The century-old Laurelhurst neighborhood in Seattle is a sought-after area with scenic streetscapes.
For Bill Gates Sr., the fondest memories of life in Laurelhurst are all about raising a family. Gates — a civic leader and father of the Microsoft co-founder of the same name — has lived in the same home in the Seattle neighborhood since 1965.
“We had three young children, and were attracted to the location and to the Beach Club,” Gates says. “We owned a ‘Flattie’ [a small sailboat used in the Laurelhurst Beach Club sailing fleet] moored down there, and my oldest daughter took part in the weekly sailboat races.”
Gates feels that while much of the surrounding city has changed with time, Laurelhurst has largely stayed the same — a family-friendly community with convenient access to the University of Washington, downtown and the Eastside.
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His son owned a home in Laurelhurst before building his Medina mansion, and a number of other prominent Seattleites live, or have lived, in the neighborhood.
Yet most of its occupants are regular, middle-class working families who find that quality schools, along with a residential quiet not found in many urban Seattle neighborhoods, make it a great place to raise children.
“Nobody’s going there unless they live there,” says Joie Gowan, an agent for Windermere Real Estate since 1988 and who was raised in Laurelhurst.
“Our first house was in Wallingford, and we did like being able to just walk up to the restaurants or movie theaters. But when we had kids, it started to bother me a little bit that when they’re playing in the front yard, there are lots of people going by, and you don’t know if they live there or what,” Gowan says.
“I grew up in Laurelhurst, and we moved back [to the Windermere neighborhood, just north of Laurelhurst] to get that same kind of thing — you know the people who live in your community, and you all keep an eye on each other. It’s a tight-knit community,” she says.
While Laurelhurst doesn’t have a lot to offer the typical first-time homebuyer (most entry-level prices, for a two-bedroom house, start above $600,000), it can be a good place to move up to.
During 2008, 53 homes sold in Laurelhurst, ranging in price from $282,000 to $3.55 million, with a median price of $905,000, according to figures compiled by Windermere Real Estate, which noted that the typical Laurelhurst home has four bedrooms, 2.5 baths and 3,020 square feet.
Within the neighborhood, home prices drop north of Northeast 50th Street, which is the boundary for membership of the Laurelhurst Beach Club.
The topography of the area, coupled with the spectacle of beautiful, well-kept homes and yards, makes it an easy place for newcomers to lose their bearings.
Bounded to the north by Sand Point Way Northeast and to the west by Mary Gates Memorial Drive Northeast, Laurelhurst sits on a steep hill leading down east to Lake Washington and south to Union Bay.
The usual Seattle grid of numbered streets and avenues is present, but frequently interrupted by steep terrain, forcing visitors to wind through neighborhood streets.
In addition, Laurelhurst is one of few areas in the city where street and avenue numbers overlap — you may find yourself at the intersection of Northeast 41st Street and 42nd Avenue Northeast, or even better, at the corner of 50th and 50th.
The history of Laurelhurst goes back more than a century.
In 1900, a group of 50 prominent citizens invested in the southern portion of the neighborhood to build the Seattle Golf Club. Members rode a private ferry from Madison Park to reach the course, which was moved to The Highlands north of Seattle in 1908. The clubhouse, at the corner of Northeast 41st Street and Latimer, still stands as a private home.
When access to the Laurelhurst peninsula improved in the 1920s with new roads and completion of the Montlake Bridge, the neighborhood saw a building boom.
The Laurelhurst Community Club, an organization founded in 1920 and still active today, was instrumental in getting built the Laurelhurst Playfield and Community Center, as well as Laurelhurst Elementary School, whose handsome brick building was dedicated in 1928.
The community club continues to be a major advocate for community involvement, safety and preservation. Jeannie Hale, an attorney who has lived in Laurelhurst for 30 years, serves as president of the 14-member board.
“To do anything, you have to have volunteers who really want to be there, who understand and care about the issues,” she says.
The community club produces a neighborhood newsletter 10 times per year and distributes it to nearly 3,000 residents, and maintains a large e-mail network and Web site.
The editor of the newsletter is the only paid employee of the community club.
The group doesn’t oppose development in the neighborhood, and in many cases has encouraged it.
“A lot of people think community groups like ours are just obstructionists,” says Stan Sorscher, a labor-union representative and physicist who serves as secretary of the board.
“We’re not. We just want to work with the businesses, the hospitals, the university, to make sure the development makes sense.”
Expansion plans by Seattle Children’s hospital have long been a divisive topic among neighborhood residents.
“It’s a big part of Laurelhurst’s character, the bifurcation about Children’s hospital’s expansion — or encroachment, as some view it,” says Gates.
Part of what draws young families to Laurelhurst, residents say, is the reputation of its schools, both public and private.
The private Villa Academy is one of the oldest schools around, founded on Beacon Hill in 1903 as school and orphanage, one of the many such institutions established across the nation by Sister Frances Cabrini, who became the first American saint.
The orphanage and school moved to Laurelhurst in 1914. The orphanage closed in the early 1950s. The K-8 school attracts students from as far away as Sammamish, Marysville and Renton.
“We are fortunate to have been here since the early days of this neighborhood and to have grown up with it,” says Marlinda Siegfried, admission director at Villa Academy.
Public education has a strong reputation in Laurelhurst as well, due in part to the large and active PTA at Laurelhurst Elementary.
“When we moved in, all three kids went to Laurelhurst Elementary,” recalls Gates.
“It was, and still is, a fine institution.”
A major draw to Laurelhurst Elementary is Laurelhurst After School Enrichment Rooms (LASER).
The nonprofit, before- and after-school child care and enrichment program operates in portable buildings on the Laurelhurst Elementary campus and maintains a close relationship with the school.
“I think of child care as teaching,” says Sequoia Hartman, executive director of the program.
While Laurelhurst itself has none of the commercial bustle of such neighborhoods as Ballard or Wallingford, it doesn’t give up its urban Seattle feel.
There are strips of businesses and restaurants along Sand Point Way and 45th, and the University Village shopping center is just minutes away.
“It’s a great walking neighborhood,” Gowan says. “You can easily walk to a commercial area, or to dinner, without crossing a bunch of busy streets.”
When asked what stands out about Laurelhurst in their minds, people mention how common it is for those who grew up there to come back.
“What has always impressed me is how many multiple generations of families live in this neighborhood,” says Siegfried.
“It is really common for kids who grow up here to move back as adults with their own growing families.”
“It’s a gorgeous neighborhood.”