When compared to its contentedly off-kilter neighbor Fremont, the northwest Seattle neighborhood of Ballard doesn’t have much in way of oddball eye candy, avant-garde architecture or traffic-stopping public art. In Ballard, there are no VW-crushing trolls lurking under the bridges, statues of communist dictators, dinosaur topiaries or Cold War era rockets jutting above the rooftops.
Despite its drawn-out transformation from a sleepy and largely blue-collar Scandinavian seafaring community into a hip and happening — some would say overdeveloped — urban village, the charms of Ballard remain largely subtle, quaint. The biggest tourist draw in the very walkable and highly likeable neighborhood, once the province of lutefisk and lousy drivers, is the Hiram M. Chittendam Locks, a place where one can spend an afternoon watching the water level rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall.
Located on a heavily industrial stretch of NW 46th Street near the foot of the Ballard Bridge stands Ballard’s most singular attraction that isn’t the Locks — a curious, Fremont-level detour that’s more sobering than quirky. A somewhat recent addition to Ballard’s shifting landscape, this once-unremarkable address — blink and you’ll miss it — has been transformed by way of gentrification into a bona fide attraction with its very own Yelp page. (Four-and-a-half stars, in case you were wondering).
Dwarfed by new development on three sides, Edith Macefield’s former home is a shrine, a totem, a holdout, a reminder of the Ballard that once was. But above all, the site is a testament to an obstinate old woman who, in 2006, turned down a million dollars so that she could die, in peace, in her longtime home.
But that home could soon vanish.
Last week, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that the dilapidated 2-bedroom home’s current owner, a company named Reach Returns, owes nearly $186,000 in property taxes. If that amount isn’t paid, the Macefield house — an otherwise unexceptional residence that famously managed to evade the wrecking ball thanks to its former owner’s unwavering defiance — will go to foreclosure auction on March 13.
A boarded-up Macefield House in 2013. Surrounded on three sides by the Ballard Blocks development, the home is now flanked by a Trader Joes and a LA Fitness club. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).
'Money doesn't mean anything'
The story of the Edith Macefield starts back in 2006 when the longtime Ballard resident, then 84, was offered $1 million by a real estate development company. The developer wanted to raze the humble 1,000-square-foot farmhouse where Macefield had lived for over five decades to make way for a large commercial development. Despite being in poor health, Macefield rejected the offer which, in addition to the cash, included housing and health assistance assistance. (She had also turned down a smaller buyout a couple of years earlier).
The bullheaded geriatric wasn’t going anywhere — she, and her home, were staying put.
“I don't want to move. I don't need the money. Money doesn't mean anything,” she explained to the Post-Intelligencer in 2007.
Money aside, it wasn’t that Oregon-born Macefield was a hardcore NIMBYist crusading against the gentrification that had taken hold of her longtime neighborhood. She had nothing against the condo towers or the high-end boutiques or the trendy new bistros. Apparently, she couldn't care less.
Macefield's refusal to sell her home was not the loaded capital "S" statement that many took it to be — just the simple wish of an old woman. Her mother had died in the home decades earlier. And Macefield, who first moved into the little house in 1952 to take care of her ailing mother after living for a long period overseas, made it explicitly clear that she intended on doing the exact same thing.
"Everybody that’s come in and tried to talk about this has tried to create that image of her,” Mike Semandiris, a longtime neighbor and Ballard business-owner, told the New York Times in 2008. “But she didn’t give a damn about preserving old Ballard. The lady just wanted to live in her house.”
And so, the developer went ahead with the project, a five-story behemoth dubbed Ballard Blocks — a play on the neighborhood’s historic tourist-draw located just a little over a mile away on the opposite end of Salmon Bay.
The development’s original design was altered so that the massive edifice wraps around Macefield’s home, embracing the tiny structure in a big concrete hug. According to Zillow, the house itself was built in 1900. Ballard, a waterfront village largely populated by immigrants from Norway and Sweden prior to the 21st century real estate boom, wasn’t annexed into Seattle until 1907.
Today, the parcel is sandwiched in between a tanning salon and health club on one side and a UPS Store and Trader Joe’s on the other. A Ross Dress For Less is slated to be the development's newest tenant.
The reluctant folk hero
As construction commenced on Ballard Blocks, Macefield became something of an overnight folk hero — everyone wanted to know more about the little old lady who owned Seattle’s famed “spite house.” Macefield's home was suddenly world-famous — and the subject of a whole lot of tattoos from 2006 through 2009. And although Macefield and her home didn’t serve as the inspiration for the 2009 Pixar film “Up” as it’s often erroneously reported, the similarities were great enough for Disney to swoop in and tie a massive bunch of balloons to the house as part of a marketing stunt.
Macefield, for the most part, hated the attention. "I'm no hero," she told the Seattle Times amidst all the hoopla. “I just want to be left alone.”
Underneath the ornery surface, Macefield loved the company — specifically, the company of the construction crew tasked with erecting a mini-mall around her home. The construction workers doted on the strong-willed octogenarian and, in turn, she regaled them with wild — perhaps a wee bit embellished — tales of her youth.
Through her friendships with the contractors, a more complete portrait of Macefield, now the de facto face of Ballard's anti-development movement, emerged. A wickedly smart and well-traveled polyglot with a stubborn streak that originated well before her golden years, Macefield enjoyed classic films (Hitchcock was a favorite), literature and opera. She was also an avid animal lover — and prolific collector of ceramic dogs, cats and cows.
And no, the infernal racket that Macefield experienced living in an active construction site didn’t seem to bother her all that much: "I went through World War II, the noise doesn't bother me. They'll get it done someday." When the noise got too loud, she simply turned up her television.
During her final years, Macefield became particularly close with Barry Martin, the development’s construction chief. The unlikely friendship started with a simple gesture of goodwill: Martin offered to drive the largely housebound Macefield to the hair salon. From there, he became her caretaker, chaperone and closest confidant. Martin wrote about his short but meaningful friendship with Macefield in the 2013 book, "Under One Roof."
When Macefield died of pancreatic cancer — in her home, as she wished — on June 15, 2008 at the age of 86, she willed her home to Martin. She had no living relatives. There was no fuss, no muss, no flowers and certainly no folk hero’s funeral. A few short days after her death, Ballard's iconic Denny's restaurant, built in mid-century Googie style, was demolished to make way for condos. It was the end of an era.
“She got to do it the way she wanted to do it," Martin told the Seattle P.I. "She had already made up her mind, and that's the way it was going to be."
As for the house, Martin remarked following her passing that “… it will all go to progress.”
A flyer for 2013's Macefield Music Festival, a now-annual event "inspired by the fiercely independent spirit of Ballard's legendary "refuse to sell" resident. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).
A grand plan that never achieves lift-off
And to progress it went. In 2009, Martin sold the property to Greg Pinneo of Reach Returns for $310,000 after turning down a smaller offer from the developer of Ballard Blocks. “The thing that struck me the most is he understood what Edith was doing,” Martin said of Pinneo in a 2009 story for the My Ballard blog. “He gets it.” Martin said he would use the money from the sale toward something good: his children's college tuition.
When Pinneo acquired the property, now a local landmark with the looky-loos to match, he presented an ambitious plan to preserve Macefield’s house by elevating it to the same height as the building surrounding it. Underneath the structure would be a two-level public green space dubbed Credo Square.
“The Edith Macefield story challenged many people to ask themselves the hard questions,” Pinneo told My Ballard. “The challenge she delivered so resembles the message of Reach Returns that we were compelled to find a way to keep the challenge alive. The home needs to be elevated literally and philosophically.”
At the time Pinneo, declared he and his company were “committed whole heart to the project.” He said: “She [Macefield] made us all look right in the mirror and ask the hard questions. “I’ve never met her, but I feel connected to her because she lived her credo, lived her philosophy. I felt compelled to let this deep thinking live on.”
Six years and nearly $200,000 in delinquent property taxes later, it’s apparent that something somewhere went askew. Edith Macefield’s holdout house is boarded up and in a serious state of disrepair, more sad than defiant.
As Ballard, like huge swaths of Seattle, continues to be built-up at a frenzied pace, the outcome for the house-wedged-inside-of-a-mini-mall will most likely be a grim one. There’s a good chance that Ballard Blocks will purchase the blighted property at auction and, at long last, “finish” the development by demolishing the home and filling in that small patch of land on NW 46th Street. It would be a shoo-in for a fro-yo joint.
Or perhaps they’ll defy the “bad developer” move that’s expected of them and preserve the home, doing what Pinneo failed to do.
Maybe Paul Allen will swoop in and save the day?
Whatever the case, those looking to pay their respects to the Macefield house should do so soon as its days could very well be numbered. House or not, the spirit of Edith Macefield, the little old lady who stood her ground and turned down a million bucks, will continue to live on in Ballard. She was one in a million. And unlike small houses in rapidly changing urban neighborhoods, one in a million aren't so easily forgotten.
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