World-famous 'Up'-style house that became symbol of defiance is about to fall (UPDATED)

World-famous 'Up'-style house that became symbol of defiance is about to fall (UPDATED)
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Update, Friday, March 13: In the end, nobody bought Edith Macefield's house at auction. The price tag was just too much to bear. The starting bid was $216,270.70, according to Northwest Trustee Services, which conducted the auction at the King County Administration building on Friday. A buyer would also be saddled with additional debt to the tune of $185,956.04, bringing the home's total cost to nearly half a million dollars--for what is basically a boarded-up frame on a postage stamp of land. Macefield's original home was gutted, leaving very little. A rep for Ballard Blocks had said the developers would bid only if they could get the land for a commercially viable price.

Community members arrived to watch the action, or lack of action in this case, and a few tied balloons to the property's front fence.

The bank can still sell the property through a private sale. But whether through demolition or neglect, the little house is unlikely to survive much longer.

Edith Macefield in her beloved home. Courtesy of Barry Martin.
Edith Macefield in her beloved home. Courtesy of Barry Martin.

One of the world's most famous "holdout houses" went on the auction block this Friday, March 13. (See update above.)

You probably know the story: Developers offer to buy an elderly homeowner's rundown cottage for a cool million dollars — and they're flat rejected. The defiant homeowner stays put, winning the (maybe grudging) respect of construction workers even as they build a giant complex that looms over and dwarfs the little house.

Except this isn't Carl Fredericksen from Pixar's "Up." This was Edith Macefield's life in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood a few years back.

She never caved in. But now, seven years after her death, her little house almost certainly will.

The neighbors cleared out.
The neighbors cleared out.

Neighbors clear out

Macefield is legend in Ballard. And from there, she's become a legend the world over.

The neighborhood is a small, independent-minded fishing village across Salmon Bay from Seattle proper, annexed in 1907. Like Macefield, Ballard is a bit of a holdout, doing its best to maintain its character within the big city.

Change came anyway, and starting around 2000, dense condominiums and shopping centers began populating what had been largely a working-class neighborhood of single-family homes. Along with the development came an influx of Amazon employees and other tech-industry talent.

A view of the back of Macefield's house in 2006. Click any photo for a slideshow.
A view of the back of Macefield's house in 2006. Click any photo for a slideshow.

Most of Macefield's neighbors were really long gone by the time developers rolled around to clear out whatever was left. At that point, she was living in a dirt-and-gravel lot that was cleared out for the Ballard Blocks retail and office center. Eventually all that was left was just her little home, and a classic brick building with a retro red sign jutting out the top called Mike's Chili Parlor (which also still exists today).

[Click here or on a photo for a slideshow of the house, the neighborhood and Macefield herself.]

Developers offered her $1 million for her home. She stayed put. Even when they began noisily replacing her sky with five stories of gray, concrete walls on three sides of her property, sandwiching her between a Trader Joe's and an LA Fitness, she stood her ground.

Her reason was simple: She'd lived in the home 50 years. It was where her beloved mother died, and it held all her memories.

"I don't want to move. I don't need the money. Money doesn't mean anything," she told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2007, during the thick of it.

The 'Tough Old Woman in a Little Old House'

Maybe the home's ultimate fate now doesn't matter much. Macefield got what she wanted, to never leave. She died right there in 2008 at age 86.

Martin's first errand with Macefield in 2006: a hair appointment.
Martin's first errand with Macefield in 2006: a hair appointment.

She was able to stay partly because of the help of an unlikely friend: Barry Martin, the supervisor of the project that wanted to displace her — and the man to whom she left the house when she died.

He and other crew members got to know her during construction. She simply went about her business, tending her garden and fixing her ceramic animals in the windows. The workers took to looking after her.

"She would get up really early to feed the birds every day," Martin recalled to Yahoo Homes a few days ago. "And so if we ever didn't see birdseed out front by 10 a.m., we'd know to go check on her."

Martin began checking on her frequently, with or without birdseed out front. Eventually she asked him to take her to get her hair done.

"At first it was just a little bit of time, 20 minutes here or 20 minutes there, then it became 20 minutes every day, and then more," Martin said with a laugh.

[Click here or on a photo for a slideshow of the house, the neighborhood and Macefield herself.]

Like most everyone, he thought she was a bit of a nut at first, he wrote in his book, "Under One Roof: Lessons I Learned From a Tough Old Woman in a Little Old House."

Macefield as a young woman, playing the sax. Courtesy of Barry Martin.
Macefield as a young woman, playing the sax. Courtesy of Barry Martin.

As he came to know her, he was taken by Macefield and her story — make that stories, plural. Her showdown with developers was only the last and most publicized experience in a remarkable life. She had a vast musical collection, and she'd tell of playing clarinet with her cousin Benny Goodman and friends Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey. She could quote from classic books and speak multiple languages. Photos on her wall showed an early life lived overseas; she claimed to have worked as a spy in England until she was caught and sent to Dachau, the Nazis' first concentration camp in Germany. She said she escaped and ran an orphanage for war refugees.

It was all a little hard to believe. But Martin found proof — a letter from Benny Goodman referring to her as his cousin, portraits she made of big stars autographed, letters addressed from England — that supported at least some of her narrative.

At the end of her life, he was running errands for her, cooking her dinner so she didn't burn herself on the stove, taking her to the hospital and caring for her after a fall.

She could be difficult, because she was used to being left behind when the going got tough. Sometimes she'd test Martin to see if he too would leave her.

But he was just as stubborn as she, and he never stopped caring for her.

"All she wanted to do was live and die in her house, and that seems like a pretty simple request. And all she really needed was some help using her hands and being on her feet," he says.

A symbol and a rallying cry

Macefield's story inevitably caught the attention of local media, and then national media. Soon reporters were knocking on her door, a nuisance the private woman didn't understand and didn't like. (In fact, she probably would have hated this article and all the articles that came before it.)

When Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Kathy Mulady asked for an interview, Macefield hung up on her. (Macefield eventually did consent to an interview with Mulady. Mulady also wrote Macefield's obituary.)

Michael Stephens' tattoo of Edith Macefield's house. Click any photo for a slideshow.
Michael Stephens' tattoo of Edith Macefield's house. Click any photo for a slideshow.

"She didn't understand all the attention," Martin says. "She was just living in her house, like she always had."

Far beyond a mere news story, she and her house have become an enduring symbol — a rallying cry, even. Two dozen or so people are known to have tattoos of her house, some with the word "steadfast" underneath. A drink was named after her at the Hazlewood cocktail bar. A Macefield Music Festival attracts about 3,000 people a year.

"I don't know what she'd think of the festival," says co-founder Leigh Bezezekoff, a Ballard resident, laughing. "She was very private. I don't know if she'd like it."

Near the end of her life and with no family left, Macefield named Martin her sole heir, bequeathing him the home he was effectively supposed to destroy, telling him "just make sure you get your price," he says.

He nearly sold it to the Ballard Blocks developers a few years later but got a last-minute offer from a motivational company called Reach Returns that planned to keep the home — at least the exterior — for a project called Credo Square.

A sketch of the Credo Square vision.
A sketch of the Credo Square vision.

The plan would have elevated the home to the height of Ballard Blocks, creating open space beneath it where people could buy tiles to write their own credos on, according to the Seattle P-I.

The new owners started work but were never able to get the financing together to get the project off the ground. They defaulted on their loans and the home went into foreclosure, the P-I said.

Maybe it's just as well.

"They had changed the whole inside," Martin says. "All the studs, all the siding, where the stairway was, the upstairs. They were real happy about it and proud of it and I didn't really want to tell them I was really disappointed. They were trying to sell it as if it was Edith's place, but the only thing that was Edith's is the roofing."

What's left is just a frame, really, and weeds tear through her garden.

"It's a boarded-up shack now," says Michael Stephens, who didn't know Macefield personally, but has one of the tattoos on her forearm. "It's really sad to see."

A teetering future

It's unlikely the home will be resuscitated. The home is effectively worthless, and may carry some legal problems from its last buyer.

Macefield's house is just a boarded-up shell now.
Macefield's house is just a boarded-up shell now.

Eat Ballard, a local group representing the many restaurants, bars and cafes dotting the community, has created a fundraiser, largely hoping to get the attention of an individual donor willing to put the money up for it.

So her home may fall at last.

But Macefield's story will live on.

"Very few people stand their ground," Stephens says. "Ballard is very much that kind of community that would honor her. It really hits home for us."

Though the people living in Ballard have taken up her cause, the truth is, Macefield didn't really have one. She didn't hate Ballard Blocks and she wasn't trying to be a hero. She simply didn't want to leave.

"Her story is one of those things where it's really whatever anybody wants it to be, in a way," Martin says. "Some people still believe that she was doing it to stand up against the man, and that really wasn't it. She decided what it was she wanted to do and stuck to her guns, and that part to me makes sense. That's what I relate to."

Or as Stephens puts it, "Edith stood for keeping things intact."

Click here or on a photo for a slideshow of Edith Macefield and her legendary "Up"-style house.

[Editor's note: This story, which was originally published on March 10, 2015, was updated on Friday, March 13, to reflect the auction results, which are also noted at the top.]

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