Edith Wilson Macefield: A House Is Your Home

  • By Linda Holden Givens
  • Posted 7/24/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11092

When someone refuses to sell property while everyone around her does, it is known as a holdout. In China, holdout houses that remain while developments are built around them are called "dingzihu" or "nail houses." Edith Wilson Macefield (1921-2008) refused to sell her home in the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard and received worldwide attention as a multi-story mall was built around her little house. This People's History by Linda Holden Givens is based on her interview with Barry Martin (b. 1956), the project superintendent for the new mall who befriended Edith Macefield and ultimately inherited the house, Martin's book Under One Roof, and many other sources.

Offer Once, Offer Twice

In 2006 the Bridge Group LLC purchased most of the city block bounded by NW Ballard Way, 14th Avenue NW, NW 46th Street, and 15th Avenue NW, located just east of the Ballard Bridge, to build a shopping mall called the Ballard Blocks that would house LA Fitness and Trader Joe's outlets, a parking garage, and assorted retail stores. Within that city block, at 1438 NW 46th Street, was 85-year-old Edith Wilson Macefield's 106-year-old home -- all 1,050 square feet of it -- in what used to be part of old Ballard.

Macefield was first offered $750,000 by the developers for her home. Later a second offer increased to $1,000,000, which included finding a similar home in another location and paying all her home healthcare for the remainder of her life since she was a senior and her health was poor. Macefield refused both offers. Her refusal was simple -- she didn't care about money, her mother died in the house, she was happy in her home, she did not want to move, and it was her home.

Charles Peck, a musician and Seattle contractor, was Macefield's friend for more than 20 years. He was present when the developers presented her with the first offer, and recalled, "It just blew me away. I about fell out of my chair" (Westneat, "Big Offer ...").

Mike Semandaris, part owner of Mike's Chili Parlor located at 1447 NW Ballard Way on the same block as Edith Macefield's house, was not contacted by the Bridge Group. Mike and his father owned the fourth-generation family business and were never interested in selling. The Bridge Group had determined very early on not to purchase Mike's Chili Parlor, fearing a backlash from the community and patrons of the parlor.

Barry Martin -- Unlikely Friendship

Once the permits were cleared, construction of the Ballard Blocks Shopping Mall began in the spring of 2006. Martin began an unlikely relationship with Macefield. Many people started viewing his relationship as a way to trick her into moving. Barry replied that he had a job to do managing the construction of a mall, not playing tricks with someone's life. Martin was married and raising two children. A hard-working man, his heart was in the right place as the unique situation unfolded.

As he did for every project he met with surrounding neighbors, making sure they had his contact number in case any problems arose. Barry introduced himself to Edith: "Hi, I'm Barry Martin. I'm going to be building this project around you" (Under One Roof, 14). He wanted Edith to understand he was the person in charge of the mall being built round her and there would be a mess and noise during the construction. He was expecting the worse. Edith responded, "Well, I'm pleased to meet you. I'm Edith Wilson Macefield" (Under One Roof, 15). She didn't seem to mind. Edith was small, with white hair and hazel blue eyes. Barry further reassured her that if she needed anything or had any problems she could contact him.

Periodically, Barry checked on Edith to make sure she was all right. He only approached her if she was outside. As days, weeks, and months went by, Edith began to open up to Barry about her past.

One day Edith requested Barry drive her to a hair appointment. From that point on Edith began requesting more of Barry's time to drive her to hair and doctor appointments. He began bringing her lunch, shopping for groceries, doing laundry, and cooking dinner. Slowly he was being pulled into Edith's world and gradually making her comfortable. Barry Martin's and Edith Wilson Macefield's lives would come together for two years. During that short period, Edith would talk about her life in small fragments during their conversations.

 

Brief History of Ballard

 

Ira Utter (1825-1875) was the first non-Indian to homestead in what would become Ballard, settling there in 1852 near several Duwamish Indian villages on Shilshole and Salmon bays. In 1887 Judge Thomas Burke (1849-1925), Seattle capitalist John Leary (1837-1905), and railroad promoter Daniel H. Gilman (1845-1913) formed the West Coast Improvement Company, a Seattle real-estate company. Later, banker Captain William Ballard (1847-1929) joined the team. The goal was to develop pieces of land along Salmon Bay, which they platted as "Gilman Park."

The town was incorporated on May 12, 1890, under the name "Ballard," for Captain Ballard. By 1900 the population had exploded, and Ballard became the seventh-largest city in King County. Much of the population growth consisted of Scandinavian immigrants who worked as fishermen, loggers, mill workers, and boat builders. On May 19, 1907, Ballard was annexed to Seattle.

Edith's Holdout House

 

According to the King County assessor's office, Macefield's little house in was built in 1900. She purchased the home on June 20, 1952, from her mother. The home was 1,050 square feet and contained four rooms, including two bedrooms; one bathroom; and an attic. The house was built during a time in Ballard when shingle mills dominated the area.

By 2007 the new concrete shopping mall was rising all around Macefield's house, and photos of the holdout house made news in articles around the world -- although Macefield generally frustrated reporters seeking interviews. Macefield's home joined the list of famous holdouts or "nail houses," many of them in China, where in recent years developments and even highways have been built around homeowners refusing to sell their property.

There have also been some famous holdouts in Seattle history. Chief Seattle's daughter Princess Angeline, his oldest and last surviving child, refused to leave her two-room home on Seattle's waterfront, ignoring the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855 and an 1865 ordinance calling for the removal of Indians from the new city. She remained in her small shack as the city grew around it, and died there on May 31, 1896. And more than one property owner held out -- for a time -- as Denny Hill just north of downtown Seattle was regraded in the late 1800s and early 1900s, leaving some buildings perched high atop "spite mounds" as new streets were built far below them.

In April 2005 the Yale Repertory Theatre premiered Radio Golf, a play about converting a neighborhood into a shopping mall, which turned out to be the final work by legendary playwright August Wilson, a Seattle resident for the last 15 years of his life who died unexpectedly later in 2005 before the play opened at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Macefield's home was compared to the house in the Disney Pixar film Up, about a man who uses balloons to lift his home out of the way of development. In 2009, balloons were tied to the house as a means of promoting the movie.

Curtis James is the owner of Anchor Tattoo in Ballard. In 2009 he decided to create a tattoo in Edith Macefield's honor. He chose her house. Numerous people have received the tattoo over the years

What Stories!

Edith Macefield was born Doris Edith Wilson on August 21, 1921, to Chester and Alice Wilson in Oregon. She grew up between Seattle and New Orleans. There is not much known about her young life. Her relationship with her father is not known but, according to Barry Martin, her relationship with her mother appears to have been strange. Edith loved her mother and was a devoted daughter but said her mother never kissed her.

Barry Martin listened to Edith's incredible stories. He was fascinated but felt like he was meeting someone from another planet.

Edith told him that at the age of 14 in 1935 she had a strong desire to work for the American government and went in search of a job. The American government told her she was too young. Her uncle took her to England where he knew individuals who could get her a job working for the British government.

According to her story, an official in England developed an interest in Edith and took her to meet several men in a room. Edith had a talent for playing the clarinet (she said Benny Goodman, the famous clarinet player and bandleader, was her cousin and gave her a clarinet) and the men felt she would be perfect as an undercover spy in Germany, so she became a teenage British spy in Nazi Germany.

Edith claimed to have met Adolf Hitler numerous times while in Germany, saying he held parties and would invite her to those parties. Hitler brought a young blond boy that she believed was his son, and later asked her to care for the young boy.

Her story becomes even more incredible: Edith was accused, she said, of being a spy and taken to the Dachau concentration camp and placed into barracks with Jewish children. She claimed she later found a truck with keys and directions on how to escape, quickly gathered 13 children and placed them in the back of the truck, and escaped from the camp. During the escape, two children died.

After this, Edith described traveling between Austria and Germany. She said she began a relationship with Richard Tauber (1891-1948) an Austrian opera singer 30 years her senior. She was deeply and madly in love with him. They were married but Edith left Richard when she found out she was pregnant. They both decided the child would be safer if she moved to England to have the child since Richard was Jewish on his father's side.

While in England, Edith had a son named Boris. She married a Yorkshire man named James Philip Denton Macefield on September 14, 1939, at the age of 18. He was a widower with older children, and this was a marriage of convenience. He provided a home and name for her child. James, a wealthy man, owned a fig plantation in Africa where they spent many months.

At the same time, Edith said, she was given a castle in Cornwall, England. She did not say who gave her the castle but claimed she converted it into an orphanage, where she raised sheep and then adopted and raised 27 children. Later, Richard Tauber became sick and Edith spent weeks by his side until he died. She did not attend his funeral.

Edith's only child died at the age of 13 of spinal meningitis.

Edith married Leonardo Simon Genn on June 29, 1958, in Cardiff, Wales. When her husband died, she returned to the U.S. to care for her mother. Her mother passed away on November 15, 1976, on the couch in the little home in Ballard. Edith told Barry many times she also wanted to die at home. Edith married a final time to Gretoui Anatoli Domilini on May 29, 1984, in Caserta, Italy. Gretoui was killed on their honeymoon in a car accident. It was her fourth husband's last name Domilini that she used as a pen name for Where Yesterday Began, a 1,157-page book she self-published in 1994.

The more Macefield spoke to Martin about her life, the more he found himself curious. There are numerous stories: Edith said she assisted Mickey Rooney with his choreography, had an uncle named Eddy who played trumpet in Lawrence Welk's band, had etchings Lionel Barrymore gave to her, and had autographs from many famous people such as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, and Guy Lombardo to name a few. A full, interesting, exciting life even if only a fraction of the stories were true.

Gone but Not Forgotten

 

As her health began to decline, Macefield was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was becoming unable to read and write, losing control over her bodily functions. Not long after that devastating news she was diagnosed with diabetes as well. She had three options for treatment of her cancer and chose to let the disease "run its course."

Macefield wanted to modify her will. Martin contacted the lawyer and moved forward with her wishes.

Edith Wilson Macefield died on June 15, 2008, on the same couch as her mother had years earlier, in her home as she wanted. She had taken care of her own funeral arrangements 15 years prior. The service was held in a mini-chapel at the Evergreen Washelli Funeral Home. She was buried in Evergreen Washelli Cemetery with her mother.

Macefield's will left the house and its contents to Barry Martin. In July 2009, he sold Macefield's home to Greg Pinneo of Reach Returns for $310,000. The plan was to elevate the house 30 feet from the ground to create a space below called Credo Square. Those plans changed when Reach Returns owed more than $185,000 on the house, which went into foreclosure. As of June 30, 2015, broker Paul Thomas said the house would be knocked down in 90 days unless a nonprofit organization took it free of charge and moved it.

Whatever happens to the physical structure, the story of Edith Macefield and her holdout house will live on in Barry Martin's book Under One Roof describing his relationship with Macefield and sharing his experiences with her and the house, and in the many iconic pictures of the little house surrounded by the new development that Martin and his crew built around it.


Sources:

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