It might be premature to say, as one West Seattle booster did, that the Bicentennial Tower, the centerpiece of the much-lamented Walker Rock Garden, has been “saved.” But on St. Patrick’s Day, facing eviction once again, it got a second reprieve and a temporary berth, on the way to an eventual re-erection and restoration on a to-be-determined permanent site.
The original rock garden is a gem of local heritage and outsider art and an intricate, sprawling fantasia of arches, walls, and stairstep pathways in agate, quartz, river rock, colored glass, and untold other minerals. The garden was the life’s work of an unlikely visionary artist, a bantam-size Boeing machinist named Milton Walker, and his wife, Florence.
For decades neighbors and cognoscenti delighted in its Gaudíesque splendors, tucked behind their cottage on a quiet side street. But after they and their children passed away, it languished out of view and got attacked by weeds, though most of Walker’s masonry work, including the tower, proved remarkably resilient.
Finally, without fanfare, a granddaughter who’d acquired full ownership sold one of the rock garden’s two lots to a developer. On June 2, 2021, the backhoes started smashing at the sturdy but not indestructible rockwork and pulverizing the delicate mosaics. A neighbor across the street, John Osborne, begged the demolition crew to let him have the tower and sealed the deal with a case of beer.
I persuaded the crew to half-haul, half-drag the tower over to his curb strip, where it sat until Friday. (For an account of the rock garden’s improbable history, the unsuccessful attempts to preserve it, the partial demolition, and the tower’s narrow escape, see my earlier story, “Goodbye, Walker Rock Garden. Another Treasure We Failed to Save.”)
Osborne intended to erect the tower by his curb, but life took a different turn and the time came to sell his house; a prostrate structure bristling with glass and rebar would not be a good staging element. I agreed to take it to my garden but thought it better that West Seattle’s gem stay in West Seattle, where the public could enjoy it and it could bear witness to what has been lost through neglect.
I cast about for a new site, but the most promising host, the prominently located Highland Park Improvement Club, was working to rebuild after a fire and couldn’t take on another project just yet. Still it seemed suitable: Highland Park is an emerging mecca for artists priced out of districts to the north.
Moving the tower—estimated weight, two tons—was the other challenge, but the right guy for the task appeared on the scene: Mike Shaughnessy, an antiques dealer, preservationist, Southwest Seattle Historical Society board member, and man of many talents, among them heavy-equipment operation. He located two other exciting prospective sites: the Heron’s Nest, a community education and gathering center taking shape above the Duwamish Tribal Longhouse, and Rivercity Skatepark in South Park, an artwork in itself. And he found the perfect concrete-and-rebar masters to execute a new installation: West Seattle’s own Grindline Skateparks, which designs and builds skateparks across the country,
But the deadline caught up before any installation could be arranged. Shaughnessy arranged with the Port of Seattle to store the Bicentennial Tower on one of its harborfront lots beside the Stone Cottage, another West Seattle landmark saved from the wreckers and now awaiting restoration.
On Friday morning, shortly before Osborne’s open house was to start, we assembled at the curb strip, along with a Grindline rep and Shaughnessy’s stalwart colleagues Todd Hewitt and Tim Jones. They strapped up the tower, and Shaughnessy, steering a six-ton forklift supplied by Pacific Rim Equipment Rental, painstakingly lifted it onto Hewitt’s flatbed. We loaded the tower’s severed but intact top arches and other salvaged scraps onto Jones’s old Ford 100 and had the whole works safely delivered by lunchtime, without a rock lost.
This is just a temporary berth. A warning: other local landmarks, the schooner Wawona and ferries Kalakala and San Mateo, rotted away awaiting restoration. But the boats were wood soaking in water; Milton Walker’s bejeweled tower is much sturdier stuff. There’s no doubt it could stand proudly again. With the revived attention this little emergency has brought, there’s more prospect that it will find a home—and perhaps that it won’t stand alone.
At the bottom of the old rock garden and in its northern half, behind the old Walker family house, a surprising amount of rockwork still stands. The builder of the new house even incorporated one rocked-up arch as a gateway in his landscaping, to the delight of the current resident. A big piece of what remains—a sprawling model of the Cascade Mountains in volcanic rock and cement—is too fragile and weed-eaten to restore, much less move.
The elaborate, ingenious pond complex and stairways below the mountains may not be moveable in toto, but some splendid pieces at least could be salvaged. The wide-winged, brilliantly colored “butterfly wall” farther down could probably be moved intact, with the right access and equipment. Sensitively arranged at a spacious site like the Heron’s Nest, these pieces might conjure up the old garden’s enveloping magic.
Access is the trick. The dividing of the lots and construction of a new house cut off earth-mover access from the street, staving off demolition but also hindering removal. To get to the garden from below entails crossing a blackberry-jungle greenbelt, a City Light utility corridor, and Seattle Schools back yard—not impossible, perhaps, but certainly requiring diplomacy.
On the hopeful side, Friday’s smooth move makes further salvage seem more likely. And just as with the original, that salvage operation has stirred up new attention and enthusiasm for the Save (some of) the Rock Garden cause. Stay tuned for more developments—and, inevitably, fundraising.
Hope so. I’ll be watching … thank you for the excellent reporting.
An update, from the author: Mike Shaughnessy just created a “Walker Rock Tower” Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/people/Walker-Rock-Tower/100089880914167/?mibextid=LQQJ4d