On June 17, 1978, a life-size, cast-aluminum sculpture depicting five adults, a child-in-arms, and a dog with a human face, all waiting for a trolley car, is dedicated at noon in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood during the Fremont Fair. Situated on a triangular space at the corner of N 34th Street and Fremont Avenue N, close to the Fremont Bridge, the statue was created by local sculptor Richard S. Beyer (1925-2012), whose studio is on Lake Union. Beyer moved with his family to Seattle in 1957, initially intending to pursue an academic career. Part way through a Ph.D. program in economics at the University of Washington, he quit to become an artist. People Waiting for the Interurban is his first large-scale, multi-figure cast aluminum commission.
Tribute to a Bygone Era
Richard Beyer's selection to create a piece of public art for Fremont came about by accident. The Fremont Improvement Committee, of which Beyer was a member, was looking for ways to promote the neighborhood. The location for some kind of installation -- a bench or signage, for example -- had already been determined: A triangular spot close to the Fremont Bridge which was slated for paving by the city. Beyer suggested an art competition.
The committee approved the idea and the art contest moved forward, but it didn't attract a single entry. Beyer, whose foundry was in Fremont and who had spent more than a decade trying to establish his art career, volunteered to create a sculpture for the space. He went door to door seeking pledges. Once a few donations rolled in, he came up with several concepts.
His first idea was to create a statue depicting a ship rising out of the water to capitalize on Fremont's location on a ship canal. He discarded that idea and proposed another, a cougar. That didn't work out either. When he heard that pieces of the Interurban, the electric trolley line that operated between Seattle and Everett from 1910 to 1939, might be buried near the Fremont Bridge, he knew he had found the perfect subject matter.
His idea to create a sculpture of people waiting for the Interurban resonated with committee members, "who were looking for something that would reflect the community, win that neighborhood's support and be created by someone who works there" ("Interurban Sculptor ..."). Beginning in 1975, Beyer worked on the sculpture on and off for three years, putting in what he estimated was about six months of work. He used aluminum over wooden molds to give the sculpture a clean and futuristic look.
When it was unveiled in 1978, the statue drew mixed reviews. One Fremont business owner told The Seattle Times it was ugly. "If nothing else is available, I'd rather see a welcome-to-Fremont sign and a bunch of flowers" (Beyer, 5). Another person complained that the characters looked like apes. Beyer was nervous as well. "I thought, 'I could make an absolute fool of myself.' It was relatively crude in comparison to the technically refined things you can see" (Beyer, 7).
Beyer called his style "social realism," and told a Seattle reporter that the work contained a political message and was a testimony to a time when the Interurban line tied Fremont into Seattle, making the neighborhood vital. "It's sort of a protest of what automobiles have done to our society" ("Waiting for Payment"). Beyer also noted that the cast-aluminum figures were made to be touched, and were tough enough that they should still be standing in the heart of Fremont 100 years from now.
One prominent supporter of Beyer's sculpture was Richard K. Untermann, acting chairman of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Washington, who wrote to the Seattle Arts Commission to voice his approval. He predicted, "It will undoubtedly be the most popular sculpture in Seattle" (Beyer, 5).
His remark proved prophetic. Almost immediately, people engaged with the sculpture, using scarves, hats, balloons, streamers, and a variety of other paraphernalia to decorate it for birthdays or sporting events. Others got even more creative. "That first day, some guys from the tavern came over and were having a wonderful time. They got this big yellow rope and tied it around the neck of the dog, and then to the telephone pole. That was so the dog catcher wouldn't take him away" (Beyer, 7).
At the beginning, Beyer estimated the statue would cost about $10,000, with funds raised by donations. By the time the piece was unveiled three years later, the price of aluminum had increased significantly and the statue's cost had nearly doubled, to $18,210. Only about $3,200 had been raised. Another $4,065 in materials and work space had been donated, and the Washington State Arts Commission chipped in $500.
A year after the statue was unveiled, Beyer was still trying to collect his $2,500 artist fee, along with $2,643 he had personally spent on materials. The Fremont Arts Council asked the city for money but was told that the city could not reimburse a person for a gift. The Fremont community tried to help out by holding a fundraiser on December 4, 1979, at the nearby McKenzie Building. Attendees were asked to contribute $25 each, which would be used to pay Beyer's fee. The issue of payment was finally resolved when the Seattle City Council officially accepted ownership of the statue in return for the $5,143 that was owed to Beyer. Although the compromise ensured Beyer would get paid, the artist was not happy. "Exchanging gifts in this way doesn't suit Beyer very well. He had wanted his creation to be a gift, supported by ample donations" ("Waiting for Payment").
A Victorian-style pergola was added in the fall of 1979 to protect the sculpture from wind and rain. The addition also helped reinforce the idea of people waiting for a trolley. Environmental Works, a design firm, built the pergola in collaboration with Beyer. The cost was $1,135, which was paid for with funds from the Seattle Arts Commission.
A Popular Photo Site
The sculpture was a popular backdrop for photographs taken by visitors or by the news media looking to illustrate travel stories. Beyer did not want to retain the copyright to his work and was delighted when the Interurban characters were featured in products or ads. "People Waiting for the Interurban brings a degree of commercial success to many people who photograph it for postcards, calendars, posters and advertisements promoting everything from bagels to ski equipment" (Beyer, 2). Playboy even got into the act. The February 1985 Playmate of the Month was posed by the statue, although fully clothed, wearing jeans and a sweater.
In the words of Seattle journalist Erik Lacitis, "This is what they call very accessible art. You can walk up to it, you can touch it, you can pose with it, you can walk away feeling a little better because of the whimsiness of it all ... In Fremont, those sculptures have become part of the family. You can do lots worse as an artist" ("Corny or Not ..".).
A Temporary Move
In February 2006, when the Fremont Bridge was undergoing mechanical and structural updates, People Waiting for the Interurban was relocated about 350 feet to the east, to the corner of N 34th Street and Troll Avenue N. It was sorely missed. The owner of the Greek restaurant Costas, located across the street from the sculpture, had so many people walk in off the street to ask what happened to it that he had to put up a sign.
On May 30, 2007, the statue was moved back to its original location by a three-person crew and a forklift, and a huge community party was held on June 2, 2007. The ceremony included bands, a procession led by Mayor Greg Nickels across the bridge, and the unveiling of the statue. "This statue kicked us off as a community with a true arts focus," said Jeanne Muir, a 16-year Fremont Chamber of Commerce member. "People have swarmed here from all over to enjoy it" ("Fremont's Popular Sculpture ...").