December 13

This Day in History

Automotive

Dec 13, 2003:

Seattle's Hat 'n' Boots finds a new home

On this day in 2003, Seattle preservationists load the city's iconic Hat 'n' Boots Tex Gas Station onto a tractor-trailer and drive it away from the spot where it had stood for almost 50 years. The hat, a 44-foot–wide Stetson, went first; the 22-foot–tall cowboy boots followed it one at a time. (The giant hat had always been mostly for show--it had perched atop the filling station's office, luring drivers off the highway. The boots, on the other had, were eminently functional: The left one housed the men's restroom and the right one housed the women's.) The buildings were famous examples of mid-century roadside Pop Art--eagle-eyed viewers can even see them in the opening credits of the film "National Lampoon's Vacation"--and the move, to a nearby park, saved them from demolition.

Developer Buford Seals intended the Hat 'n' Boots (built in 1955) to be the centerpiece of a gigantic shopping center that he called the Frontier Village. It sat alongside Route 99, the Pacific Northwest's major north-south highway, and Seals was confident that people would flock to his mall if only he could find a way to attract their attention. So, he hired artist Lewis H. Nasmyth to design the enormous structure, and the two men built it themselves out of steel beams, plaster and chicken wire. It cost $150,000, almost all the money Seals had. After the filling station was finished, he managed to scrape together enough cash to build the (ordinary-looking) Frontier Village Supermarket, but the mall's remaining 184 stores never materialized.

For a while, the gas station had better luck than either the shopping center or the supermarket, which quickly went out of business. In fact, for the first five years it was open, the Hat 'n' Boots sold more gasoline than any other station in Washington. Rumor has it that Elvis even pumped gas there! But the completion of the bigger, more modern Interstate 5 just a few miles away drained most of Route 99's traffic, and the Hat 'n' Boots became more of a tourist curiosity than anything else. It closed in 1988.

When they reached their new home in Oxbow Park, the disintegrating boots were restored almost immediately. In 2007, Seattle city officials paid $150,000 to revitalize the hat as well.

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