Seattle’s Elephant Car Wash to shutter, sign to be saved

SEATTLE (AP) – 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 surrounding a demolition permit for the site filed Wednesday.

The pink elephant sign – designed by Seattle’s “Queen of Neon,” Beatrice Haverfield – will be donated to the Museum of History and Industry 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, it “represented sophistication, a little bit of glamor,” MOHAI director Leonard Garfield told The Seattle Times. “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.

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 descendents will look back on and say, ‘These guys were thinking big picture about preserving our identity as a city,’” Banel said.

Other neon signs, notably the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s whirling globe, have been preserved in place by MOHAI and its partner-in-neon, Western Neon. The car wash sign, though, “cannot remain in its current location,” Garfield said. He declined to elaborate further.

Elephant Car Wash, which continues to operate 14 car wash locations around the Puget Sound region, was founded in 1951 by Dean, Archie and Eldon Anderson and sold to current owner Bob Haney in 1982.

In a statement, Haney cited crime, homelessness and drug use in and around the Battery Street location, as well as regulatory burdens imposed by the city, as the rationale for its closure.

Crime numbers in South Lake Union, though, have stayed flat over the past five years, according to the Seattle Police Department. Citywide, violent crimes and property crimes per 100,000 residents have fallen by more than half since 1990.

The company did not immediately respond to questions about its claim that crime has increased, the specific regulatory burdens it faces or whether its other Seattle location, in SODO, faces similar challenges.

The site, fronting a one-block stretch owned by Clise Properties along what is now formally renamed Borealis Avenue, rests in the middle of several in-progress high rise condominium towers and new Amazon office buildings.

The developer declined to comment on its plans for the car wash’s triangle-shaped parcel, one of the highest-value empty lots in the city. The 19,000-square-foot lot is appraised at nearly $20 million, or $1,050 per square foot, according to King County Assessor data.

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.

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