De Libertas Quirkas: Seattle’s Fremont District


The mock Latin phrase De Libertas Quirkas, unofficial motto of Fremont and proudly encouraged on the side of The Rocket, roughly translates into “Free to be Strange.” No other place in Seattle can make that boast when Fremont has a statue of Lenin, a troll under the bridge, the Solstice Parade led by nude, painted bike riders and a sign that proclaims Fremont as the Center of the Universe. This is the People’s Republic (or People’s Soviet) of Fremont, as some would have it. To continue what we started last week with Pike Place Market, my wife and I decided to explore another of Seattle’s neighborhoods. We’d driven through Fremont many times, even stopped to eat at a restaurant or two, but never spent a half day just walking around and appreciating all the examples of its quirkiness. And there are many.

It has finally started to rain in earnest around here, but the forecast for today was partially sunny skies (high of 76o) with a 10% chance of precipitation. Fair enough for us to venture out without bumbershoots. As it turned out, the sun didn’t break through until the afternoon.

To avoid the frustration of finding parking spaces in Fremont which is largely RPZ-zoned or limited to two hours, we simply parked our car on the other side of the Fremont Bridge. This gave us the perfect opportunity to walk across the bridge, arguably the neighborhood’s most distinctive feature.

Painted in blue and orange, but now fading, and spanning the Lake Washington Ship Canal, the bridge is a double-leaf draw bridge (bascule) that operates frequently throughout the day to allow passage of high-clearance boats that are on their way to or returning from Puget Sound. It is the most opened bridge in the country, as many as 35 times a day. As if to emphasize this point, we were immediately stopped in our tracks, warning bells pealing, when we were ready to walk across. When the bridge drew down a few minutes later, an amazing number of bicyclists crossed the pedestrian and bike lane in both directions. At the northern end, we noticed high up on the two towers neon sculptures of Rapunzel on the west side and Kipling’s Elephant Child on the east (how the elephant got its trunk), which are best observed when lit up at night. Fremont Bridge is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Fremont Bridge's southern leaf drawn up

Fremont Bridge’s southern leaf drawn up

Bicyclists crossing after closing the bridge

Bicyclists crossing after closing the bridge

Rapunzel neon sculpture

Rapunzel neon sculpture

Kipling's Elephant Child neon sculpture

Kipling’s Elephant Child neon sculpture

Not having had breakfast, our first order of business was coffee and rolls, which we had at Milstead & Co., almost under the Aurora Bridge on N 34th St. Their plunger coffee (☆☆☆) was very good though a bit sour, their latte (☆☆☆½) better except for being served cooler than my wife preferred. The latté art was as good as anything we’d seen in New Zealand. While tasty, their savory rolls (ham & cheese, turkey & cheddar) were served cold (☆☆½). One of the bonuses of drinking your coffee in the outdoor area is a display of some of the original gears used by the Fremont Bridge as well as the entrance to the History House of Greater Seattle, which hadn’t yet opened as we were enjoying our refreshments.

Latte

Latte at Milstead & Co.

Ham and cheese croissant

Ham and cheese croissant

Original gears used by the Fremont Bridge

Original gears used by the Fremont Bridge

In front of Adobe Systems, across the street from the coffee shop, a metal sculpture called Late for the Interurban immortalizes Seattle’s most famous clown, J. P. Patches, and his TV show sidekick Gertrude. The sculpture is one of many pieces of public art in Fremont.

Late for the Interurban: J. P. Patches and Gertrude

Late for the Interurban: J. P. Patches and Gertrude

If you don’t think trolls lurk under bridges, think again. Another public art project, The Troll was sculpted in 1990 by four artists. The troll appears to have snatched a VW Beetle from the Aurora Bridge (part of WA Highway 99) above him before being turned to stone. It is located where the roadway of the immense bridge that arches over the Ship Canal touches land on its northern end, and is not easily stumbled upon through casual exploring. On either side are stairs that lead up to the highway across which we walked part way to get a nice view of Lake Union to the east.

The Troll under the Aurora Bridge

The Troll under the Aurora Bridge

View of Lake Union from the east side of Aurora Bridge

View of Lake Union from the east side of Aurora Bridge

Walking back down Troll Avenue, named in honor of the sculpture, we were impressed by the size and engineering achievement of the highway above, mounted on huge pillars, and some examples of nice houseboats. One such houseboat on the eastern shore of Lake Union was made famous in Sleepless in Seattle.

Aurora Bridge towers over Troll Avenue

Aurora Bridge towers over Troll Avenue

Three-story houseboat

Three-story houseboat

At the edge of the Lake Washington Ship Canal is part of the Burke-Gilman Trail, a multi-use recreational trail that stretches for 27 miles from Seattle to the Eastside. A mere few steps west of the Aurora Bridge crossover is another sculpture, this one of Sri Chinmoy who taught meditation in the West and was followed by several high-profile entertainers and athletes.

Statue of Sri Chinmoy along Burke-Gilman Trail

Statue of Sri Chinmoy along Burke-Gilman Trail

Further along on the trail, we witnessed the Fremont Bridge being raised again as a barge glided through the canal toward Lake Union.

Fremont Bridge fully open

Fremont Bridge fully open

Where the Burke-Gilman Trail intersects Phinney Ave N are topiaries of a mother dinosaur and her baby, moved from its original spot at Seattle Center, another example of public art.

Dinosaur mom and her baby

Dinosaur mom and her baby

Continuing north, we came across the Bogart and Bergman Mural along a brick wall of a building on the southwest corner of Phinney and N 35th. The posterized images of the two stars of “Casablanca” are on either side of a white “screen” where free movies are shown on Saturday summer nights. Movie buffs attending Fremont Outdoor Movies bring their own chairs (or even sofas) and feel free to dress appropriate to the film. Across the street is Theo Chocolate where delicious organic, free-trade chocolate bars, caramels, ganaches and even cocoa nibs are made and sold. At one time free-of-charge, the one-hour, reservation-required factory tour now costs $7 but includes quite a bit of sampling. The retail store used to have lots of free samples, but freebies appear to be much more restricted nowadays.

Mural of Humphrey Bogart

Mural of Humphrey Bogart

Theo Chocolate building

Theo Chocolate building

After lunch at Revel and a quick pint at Brouwer’s, we wandered over to The Rocket, another landmark in Fremont. The full (and humorous) story of its acquisition and installation can be read on the so-called hysterical marker, one of many interpretive signs throughout the neighborhood that colorfully explain bits of Fremont history, art and legend. The gist of the story is that in 1991 members of the Fremont Business Association wanted a monument and found one, a circa-1950 rocket that was taken down from a hardware store in Belltown and headed for the scrap yard. Attempts to put up the monument failed because of engineering difficulties but was later successfully installed, complete with news fins, nose cone, electronic gear and other details in 1994, in time for the Summer Solstice and no less than the Liberation of Fremont.

The Rocket emblazoned with De Libertas Quirkas

The Rocket emblazoned with De Libertas Quirkas

Early scene taken from the hysterical marker

Early scene photographed from the hysterical marker

A block south of here, rising high above the street was what looks like a small replica of the neon Rainier Brewery sign that used to tower above its old location right off I-5. In fact, the original sign is now part of the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) collection. The brewery, whose humorous TV commercials were legendary around here, was shut down in 1999 after being acquired by Pabst, a familiar enough business strategy.

Replica of the historic Rainier Brewery sign

Replica of the historic Rainier Brewery sign

The most controversial attraction in Fremont is the 16-foot bronze statue of Russian Bolshevik revolutionary, V. I. Lenin, purchased by an American English teacher who taught in Czechoslovakia and purchased the statue where, after the fall of communism, it was laying in a scrap yard. It was eventually shipped to the U.S. and found its semi-permanent home at the corner of Evanston Avenue N and N 36th Street. The doctor’s estate is willing to sell it for $250,000. For now, it is a famous and imposing presence in Fremont.

Statue of Lenin

Statue of Lenin

At the intersection of Fremont Ave and N 35th St is the documented center of the universe, marked by a sign that gives distances to other locations, locally, around the world and galactically.

Center of the Universe sign

Center of the Universe sign

The final work of public art we looked at before going home was Waiting for the Interurban, a cast aluminum sculpture of five people and a dog, waiting for public transportation under a bus shelter on a triangle at N 34th St, just off Fremont Ave. It is often decorated by the locals and those sympathetic to long bus waits.

Waiting for the Interurban sculpture

Waiting for the Interurban sculpture

Fremont is really a fun place to explore, a place that seems to attract all manner of counter-culture residents and businesses who have a tongue-in-cheek approach to life and the universe of which it is the acknowledged center. Centrum mundi.

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