History at Our Feet: Preserving the Ballard Sidewalk Mosaics

Circa 1905 Mosaic, 20th Ave NW at NW 59th St, Ballard neighborhood, Seattle, WA. Photo by Benson Shaw, 2015.
Circa 1905 Mosaic, 20th Ave NW at NW 59th St, Ballard neighborhood, Seattle, WA. Photo by Benson Shaw, 2015.

Ballard community-member Benson Shaw received a 2015 Preservation Special Projects grant to help save an often-overlooked piece of Seattle history. Find out how the work is going, and learn more about these century-old urban art pieces:

Have you ever noticed the cultural assets literally at our feet, embedded in our walkways? Surviving artifacts from earlier times remind us that the past efforts of others affect our life today—they suggest that our actions now will affect future lives.

Many sidewalks in several Seattle neighborhoods are home to blue and white tile mosaics displaying street names. You can find them in Madison Valley, northeast Seattle, First Hill near Harborview, and a few other neighborhoods. Ballard is the mother lode with about fifty mosaics displaying historic street names that have since been changed: 61st St was once Chestnut, 60th St was Baker, Market St was known as Broadway.

I’m the self-appointed guardian of our Ballard mosaics, armed with a Preservation Special Projects Grant from 4Culture, funded by the King County Lodging Tax. I’m researching our mosaic history, developing a location and condition survey and map, writing specifications for preservation and restoration, and opening channels to tell the mosaic story. My preliminary findings can be found here. Lots more to do!

Seattle Municipal Archives, City of Ballard Records, Collection ID: 9106-06, Box 2.
Seattle Municipal Archives, City of Ballard Records, Collection ID: 9106-06, Box 2.

The mosaics at intersections along 20th Ave NW from Leary Ave to NW 64th St are circa 1905—relics from the years just before Ballard was annexed, ceasing to be an incorporated city, independent of Seattle. The Seattle Municipal Archives now holds the City of Ballard’s government records, and the University of Washington and Seattle Public Library offer access to the weekly Ballard News on microfilm. These sources tell how Ballard streets were planned and constructed: when property owners petitioned the Ballard City Council for neighborhood improvement, the City Engineer created design specifications and estimated project costs. At the time the work of building Ballard’s streets was undertaken, wood plank sidewalks were used—around 1903, cement sidewalks replaced them, and the mosaic street names appeared in 1905. What’s missing from this account? The “why” behind the installation of the mosaics. I’ll continue looking for this in my research.

Aging materials and rapid redevelopment in Ballard are threatening old and new mosaics. I’m working with BOLA Architects, the Seattle Department of Transportation, the Seattle Department of Planning and Development, and many others to provide detailed requirements for preservation, restoration, and replacement. Will this project continue into a restoration phase, to replace missing tile, regrout, and stabilize the existing mosaics? Stay tuned! In the meantime, tell me about similar mosaics in your neighborhood. I know the Ballard ones, but I want to locate others around the region—email me with the intersection, and a photo if you’d like! You can also explore the Ballard mosaic locations pinned on this Google Map, with photos by Luke McGuff.