9 Cool and Quirky Places in Seattle
Traveling far and wide remains unadvisable right now, which makes it a good time to explore the nooks and crannies of a nearby neighborhood or city.
If you’ve hit many of the iconic landmarks in Seattle, check out these nine lesser-known, offbeat attractions that may offer you a great excuse to get in the car and get outside.
Because of COVID-19, please take recommended health precautions, maintain physical distancing, and check before you go to ensure attractions are open.
1. Greenwood Pencil Box
A collaboration and funding source for two local non-profits serving youth and young adults (the Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas and Sanctuary Art Center), the Greenwood Pencil Box shop (8414 Greenwood Ave. N.) entices passersby with a 3D street sign evoking the tip of a sharpened pencil and a shop filled with art-making materials, gifts and writing gear, including gourmet (scented) pencils and every color of fine-tipped art pen.
A “Story Wall” in the front window invites passersby to add to an ongoing story by typing a few lines on a bright-red IBM Selectric typewriter. Fans of the former Greenwood Space Supply Co. will be pleased to know that the “Atomic Teleporter” is now a 22-foot-tall rotating pencil that serves as the doorway to the workshop space.
2. Retired Air Raid Tower
In the early 1950s, with the Cold War and fears of nuclear attacks in the news, Seattle joined other cities in installing air-raid systems to warn citizens of impending danger. Most of those sirens have been scrapped, but you can spot one, now painted bright yellow, on top of a 45-foot tower at the center of tiny Heart of Phinney Park, next to the Phinney Center in Greenwood (6532 Phinney Ave. N.). The five-horsepower siren dubbed “Big Bertha” was tested for five minutes each Wednesday at noon up until the early 1970s but is now the silent centerpiece of a pocket park that also has stone benches as well as several tables for playing chess with loaner chess sets from the neighborhood center.
3. Whirligigs at an Electrical Substation
Back in the 1970s, architects invited artists to add color and whimsical touches to the transformers at the Viewland-Hoffman Electrical Substation in North Seattle (Fremont Avenue North and North 105th Street). As part of their efforts, the artists purchased and installed 27 whirligigs made by Emil and Stella Gehrke. The Grand Coulee, Washington, couple were known for making fanciful kinetic folk-art creations with other people’s castoffs, including everything from old washing machine parts to broken toys, cups, saucers and frying pans. These delightful examples of their handiwork spin inside a protective walk-through cage in the park at this North Seattle substation. (More than 100 of the Gehrkes’ turning, whirling treasures are also on display at Gehrke Windmill Gardens at North Dam Park in Grand Coulee, Washington.)
4. Giant Shoe Museum
The Giant Shoe Museum in the “down under” level of Seattle’s Pike Place Market (next to Old Seattle Paperworks) is dedicated to the preservation and celebration of outside and oversized footwear. Displays include everything from a 4-foot-long giant lace-up boot displayed at the 1893 Chicago Exposition to “The Colossus,” a 150-pound, 5-foot-long black leather wingtip from the 1920s, and a size 37AA shoe once worn by Robert Wadlow, who reportedly once visited Seattle and was famous for being the world’s tallest man. Shoes are displayed with circus sideshow graphics on one wall, behind curtained windows or brass eyepieces. Quarters open the curtains or turn on lights to offer quick peeks at the fancy footwear.
5. Pilling’s Pond Duck Sanctuary
Pilling’s Pond, a nationally known urban waterfowl reserve in the Licton Springs neighborhood, traces its roots to the mid-1920s, when a young Chuck Pilling dug a hole on his family’s dairy farm, tapped into water from nearby Licton Springs, and created a home for three ducks. Pilling grew up to be a waterfowl expert and was the first to breed several duck species in captivity. He also expanded that childhood duck pond into a half-acre oasis for waterfowl. Today, visitors look through a wire fence to see happy wild, semi-wild and resident ducks paddling around Pilling’s Pond. A large wooden sign on North 90th Street, between Densmore Avenue North and Ashworth Avenue North, tells the story of the reserve that is now surrounded by, and much-loved by, the neighborhood.
6. Art Collection at King County International Airport
Before Seattle–Tacoma International Airport (SEA) was built, in the late 1940s, King County International Airport (BFI), also known as Boeing Field, was city’s main airport. Today, it is a busy general aviation airport with a small parklike observation area outside the 1930 terminal building that was restored in 2003. Inside, you will find historic photo exhibits and a wonderful, building-wide art collection that celebrates the magic and wonder of flying and the region’s ties to aviation history. The art is on the walls and on the floor: astronomical objects in the terminal’s sparkling, dark blue terrazzo floor lead from North America (at the front door) to the Moon (at the ticket counter) in Paul Marioni and Ann Troutner’s piece, “Our Place in Space.” The airport is located at 7277 Perimeter Road S.
7. Rubber Chicken Museum
The Archie McPhee store in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood (1300 N. 45th St.) is always a popular spot for those seeking offbeat candies, kooky costumes, wacky toys, odd gadgets, and novelty items. But the Rubber Chicken Museum (admission: free) at the rear of the store makes this destination entertaining and educational.
Some 200 bright-yellow examples of rubber chickens are on display, including a glow-in-the-dark rubber chicken and a historical progression of rubber chickens that squeak, squawk or remain silent. The museum includes a 7-foot-tall rubber chicken that may be the world’s tallest and, at about a centimeter, what is certainly the world’s smallest rubber chicken, viewable through a magnifying glass.
8. Dunn Gardens
According to the Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks, the famed Olmsted Brothers firm designed 37 public parks, playgrounds and boulevards in Seattle, including Green Lake, Woodland, Volunteer and Seward parks. The team also took private garden commissions from wealthy patrons in Seattle and other Washington cities. And one of those projects, Dunn Gardens, is today the state’s only Olmsted Brothers estate garden regularly open to the public.
This project was commissioned in 1915 and planned to be a summer retreat for Arthur G. Dunn, who made his fortune in the fish canning industry. Over a century the garden has grown and changed, but it retains the core of the original design and has more than 60 heritage trees on the property. Self-guided or docent-led tours of the 7.5-acre property at 13533 Northshire Road NW are available. (Admission: $10 for non-members)
9. Fishermen’s Memorial
Seattle’s maritime history and its important role in the region’s economy goes back more than 100 years, with Fishermen’s Terminal (3919 18th Ave. W.) serving as homeport for the North Pacific Fishing Fleet. The Seattle Fishermen’s Memorial, between docks 7 and 8, honors the fishermen and fisherwomen who have been lost at sea.
Designed by Seattle sculptor Ron Petty, the sculpture depicts a fisherman standing on top of a column hauling in a fish, with a band at the base of life-sized bronze fish and shellfish. Flanking the column are two low granite walls with bronze plates inscribed with the names of local commercial fishers who have lost their lives at sea, dating back to 1900. A dedication is held each year on the first Sunday in May, but you will see notes, flowers, pictures and other memorial items left here year-round.
–Written by Harriet Baskas as part of her research for a Seattle guide for locals and visitors alike.