TODAY WE RETURN to you, dear readers, for help with one of our periodic puzzles. This one invokes the delights of childhood.
We speak of a 20-foot brick-and-metal monument that looks to be an elevated gyroscope, standing sentinel at the east end of Van Asselt Playground next to the mixed-income Seattle Housing Authority neighborhood of NewHolly (formerly Holly Park) in South Seattle.
In summer 2020, George Scarola, a friend and NewHolly resident, asked what I knew about this unmarked pillar. Off and on, through sporadic digging, I’ve learned some but not nearly enough.
From the invaluable, handwritten Don Sherwood research files at Seattle Parks comes its name — the French term “flambeau,” which Sherwood describes as “a flaming torch sundial that was common in the South: a gaslit smudge in the orchards and by whose light the children played.”
As verified only by a 1964 Seattle Times photo caption, it was sponsored by local garden clubs and built by the federal Works Progress Administration in 1940. Sherwood adds that it bore a lighted wick, and a paved area and fireplaces were part of its “pageantry.”
Which garden clubs? Who designed it? What did it cost? Why was it erected in Holly Park? Did it salute flight and next-door Boeing? Was it ever lit? And why does no plaque interpret it?
Larry Webb, a retired auto-service manager and pro-racecar driver from Covington, grew up in Holly Park starting as a first-grader in 1943. He and friends played hide-and-seek in nearby brush but never saw the flambeau lit. Once, he recalls, vandals wrested an adjacent softball backstop and hung it from the tower’s speared, rounded top.
Karen Spiel, a West Seattleite who retired this fall after 33-plus years at Seattle Public Library, grew up “a few skips away” from the monument in the 1960s.
“We used to call that thing ‘the sundial,’ ” she says. “We couldn’t figure out how it worked, but we had lots of weird kid games where the sundial was home base. Sometimes we would walk around and peer up at it, trying to figure out how it worked. We were sure that it could tell you the time, if we just knew how.
“When it got dark, we wanted to stay out as long as we could. We pretended that we couldn’t hear our moms calling us, but when Vern’s mom, whose house was closest, started calling Vern, we knew it was time to head home.”
Her wonderment continues today: “What a charming and mysterious thing it is!”
Readers, can you clear up any more of its mystery?