Denny Triangle’s iconic pink elephant soon will have a new home.
The Elephant Car Wash on Battery Street near Denny Way will close permanently, the company announced in a news release Thursday, after rumors swirled around a demolition permit filed for the site on Wednesday.
The pink elephant sign — designed by Seattle’s “Queen of Neon,” Beatrice Haverfield — will be donated to the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) in South Lake Union, which boasts an already-impressive collection of neon signage from other defunct and departed Seattle businesses, including the original Rainier Brewery “R,” the 26-foot-tall Washington Natural Gas blue flame and many more.
In the post-World War II era when neon began adorning Seattle businesses, the gas-filled tubes “represented sophistication, a little bit of glamour,” said MOHAI director Leonard Garfield. “Particularly after the war, Seattle was beginning to fill the role of a city on the world stage. The Elephant Car Wash sign is part of that tradition — but with an element of whimsy.”
While relief abounded on social media that the big pink elephant would be preserved in some form, not everyone believes the sign should leave the Battery Street lot.
“Neon signs are best appreciated in their natural habitat, which means outside, in the weather, when it’s dark, when it’s raining, especially in Seattle where for nine months out of the year, it’s dark and rainy,” said neon history buff Feliks Banel, a KIRO radio host and editor of the Washington State Historical Society’s quarterly magazine. Neon signs, “seen through the steamy window of your beat-up car on a rainy day,” are neighborhood landmarks the way the Space Needle and Smith Tower are landmarks for the city, he said.
Banel was instrumental in assembling MOHAI’s neon signage collection in the early 2000’s, and formerly led tours of the city’s neon landmarks in situ. “Seattle changes so rapidly,” he said. “Every 25 years it sheds an exoskeleton and a new city emerges.” With that in mind, he said, he hopes Elephant Car Wash and the museum don’t disregard the sentimental value of keeping the sign right where it is.
“It always feels to me like there should be a bigger conversation about things like [the elephant sign] that we can’t quantify the monetary value of, but that our descendants will look back on and say, ‘These guys were thinking big picture about preserving our identity as a city,'” Banel said.
Some neon signs have aged into new homes in the public eye, notably the Standard Record & Hi-Fi sign, soon to enliven the new Roosevelt light rail station. Others, notably the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s whirling globe, have been preserved in place by MOHAI and its partner in neon, Western Neon.
The carwash sign, though, “cannot remain in its current location,” Garfield said. He declined to elaborate further.
Elephant Car Wash, the first entirely automated carwash in the city, was founded in 1951 by brothers Dean, Archie and Eldon Anderson. The Denny Triangle location was the second of several Elephant Car Wash outlets. The local chain, now comprising 14 carwash locations around the Puget Sound region, was sold to current owner Bob Haney in 1982.
In a statement, the company said the high cost of doing business in the rapidly developing South Lake Union/Denny Triangle neighborhood prompted leadership to consider closing the carwash for good, after it was temporarily shuttered in March to comply with the state’s coronavirus lockdown orders.
“The cost of maintaining operations of the Elephant Super Car Wash on Denny and Battery are very high,” the statement said. “Downtown property taxes and monthly leases have increased to the point that the car wash is no longer able to cover those expenses and pay our employees at the minimum wage that the city of Seattle requires.”
The carwash, which pays taxes on the site, has seen its bill rise 31% since 2017, from $129,510.01 to $169,241.86.
Owned by Clise Properties, the site fronts a one-block stretch of what is now formally renamed Borealis Avenue and rests in the middle of several in-progress high-rise condominium towers and new Amazon office buildings. “Increased congestion” from that construction also hit business, and “limit[ed] the number of customers who can get to the car wash in a time frame convenient to them,” the company said.
In addition, “a steady increase” in camping, drug activity and vandalism on the site contributed to its decision to permanently close the location.
Business owners dissatisfied with the city’s response to Seattle’s homelessness epidemic often point to an uptick in crime as the reason they’re leaving the city — even if that narrative isn’t entirely borne out by the data.
Numbers for violent and property crimes in the South Lake Union/Cascade district, which encompasses Denny Triangle, have stayed flat over the past five years, according to the Seattle Police Department’s Crime Dashboard. Citywide, violent crimes and property crimes per 100,000 residents have fallen by more than half since 1990.
Those statistics don’t tell the full story, some business owners have said in the past, noting their experience has been that police and courts seldom respond to smaller crimes such as vandalism or trespassing.
Clise Properties, a longtime Denny Triangle landowner that sold three key blocks to Amazon for its high-rise headquarters complex, declined to respond to questions about its plans for the triangle-shaped lot on Borealis Avenue. If the fate of surrounding parcels is any guide, though, it’s likely to end up as apartments or offices.
The carwash’s 19,000-square-foot lot is appraised at nearly $20 million, or $1,050 per square foot, according to King County Assessor data, making it one of the highest-value empty lots in the city.
The next-most-valuable vacant lot, just down the street at 1221 Denny Way, is appraised at $950 per square foot. Vancouver-based Westbank Development Corporation is building two 48-story apartment towers at that location.
One more mystery is yet to be solved. While Seattleites often refer to “the” Elephant Car Wash sign, there are actually two neon elephant signs on Borealis Avenue.
The fate of the second pink pachyderm, the carwash said in a statement, is still up for grabs.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that both neon Elephant Car Wash signs on Borealis Avenue spin. Only one spins.