”
The web giant is seeking to landmark the sign, a designation that would recognize its importance to the public as a piece of Seattle history worth preserving and impose restrictions on altering it.
The application cites Haverfield’s skill and the importance of neon signage to Seattle.
“When you’ve got a neon sign lit up and the street is wet, you get double the beauty of it reflecting off the wet streets or the buildings, the windows or whatever around it,” Wolff said. “And especially when it’s neon that has movement going on in it, like in the water spraying from the elephant’s trunk. That was so unusual.”
On Aug. 17, Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board unanimously okayed designating the sign as a landmark, leaving approval by the City Council as the final sign-off. Before then, the city and Amazon must negotiate an agreement containing the exact restrictions protecting the sign and any incentives, such as tax breaks or zoning exemptions, Amazon will receive in return for maintaining it.
A city spokesperson said there is no timeline for how long it will take before a proposal arrives at the City Council. As of late October, the city had initiated negotiations but not received any proposals from Amazon yet, he said.
Goldsztejn said that Amazon is not seeking any tax incentives or concessions related to the sign.
“We are seeking landmark status for the Pink Elephant sign because that is what the sign is, a landmark for the local Seattle community,” he said when asked why Amazon would take on the additional restrictions of landmarking without any incentives for the company.
If the sign’s landmark status is approved by the City Council, it will be somewhat unique as a mobile landmark. Nearly all of the 480 landmarks listed online by the city are buildings or other fixed infrastructure. With the exception of a series of landmarked boats, the closest equivalents are nine standalone street clocks and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Globe.
The 1981 landmarking of the clocks specified that their location must be preserved, but the landmarks board has since used its authority to approve moving some of them, said city spokesperson Sam Read. The 2012 designation of the P-I Globe notes that the sign had been disassembled and moved when the newspaper changed headquarters in 1986. The designation only covers the globe itself, not the attached building.
“While protecting a cultural resource by moving it is not ideal, it has been done,” University of Washington architecture professor Jeffrey Karl Ochsner said in an email. “There is at least one (and maybe more?) Frank Lloyd Wright house that was moved in order to save it — it still has its original character.”
Ochsner, a local architectural history expert, pointed to the former McKay auto dealership in South Lake Union that was landmarked in 2006 before being disassembled and reassembled to be incorporated as part of the Allen Institute for Brain Science.
Steve Hall, a policy advocate for Friends of Historic Belltown, said he’s glad the smaller Pink Elephant sign is being landmarked, but he’ll miss the signs at their old location along Denny Way in the shadow of the Space Needle.
“It just sucks to be there as a pedestrian … but it had that,” he said. At one point he could stand there and see Black Market Skates, the Space Needle and the Elephant Car Wash sign.
“It was Seattle-ness all the way,” he said.
Hall said the city should never have allowed the signs to be removed in the first place.
“What is the first part of a landmark? It’s land,” he said. “Landmarks are tied to place by definition.”
Hall alleged that the site’s owners, Clise Properties, removed the signs to make it easier to sell to developers looking to cash in on Seattle’s housing market. The Puget Sound Business Journal reports that Clise Properties recently sold the property to a developer that is seeking permits to build a 455-unit apartment tower on the site. (Clise Properties did not respond to an email seeking a response to Hall’s claim.)
For Hall, this is emblematic of a change in Belltown that has pushed out service industry employees and other lower-wage workers in favor of wealthy tech employees.
Census data estimates that the average household income in the ZIP code covering Belltown has more than doubled within the last decade, from $56,000 in 2011 to $118,000 in 2020.
While Hall said the situation is complex and he doesn’t think Amazon has intentionally caused the housing issues in the area, it’s “salt in the wound” for them to take the elephant — a symbol of what Belltown used to be.
“It’s appropriation in some ways,” he said.
Change in ownership
While Wolff appreciates the work that Amazon’s team put into documenting her mother’s legacy, she said her mother “wouldn’t be too happy” about Amazon owning the sign.
“I feel weird about it. She probably would too,” Wolff said. “She was very much pro-unions, pro-free speech, pro-the [common] man, pro-the common people, the workers.”
Haverfield knew what it meant to be a worker. She helped build airplanes at Boeing during World War II, including while she was pregnant. During the 1960s, she became involved in anti-war activism, putting the family house up to help bail out the “Seattle Seven” political prisoners, Wolff said.
In contrast, state regulators said this year that Amazon has refused to follow safety regulations at its Washington warehouses by forcing employees to work dangerously fast. When workers seeking better conditions have tried to unionize around the country, Amazon has attempted to crush their efforts. Meanwhile, founder Jeff Bezos was estimated in 2019 to be making $2,489 a second, on average.
Even as Wolff’s eyes welled up with happiness seeing her mother’s legacy finally recognized at the board meeting, something nagged at her.
“But I was thinking about Amazon, like, ‘You jerks could house all of the homeless people somewhere and still have this Pink Elephant sign,’” Wolff said.
For some, the fates of the sister pachyderms seemed to spell out the writing on the wall for the future of Seattle’s self-proclaimed identity as a funky city for working people: tucked away in a museum or taken to decorate a shining campus where only those rich on the backs of maimed warehouse workers can afford to live.
In his email, Goldsztejn, the Amazon spokesperson, listed off a number of multi-million-dollar charitable moves the company has made, including opening a homeless shelter on its campus. (Amazon has generally defended its safety record and pledged to improve it.)
“With Amazon’s presence in Seattle spanning more than 20 years, we as [a] company — and our employees — see ourselves as part of the fabric of this community,” he wrote. “We continue to invest in Seattle — and across the broader Puget Sound — in programs that support the sustainable growth of the region…”
Goldsztejn did not respond directly to Wolff’s comments.
Context or erasure
There are pluses to this situation, said Manish Chalana, a University of Washington urban design and planning professor. A lack of funding for historic preservation means that assistance from big companies like Amazon is needed, and its plans call for the sign to be displayed as part of a plaza open to the public, albeit on a corporate campus where he has felt unwelcome as a member of the public.
Chalana, a former Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board member, said that it has become more difficult to landmark relocated objects due to increased recognition of the importance of context in landmarking. Relocation is a “severe intervention” for situations where the object would be destroyed otherwise.
“But, this one, I was thinking about it. I don’t think the context matters so much because it’s so transformed anyways,” he said. “One, it’s moving only two blocks. So it is maintaining its larger context. And then the context is so transformed — or so transforming as we speak — that does it really matter if it’s on that site, which would eventually also be developed and look much like the rest of the Amazon-land?”
It remains to be seen whether the sign is truly an accessible public benefit, as landmarks are meant to be, when South Lake Union is so heavily gentrified that only certain demographics can actually partake in the environment, Chalana said. But that’s something larger than landmarking can address.
“No, I don’t think it’s the right tool to prevent gentrification and erasure,” he said. “It is the right tool to make a conscious effort in diversifying the historical record [and maintaining cultural resources.]
“With gentrification, and all transformation, I think it’s the urban planners who need to be thinking more critically about their policies and their ideas and visions for the neighborhood that ultimately sometimes encourage gentrification and transformation that is not equitable for, certainly, the low-income populations and, oftentimes, even the middle classes living in the city.”
Wolff puts it more simply.
“I just don’t want Seattle to become nothing but a big money pot for the already wealthy,” she said. “May be too late.”
Read more of the Dec. 7-13, 2022 issue.