Ballard's Macefield house: A lot of symbolism for a little house

Ballard's Macefield house: A lot of symbolism for a little house
The Macefield House, which is currently under construction. Image: Josh Lewis, KOMO News.

The way the story is told, it's no surprise that the little house wedged between a Trader Joe's and an LA Fitness inspired a children's film.

A little old lady refusing to sell her home amid rapid growth and development to make room for new construction -- not even for a literal million dollars -- forcing the big, bad developers to build their mini-mall around her 100-year-old house.

But, 86-year-old Edith Macefield wasn't necessarily taking a stand when she continued to live in the now-iconic house. In fact, according to a new memoir about her, the house and what became of it, she was in favor of progress. 

In 2006, Macefield, whose Ballard home was used as partial inspiration for the 2009 Pixar film "Up," famously refused to sell, in spite of the fact that the adjacent property was all slated to be developed. The developers offered her prices well above market value, eventually ending with an offer of $1 million. When she wouldn't budge, they simply began to build around her, constructing what is now the Ballard Blocks on three sides of her 1900s-era farmhouse.

During the construction, Macefield made an unlikely friend: the new building's construction superintendent, Barry Martin. Martin's forthcoming book, "Under One Roof: Lessons I Learned from a Tough Old Woman in a Little Old House," details  the pair's friendship and, ultimately, the fate of Macefield and the house.

If the Macefield story really were the stuff of fairytales, Martin would have been a shady conman, trying to grift an old woman out of her land for his own greedy purposes. And sure enough, plenty of people saw him that way.

"Because Edith's (house) was the last standing on her block, people saw her as a symbol, a force against 'yuppification,' against the over development of old neighborhoods with character and charm," writes Martin. "I was the man bringing in change; she was the woman who wanted things to stay the same."

But,  those who actually talk to Martin or knew him during those years know that's not the way it went.

Instead, Martin spent two years nursing the elderly Macefield, whose health was declining. During the construction, he fed her, stayed long nights with her, listened to her sometimes-unbelievable stories about being a spy in World War II, about escaping from a concentration camp, about hobnobbing with Jean Harlow and Charlie Chaplin. He cleaned her house, bathed her, took her to doctor's appointments, ran her errands.

For those two years, Edith Macefield's health and well-being became one of the biggest driving forces in his life.

Martin says he was initially just being neighborly and checking on the woman who was living in the middle of his construction site. 

"It was simple stuff in the beginning," he says. "It wasn’t anything. She asked me to take her to get her hair done...and then, you know, I would stop over and visit with her."

But, he soon realized Macefield, who lived alone, needed additional assistance.

"One day I stopped over after work, and her [oven] buzzer goes off, and her dinner’s ready in the oven," he says. "I put my hand on the top of the stove, which is as hot as the inside because this oven is from 1950. So, then I tried to talk her into getting a microwave because I thought that that would be better for her...but that didn’t work."

It was one of the biggest lessons Martin would learn and one of the truest parts of the tall tales about Edith Macefield: No one could talk her into anything: not getting a microwave, not getting professional in-home care, and certainly not moving. 

Another lesson Martin learned about Macefield was that -- contrary to popular belief -- she wasn't actually antiprogress at all. She simply thought she was too old to move and knew all the money in the world wouldn't be worth it to leave the house where her mother had died and where she wanted to die. Moving, says Martin, was just "too much work."

During one of their earliest conversations, Macefield sniffed at the idea of getting the now-gone Ballard Denny's on the historical registry.

"Historical status for a Denny's? It's ridiculous," Martin recounts Macefield saying in his book, "Change is change. It happens. You need to learn to live with it."

Still, Macefield is a folk hero in Ballard.

Walk into any bar on Market Street, and you may run into someone with a tattoo of the little house, a symbol of dedication to tradition and principals. She's the subject of the first chapter of a new documentary presented by Caffe Vita called "Steadfast," which even includes interviews with Martin. And, the neighborhood's long-standing Reverb music festival, which lost its major sponsor and was taken over by area influencers like Hazelwood owner Drew Church and KEXP DJ Hannah Levin, will be reborn this weekend as the Macefield Music Festival

The story doesn't have the kind of ending that most Seattleites would want, though. Macefield, who had become dependent on Martin, gave him power of attorney and ensured that he would take possession of the house when she died. Following Macefield's death in 2008, the house did go to Martin, who was also charged with sorting through her belongings.

That's how he came to find Macefield's books, as well as books of autographs and letters, confirming her stories about her many famous friends, which he'd never really been convinced were true. But, he says that was typical; she really didn't care who believed her or who didn't. 

"As close as Edith and I became, she never owed me an explanation for anything," Martin writes. "Like it mattered to her whether or not I believed her...that's just not Edith."

Martin ultimately sold to a real estate coaching firm that has tentative plans to utilize the house while also leaving it as a landmark.  The house sold for just $310,000 -- far short of the $1 million Macefield was offered -- and has been under construction for more than a year.

In the end, plenty of people still aren't convinced Martin befriended Macefield because it was in her best interest. 

"People still think I did it for the money," he says. "But, they're going believe what they want to believe, and it doesn’t really matter."

And, that's not the only thing Martin says people still get wrong about Macefield's story.

"A lot of people still think she did it to stand up against the man," he says. "But, the only reason she wasn’t moving was because she had no where else to go. Money didn’t mean anything. She didn’t have a family. In the end, she didn't really have anybody. She had me, I guess."

And, what about the construction and the plans to develop the house? Would Macefield have been upset that Martin sold the house and allowed it to be remodeled?

"Edith wouldn’t care," he says, "And, as long as I feel that I’m staying true to Edith I don’t have any second thoughts." 

Barry Martin's book, "Under One Roof," will be published Oct. 5.