Betty MacDonald's House in Seattle's Roosevelt District: Final Glances

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 7/26/2012
  • Essay 10155

Author Betty MacDonald (1907-1958) spent most of her life in and around Seattle, living over time in six locations, three of them for substantial periods of time.  Because MacDonald wrote extensively about her homes in her books, which were substantially autobiographical, she left a rich written record of those houses and what they meant to her.  One home, located at 6317 15th Avenue NE in Seattle's Roosevelt neighborhood, played a particularly resonant role in the author's life during the 1930s, and is vividly described in her published memoirs.  This house had many occupants after MacDonald and her family moved away, and in more recent years it experienced significant decline.  On July 24, 2012, this home and the home immediately north of it were demolished.  In this People's History, staff historian Paula Becker (b. 1963), who has written extensively about Betty MacDonald for this website and elsewhere, describes how her interest in MacDonald led to several encounters with this house, including a visit in its final hour.

Building Boom After A-Y-P

The modest family home at 6317 15th Avenue NE in Seattle was built in 1910.  The 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, held less than a mile away on the University of Washington campus, stimulated building and property development in the surrounding neighborhoods, including this one, which was initially included under the description University District but (since Roosevelt High School opened in 1922) has gradually become referred to as the Roosevelt District. 

In 1900, real estate developer Charles Cowen (1869-1926) purchased 40 acres that included the future lot where the 6317 15th Avenue NE house would be erected. He divided the acreage into residential lots and sold them through his Sylvester-Cowen Investment Company. Betty's house was located just north of Cowen Park, on property platted as Cowen's University Park, Block 1, Lot 4. 

Betty's mother, Elsie/Sydney Bard, purchased the home in 1930, moving there with her adult children, Mary and Cleve, and her teenage daughters, Darsie (Dede) and Alison.  Prior to this move, the family had tried unsuccessfully to run a dairy operation near Chimacum on the Olympic Peninsula. A few months later, Betty -- who had been living near her mother and siblings near Chimacum with her first husband, Robert Heskett -- fled her marriage, taking her young daughters Anne and Joan, and joined her mother's household.  Betty later wrote:

"According to real estate standards Mother's eight-room brown-shingled house in the University district was just a modest dwelling in a respectable neighborhood, near good schools and adequate for an ordinary family.  To me that night, and always, that shabby house with its broad welcoming porch, dark woodwork, cluttered dining-room plate rail, large fragrant kitchen, easy book-filled firelit living room, four elastic bedrooms -- one of them always ice cold -- roomy old-fashioned bathrooms and huge cluttered basement, represents the ultimate in charm, warmth and luxury" (Anybody Can Do Anything, p. 42).

A Place Of Respite

Betty wrote movingly, and with profound gratitude, of this house as a place of respite.  Her mother's steady presence soothed the Bards during the Great Depression, and the family's meager meals of soup and coffee were often -- Betty later wrote -- stretched to feed the family's artist friends, and friends of friends, many of whom took shelter in the house for a night or two or longer.  "From two o'clock Saturday afternoon until two o'clock Monday morning, the house was filled with people.  Mary, who was very popular, was being intellectual so her friends were mostly musicians, composers, writers, painters ... they sat on the floor and read aloud the poems of Baudelaire, John Donne, and Rupert Brooke, they put loud symphonies on the record player and talked over them, they discussed politics and the state of the world ... I always looked forward to Saturday.  I loved the tight expectant feeling I had as I opened the front door and wondered who would be there.  I loved Saturday's dusk with the street lights as soft as breath in the fog or rain ... the firm thudding comforting sound of doors closing and shutting families in, the world out (Anybody... p. 44, 131).

This was the house, the hearth, the warm fireplace on a rainy afternoon, where Betty and her family and their friends collectively endured deprivation as the harsh 1930s dragged on and on.  This house was home, by Betty's account, the absolute icon of home as safety and solace, solidarity.  From this house, Betty and her sister Mary went bravely forth on the nearby streetcar to downtown jobs that lasted weeks or months before evaporating as the economy slumped further.  To this house they returned, sharing frugal evenings, mending their work clothes and making do. 

These are the years recounted in Betty MacDonald's Anybody Can Do Anything. It was this house that Betty left behind -- along with her daughters, left in Sydney's care -- when she entered Firland Sanatorium in 1938 after being diagnosed with tuberculosis.  As she lay immobile between frigid sheets in the sanatorium's hard bed, this was the house that filled her heart and memory, the home where she was not.  When Betty was released, her illness arrested, this was home again, and she described her homecoming in The Plague and I:

"We all went in, Anne and Joan glued to each side, and then I had cups and cups of delicious, hot, strong coffee.  I felt peaceful and content and so happy ... . It was all too wonderful.  I wept and the children cried too, and the dogs barked and everyone else tried in loud funny voices to be cheerful.  Mother hurriedly served lunch" (p. 230).

Finding Betty's House

Betty's family sold this house in 1942.  For the past many decades it has been a rental property and -- at least in my nearly 20-year memory of the place -- not maintained -- one of the many houses in the neighborhood owned by one individual who was intent on owning -- and then just holding -- everything.

I found this house early in my Betty MacDonald research.  Reading the clues in Anybody, checking city directories, and then confirming with Betty's friend (and mine) Blanche Caffiere (1906-2006), I realized that this most important Betty house was hidden in plain sight: a few doors down from one of the neighborhood's busiest intersections, fronted by a bus stop on a line that replicates the streetcars that ran in Betty's day.  That this was an intersection I passed, and still pass, daily added to its charm and the serendipity of finding it, a treasure to me, so close to my own home.

I wrote about this house, along with other significant Betty sites, for a now-defunct newspaper called Seattle Press.  The story, "Time-traveling the Roosevelt District With Betty MacDonald," inspired (I found out many years later) the foundation of a society in Betty's honor, further Bard/MacDonald scholarship, and many more Betty-related opportunities for me.

A Close Encounter

Since I drove past the house so often, I sometimes lurked.  One summer morning around 2005, as I sat idling behind the house wondering how it looked inside, a woman parked her car beside mine, and looked quizzically at me.  "Do you live here?" I asked.  "I am interested in the story of Seattle author Betty MacDonald, who lived here in the 1930s ..."  "Oh, I know," the woman said, "I have a newspaper article ..."  Her name was Tanya, and she invited me in. 

The house was very nearly as Betty had described it: the broad front porch, the ample fireplace where the Bards played Chinese checkers and piano and listened to football and dance marathons on the radio, the back bedroom that was always cold.  Tanya, like Sydney, was a painter, and she used that room as a studio.  She led me through the kitchen -- which more than anyplace was altered -- and up the tight front stairs to a small hallway with three bedrooms.  The room where Tanya, a longtime renter, slept was the front bedroom -- Sydney's, Betty had recounted, where she was tucked up when first diagnosed with tuberculosis and then discovered, bed strewn with the ashtrays of dear friends, by the horrified King County nurse sent to start her Firland intake.  The issue of Seattle Press containing my Betty story was beside Tanya's bed (in Sydney's room -- or what had been, 70 years prior), and time bent for me.

The house was worn but cared for, with a kind of carelessly eccentric air that I think the Bards would have recognized as somewhat like their own.  As Tanya walked me through, my eyes sought anything I could be fairly sure would have been there in Betty's time: doorknobs, the bathroom mirror, any touchstone -- casual, useful implements that would have spanned the home's many inhabitants.

The next day I left copies of Anybody and Plague in Tanya's mailbox.  Here's where the Bards got mail, I thought.  "Thanks, Tanya," my note said, "these books describe the house!  Hope you enjoy... ."

An Ominous Decline

A few years later, England's BBC Radio 4 was interested in Betty (who is widely loved abroad) and sent a reporter to track her book-related sites.  I drove the BBC producer, Sara, to all of Betty's Seattle homes, including this one. Sara taped me as we circumnavigated the house, which was quite visibly degraded since my tour with Tanya.  Walking near the house, I realized how terribly its condition had declined.  For Sara's listeners, I recalled the home's importance to Seattle via Betty, whose best-selling book The Egg and I has never been out of print since its 1945 publication.

I was shocked, and the condition of the house was disgraceful.  Sara later sent the tape to me, and I tucked it away, thinking of listeners in England and beyond learning of this place.  Meanwhile I kept a strong eye on what I thought of as The Betty House, looking hard and giving it keen thought when I was stuck in traffic at the NE 65th Street/15th Avenue NE intersection.  Soon after, the porch was enclosed by plywood.  A cheerful mosaic address sign propped against the porch steps during Tanya's tenure disappeared.  I feared -- correctly -- the worst.

Although the house mattered to Betty, to her fans, and to me, based on what I know of the Seattle landmark designation process, I did not think (and still don't) that Betty's house would have qualified for landmark designation.  Based on its location -- so close to the Roosevelt District's future light rail station -- and to zoning changes in the neighborhood, and on its ownership, I knew the house's days were numbered.

Age102: The End Of The Story

The last souls sheltered by Betty's house were, I'm afraid, far more desperate than the Bards and their 1930s friends had ever been.  By late 2011, the house was boarded up but serving  as a squat residence in actuality: a respite of the most basic kind -- roof and walls, no soup, no firelit hearth, no family -- for the most desperate.  Neighbors repeatedly phoned police: babies left crying in strollers at the old back door while drug deals (probably) occurred.  Plywood covering doors and windows pried aside repeatedly.  A house beyond the limits of decline.

The news that Betty's house would soon face the wrecking ball (or claw, since backhoes do the work these days) came on a mid-May afternoon in 2012.  The house and its northward neighbor would fall soon, with property development to follow.  I emailed the developer: my credentials, Betty's tenure in the house, my understanding of the property's decline.  I wanted only to salvage a few artifacts, for Betty's legacy, for eventual historical display.  Fine, they replied.  Be ready to move quickly.

The summons of pending demolition came on the evening of July 23, for the next morning.  I checked in with the supervisor, Mike, bearing tools and head lamp, as the backhoe idled.  "There is nothing left of significance to salvage ... don't get your hopes up," the email had warned, but I was hopeful, grateful again to Tanya for those brief moments in the home years ago.  I wore thick boots and gloves, a face mask, carried a camera, steeling myself as I parked a block away amid peaceful bungalows.  I thought of Blanche, pregnant with daughter Jill in the mid-1930s and urged to walk, arriving at the house en route to visit Sydney.  I'll be the last person who ever goes through that house, I thought.

Goodbye To All That

"Let me know when you come out," Mike said, briefly silencing his chain saw.  "We're demolishing that shed first, then the house, but we'll wait until you're through."  I climbed the back stairs, remembering that Betty and Mary doused their work dresses with cleaning fluid here on Sundays, readying themselves as cheaply as possible for the week ahead.   I stepped through the kitchen, pitch black and lacking all appliances, where Sydney wrote her radio serial "Schuyler Square" in the (long gone) built-in nook, smoking Chesterfields through the night.  My headlamp on, I started for the stairs. 

But for my tour with Tanya, I would surely have been lost.  The walls were pulled apart, flung in my path.  I saw lath everywhere, uncovered, and heaps of paneling, wood, firewood even, burned.  The smell was strong, but worst in the basement, so intense that it repelled me, too foul to penetrate.  Flies buzzed.  I hoped not to stumble on animal remains, or worse.

I climbed the stairs, relieved to find the second floor both lighter -- plywood had been nailed over all the lower level doors and windows, but not above -- and less damaged, although this was marginal.  Still the lath, still the heaps, still the giant nails protruding from all angles.  What can I save, I asked myself?

Doorknobs, mostly, from the upstairs doors.  Paint-encrusted, certainly original.  The bathroom medicine cabinet door, which I'd hoped to salvage, was gone already.  I found one picturesque window tossed on the floor in the middle of Sydney's/Tanya's room, and pried another from its frame.  I marked each doorknob with its provenance, all the while thinking, here Betty fought against what she'd not yet learned was a probable death sentence --  tuberculosis.  Here Anne and Joan slept safely while their mother faced down death.

Dragging my knobs and windows, I retraced my steps.  Downstairs was dark,  impenetrable, despite my headlamp, but on my last pass through I found the fireplace -- hearth to Betty's home.  The room in which it stood had been walled off since my tour with Tanya, and bore a makeshift lock that bespoke personal use for purposes perhaps best unexplored.  The fireplace was intact, more whole than anything else in the entire house, and I wanted it, wanted it all, to salvage all of it, or even just a brick, but it was so, so solid.  I snapped a picture (my flash briefly illuminating the dark), then another, like an underwater camera snaking through Titanic, documenting a time long lost.  I took the moment, imagining the Bards, their fires in that hearth, their closeness, gathered round. 

And then I left, thanked Mike, and let the house sink past all access, except through Betty's written memories.

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