Vernacular and Novelty Architecture in Seattle


Vernacular, Novelty and Unusual Architecture in Seattle

Vernacular architecture, also known as popular, novelty, or roadside architecture, is the study of “ordinary” buildings. That is, buildings designed, not by architects, but by the common person. Its equivalent in the art world is folk art. It’s meat loaf instead of pate, fish ‘n’ chips instead of salmon en croate.

Some vernacular architecture is as simple as old-fashioned storefronts. They are ordinary buildings, common and familiar, that reflect the influences of various social groups and societal forces.

Others are more novel and eye-catching, more of a novelty, usually designed by a business owner, to attract attention and draw in customers who are passing by. Typical of these are the roadside attractions that used to dot the highways and byways across the country.

This is that great Windmill Inn motel located in the town of Lynden.
I love this place! Lynden is located near Skagit Valley
where they have those tulip festivals every Spring.
I’m not sure what pointy triangular shapes have to do with clocks, but I like the way the sign mirrors the architectural shapes and catches your attention. (Maybe it’s supposed to be reminiscent of a Swiss chalet or something. Swiss? Watches? I don’t know.)


Not all novelty architecture is old.



I love these old roadside motels from the 40’s and 50’s. This one is out on old 99/Aurora, north of Seattle near Lynnwood. And look at the cute play on words: (Motor) “Court of Monte Cristo”.


Vernacular architecture also refers to the architecture of the ordinary. Not designed in high-style by an architect, but designed by just some regular Joe, for an everyday purpose, using the materials available, in the style that was popular at the time. Enjoy this photo. Look at the “For Sale” signs. I’m sad.


Museum of History and Industry

Joshua Trujilo – PI
A great repository of Seattle history is MOHAI. Missing the old Dog House Restaurant? It’s gone, but the sign is at MOHAI.

The museum has collected half a dozen old neon signs, including the red Rainier “R,” a Seattle Post-Intelligencer sign from an earlier location at Sixth and Pine and the sign from Warshal’s sporting goods store. It also has the 26-foot-tall neon blue flame that graced the old Washington Natural Gas Co. building on Mercer Street.

Many of these neon signs are on display at the museum’s Lake Union Park location. “It’s hard to think of something better than signs to tell a story and capture people’s attention,” said Feliks Banel, a deputy director at the museum.

For more information, see the 2003 Seattle PI article, “Neon’s illuminating stories find a home.”

Preserve a Landmark
The florist shop on Aurora Avenue, and this jumbo-sized elephant that had been in residence there for over 50 years, is now part of Aurora Rents. (The elephant is officially available for rental, at rates starting at $10,000.)

Concerned about our fading American Landscape? Hampton Inns has launched a program designed to restore and save our vernacular architectural gems and roadside attractions. You can view the landmarks already saved by this great program (including Seattle’s Hat & Boots) and nominate a threatened site. View Hampton Inns’ Save a Landmark Program HERE.

Elephant Car Wash






Andy’s Diner (now the Orient Express)




Kettell’s Grocery on Fourth Avenue South (now the Kittens strip club)





Kane’s Motel, formerly in Bellevue






Photo kiosk in Pioneer Square






The Mecca Cafe near the Space Needle in lower Queen Anne.





Like old Highway Signs? Then check out “Washington Motel Americana.”



This photo is one of a series called Age of the Domiciles, 1982-3, and shows that the hand of man on the landscape of the American southwest reveals strategies for adaptability in this hostile environment.

This is a photo of the Flintstone Village, near the Grand Canyon, AZ. Other photos in the series include Church of St. Francis, Taos, NM; “Hole in the Rock” near Moab, UT; and Cave House, UT.

These artists have documented many examples of vernacular architecture throughout the country, with an entire exhibit on indigenious stone used in commercial buildings in the midwest.
Click here to see more photographs in the series.

American Oddities was a page created by Bobby, Bev, and Shadow Padgett, who live in Tennessee. They know an odd building when they see it. The site’s down now, but here are some of its images as preserved on Pinterest.




Photo by Phil Weber
A friend of mine visiting from Canada mentioned all the neon signs in Seattle. I was surprised as I didn’t think we had any more than any other American city, but she thought it was remarkable. The Museum of History and Industry occasionally offers guided tours of Seattle’s neon signs. For more information, see the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce article:
“Make sure ‘fringe’ buildings stay part of the community.”

Bassetti Architects and JACK WIGGINS RSP/EQE

Seattle is full of great old buildings, some even important enough to be city, state or national landmarks. These buildings have special architectural merit, social and political history or exquisite qualities that speak of the past.


Structures like Smith Tower, Franklin High School, the Space Needle and buildings in Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market help define Seattle to the nation and are due every ounce of respect we can afford them.

But what about fringe buildings? The ones that aren’t eligible for official landmark status because of they are just not old enough or important enough as examples of design, or the ones with owners that simply lack interest in turning them into landmarks?

These “fringe” buildings have real value. They are neighborhood landmarks — the kinds of buildings that orient you to a place, a neighborhood with its own distinctive history.

Click HERE to read this rest of this article from the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.

Photos by Jenny Wood and Andy Wood.

For more great old Seattle motel signs, check out “Motel Americana.”


All photos were taken by Marlow Harris unless noted otherwise.



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Marlow Harris
International President’s Circle
Coldwell Banker Bain Associates
1701 E. Olive Way, Seattle WA, 98102

Business: (206) 329-3795E-Mail: