WHO DOESN’T LOVE a maple tree? One stood tall and lush in our front yard when I was a child. Its leaves grew to be enormous and green, then yellow and brilliant autumn orange, their sturdy stems becoming curled handles to pick up and twirl. Combing the woods across the street for trees to climb, we kids gravitated to maples. Big branches. No sticky pitch.
Such notably Northwest nuances underlie the fondness bred in residents of Seattle’s Maple Leaf neighborhood, especially for its sizable symbol: the water tower and now-empty (!) tank at the southeast corner of Northeast 88th Street and Roosevelt Way.
Erected in 1949 to replace two smaller ones built about 1915, the tank was painted by the city in 1986 with a pleasing pattern of interlocking white maple leaves on a sky-blue background. The adornment followed a national distinction secured by Mayor Charles Royer: the naming of Maple Leaf as Neighborhood of the Year over 2,000 other contestants by Nashville-based Neighborhoods USA.
The Seattle Times editorially saluted the honor, appropriating the melody of “Seattle,” the Perry Como hit, with substitute lyrics that included, “full of houses, full of trees / full of homespun families / and an absence of yuppies … ”
Certainly “yuppies,” a term emerging in the 1980s, were scarce when our “Then” photo was taken, not long after 1949, and looking southeast toward the tank as it presided over an enormous, open-air, ground-level reservoir completed in 1910. The image evinces a nearly rural air, with scattered structures and byway businesses offering garden supplies and gasoline, supplemented by a low billboard for General Tire downtown.
In fact, one could — and still can — stand near the foot of the tank and see downtown, for Maple Leaf, at 446 feet above sea level, is essentially tied with Queen Anne as the third-highest hill in Seattle.
The neighborhood’s boundaries, distinct on the sides (Interstate 5 and Lake City Way), are fuzzier south to north (roughly from Northeast 80th to Northgate). But its soul is singular, says Donna Hartmann-Miller, who worked at legendarily friendly Maple Leaf Hardware and for 10 years led the local community council’s shaping of the modern, 16-acre Maple Leaf Reservoir Park, a $55 million project dedicated in 2013 that included covering of the reservoir.
Meanwhile, worried that the tank — which held 8 million pounds of water 100 feet aloft — would falter in an earthquake, Seattle drained it in 2009. Today, a nearby antenna tower generates city revenue.
Anything but empty is the tank’s imposing civic appeal. “It’s balanced and symmetrical — it’s Americana,” Hartmann-Miller says. “Everybody talks about it with affection.”
Just like, perhaps, a maple leaf.