Sunday, May 30, 2004 – Page updated at 05:28 A.M.
Designer tells the legend of Hat ‘n’ Boots
From the lowly Fremont Troll to the lofty Space Needle and even the long-gone stucco eatery “The Blob,” we asked you to pick your favorite among the cultural icons featured in an April 25 article and to tell us about icons you like that weren’t included in the article. While the Needle came in first no shock there the Troll was a surprisingly close second, with the hard-luck ferry Kalakala solidly in the middle. Here, then, is more about the unique structures that make Seattle Seattle, which ones you find charming and how two, in particular, came to be.
By Erik Lacitis
Seattle Times staff reporter
ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Lewis Nasmyth, designer of the Hat ‘n’ Boots, in his Ballard home in front of a painting of the landmark by his wife, Nancy.
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He is 80 now and retired, but Lewis Nasmyth of Ballard remembers vividly that business meeting in 1953 when, in 15 minutes, his vision for the Hat ‘n’ Boots leapt out onto the drawing paper.
His design instructions from developers wanting to build a Western-themed shopping center in the Georgetown neighborhood had been simple:
“Make it really, really different” emphasis on the “really.”
If there is a universal theme for Seattle’s cultural icons, which were featured in an April 25 article in Northwest Life and about which 874 readers rated their favorites it is this: In a world of look-alike malls and developments, these unique really different structures give character to the region. And more often than not, they are not the work of a committee or a PowerPoint meeting, but rather one individual’s very personal vision. (Even the Space Needle was the result of doodlings on a restaurant napkin by Eddie Carlson, one of Seattle’s movers).
The story of the Hat ‘n’ Boots is also one of initial euphoria, then financial problems, then neglect, followed by rediscovery and redemption. It’s a pattern similar to that of the ferry Kalakala, the 276-foot art-deco ship that had its heyday in the 1930s and 40s, fell into disrepair and in March finally ended up being towed from Lake Union to Neah Bay. Though work has stalled, and the ferry’s future is unclear, the new owner still hopes to restore it.
The meeting Nasmyth attended in a rented office in Georgetown had been about a proposed “Frontier Village” shopping complex in Georgetown. On the corner of East Marginal Way South and South Corson Street, a gas station was to be built to attract customers to the complex, and Nasmyth was given those simple instructions.
“I walked down the hall, sat down at a table, and didn’t hesitate. It just exploded on paper. I drew a huge cowboy hat that’d serve as the office. I drew a lady’s boot and a man’s boot that would be the restrooms.”
“I put color to it, mounted it, put a translucent cover sheet over the front. I wanted it to look like the presentation an architect would do. You lift the cover sheet, and it’s magic.
“I went back down the hall. I thought they’d start laughing. They were in shocked silence. Then they said, ‘We’ll build it, we’ll build it.’ ”
The Frontier Village was conceived by Buford Seals Jr., who, along with two other local buddies, in 1946 launched The Three GI’s chain that sold war surplus. A couple of years later, Seals got out of that business and set out to put together a shopping center in Georgetown.
“He admired the farmers market in Los Angeles, with all the mom-and-pop shops, and he wanted to build one in Seattle,” Nasmyth said. “He kind of liked the Western theme, but he couldn’t draw a line.”
The two had gotten to know each other when Nasmyth did cartoons and drawings for advertisements for The Three GI’s.
In 1954, construction of the Hat ‘n’ Boots began, the hat measuring 44 feet across, the man’s boot 24 feet in height, the woman’s 22 feet. Nasmyth kept a close eye on his vision, later even getting two design patents for the structures. The design of the hat had to be done especially right, with 24 metal ribs each with a different arch.
“You can imagine a wind blowing 50 or 60 miles an hour, and hitting the rim of the hat. It’d want to take off like a B-29,” he said.
Both the hat and boots then were poured with concrete. At one point, work crews told Nasmyth to get on the scaffolding himself and do the work, since he was being so picky.
Nasmyth wanted the boots to have a weathered look, to sag and bulge like real leather, and the workers were making it all look smooth. So Nasmyth got on the scaffolding and began forcing the metal frame with his hands and feet. He got the look he wanted.
The Hat ‘n’ Boots Premium Tex gas station opened in late 1954 or early 1955, with nine pump islands. It was described as one of the most successful gas stations in the state, motorists pulling in to marvel at the orange hat and deep blue and light blue boots.
Nasmyth also designed a supermarket that was built near the gas station, with wagon wheels and a Western Main Street faade, painted to look like the walls had been blasted by desert sand. But while the vision for Frontier Village included 185 businesses, only the Hat ‘n’ Boots and the supermarket were built before money ran out.
The supermarket morphed into a tire store before closing down. Though the Hat ‘n’ Boots continued to operate, it got seedier looking each year, finally closing in 1988.
Nasmyth moved on, doing displays for stores, remodeling homes and selling boats. Mostly, he avoided driving past his creation, not wanting to see the weeds, the graffiti, the peeling paint. If he did pass by, he said, “I’d close my eyes.”
Then came redemption.
Four years ago, the Georgetown Community Council took up the cause of saving the icon. La Dele Sines, a member of the council, said, “Hat ‘n’ Boots is part of our local identity. When I tell people that I live in Georgetown, often they say, ‘Where’s that?’ But when I say, ‘I live near the Hat ‘n’ Boots,’ I get, ‘Oh yeah, I know where that is.’ ”
The council raised $275,000 from government and private donors. Last December, the structures were moved four blocks south to a vacant lot that in 1999 the neighborhood had began turning into a park.
In recent months, volunteers and contractors have put in flooring, landscaping and performed other restoration work. The plan is that sometime this summer the concrete will be put back on the hat, and hairline cracks fixed on the boots. What used to be the restrooms will become storage areas. There will be no office inside the hat, but benches.
Still, Nasmyth’s vision will be largely retained, right down to the original colors.
In our ever-structured society, people in the Georgetown neighborhood, people Nasmyth had never met, responded to his unique creation as having something enduring a piece that should be saved. And so, decades later, they are doing just that.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org