A neighborhood preservationist group is protesting Elephant Car Wash owner Bob Haney’s plans to donate the business’s iconic neon sign to the Museum of History and Industry in South Lake Union, arguing that the big pink pachyderm belongs where it has stood for well over six decades: smiling cheekily at pedestrians and commuters from its spinning perch on Denny Way.
The group, Friends of Historic Belltown, has asked the city to landmark the elephant sign, an official designation that would keep the sign in place even if the rest of the parcel were sold or developed.
“I don’t think anyone would disagree that this is already a landmark in the hearts and minds of Seattleites,” said Steve Hall, a land use planning specialist at Friends of Historic Belltown. The elephant, designed by Seattle’s “Queen of Neon,” Beatrice Haverfield, is one of the most-photographed spots in the city, appearing in commercials, television, movies and on countless pieces of Seattle memorabilia.
The sign also imparts a particularly Seattle character — quirky, welcoming, whimsical — to its surroundings, said neon historian and KIRO radio host Feliks Banel in a recent interview. “In a time that’s all about homogenization, we should want to keep those parts of our identity,” he said.
Given the elephant’s cachet, it wasn’t any surprise that a hubbub erupted last week when landowner Clise Properties requested a demolition permit for the car wash, raising questions about the sign’s future.
The application itself also raised some eyebrows. Clise asked for a type of permit granted to small, relatively simple demolition projects. Those permits typically have a 24-hour turnaround, according to the city. A normal demolition permit takes months to review.
In a letter to Seattle’s permitting department, Friends of Historic Belltown alleged the developer downplayed the scope of the demolition project. A speedy permit to take down the car wash building, the group said, would allow Clise to bypass a potentially lengthy and expensive debate about the sign’s eligibility for landmark status and transfer the sign to MOHAI before the city could weigh whether to save it in place.
Clise, the group wrote, “is trying to strategically remove the historic sign by piecemealing future development … through obtaining a demolition permit prior to submitting any development plans.”
The 19,000-square-foot parcel, surrounded by luxury condos and Amazon offices, is some of the most valuable vacant land in the city, according to data from the King County Assessor, who appraised it at nearly $20 million, or $1,050 per square foot.
Al Clise, the fourth-generation CEO of the property group bearing his name, scoffed at the idea that his company is dodging scrutiny to shuffle the elephant off the lot.
“We’ve always wanted to preserve the sign,” Clise said. “We’re in that camp. … We think the best way to do that is to have it go to MOHAI. That’s what they do.”
Clise Properties does not currently have any plans to sell or develop the parcel, he said. The company is demolishing the 4,100-square-foot car wash building because “it’s a health hazard,” Clise said. A chain-link fence encloses the building, vacant since March — but that hasn’t stopped break-ins or vandalism, he said.
The museum, located one mile north of the car wash, is even open to considering displaying the elephant sign outdoors, a spokesperson said, muffling some arguments from preservationists that Seattleites shouldn’t have to buy a $22 museum ticket for a peek at the pachyderm.
The first victory in the elephant scuffle seems to have gone to the preservationists: The city Department of Construction and Inspections turned down Clise’s request for a simple permit Tuesday, bumping the application into the queue for full-blown demolition projects. A spokesperson did not immediately respond to a question about whether the department is considering submitting the elephant sign for landmark consideration.
The value of the property could fall if the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board rules the elephant sign must stay where it is, because developers would have to accommodate the sign in their plans, Hall acknowledged. Still, he said he hopes Clise doesn’t see it that way.
“It could be an asset. It’s a little funky. It’s a little outside the norm,” he said. “It’s not beautiful architecture, it’s a piece of classic Americana. It’s a visual oasis.”
Haney, who bought the now-14-franchise Elephant Car Wash chain from its founders in 1982, said he doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.
“We offered the sign to MOHAI. I chose to put it in a museum, where it belongs,” he said. “It’s a done dead deal.”