An Expedition into the Realms of Utopia
It began as what a 1909 article in The Seattle Times describes as "an expedition into the realms of Utopia ... a colony of artists, appreciators and patrons of art and in general all of those who appreciate something more than money and have a liking for the companionship of those who share their likings" ("An Art Colony..."). In the heady and optimistic early twentieth century, utopian colonies weren't shocking, but an art colony was something new. It was the brainchild of the Northwest Beaux Arts Society, a society established to develop art appreciation in the Northwest -- not just for traditional art, but for everyday items such as a table, a cabinet, or a house, which could be made "into a thing of beauty, as well as a thing of common utility" ("An Art Colony").
The society started an art school in 1908 in the old University Building in downtown Seattle (today the site of the Fairmont Olympic Hotel) and named it the Western Academy of Beaux Arts. Two months later, in November 1908, the Western Academy of Beaux Arts (WABA) was formally incorporated by Frank Calvert, president of the academy (and an artist on staff at The Seattle Times), Alfred Renfro, and noted sculptor Finn Frolich (1868-1947), who would serve as director of sculpture at Seattle's Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition the following year. The Western Academy of Beaux Arts would go on to become the heart of Beaux Arts Village.
Becoming a Village
But the society had a broader vision than just a school. Members wanted to start an art colony where they could live and work together. There was some urgency to the idea: The University Building was scheduled for demolition (which took place in 1910), and the society needed a new home. Thus was born Beaux Arts Village in the summer of 1909. It consisted of 50 acres of prime real estate nestled in cedar and fir trees on the eastern shore of Lake Washington just south of the Bellevue community. In the center of the 50 acres a 10-acre tract known as Atelier Square was reserved for the Beaux Arts Academy, a clubhouse, a tennis court, workshops, and other community buildings. The town adopted a classic arts and crafts house design as the layout for the 10-acre commons and the motif still appears on village signs today.
The remaining 40 acres were divided into lots ranging in size from a quarter to a third of an acre and priced between $200 and $1,000 (equivalent to $5,151 and $25,755 in 2016). Building restrictions included a requirement that houses be of an artistic design. They didn't have to be huge and expensive (and many of the village's early residents took that to heart), but they did have to be creative. A wharf on the shoreline (with an attractive Beaux-Artsesque shelter) provided a handy stopping point for ferries into Seattle (community promoters bragged you could leave your home and be in downtown Seattle in 40 minutes). A private, 1,100-foot beach was established for the benefit of all Beaux Arts villagers.
Though lots themselves sold fairly quickly, many people didn't move to Beaux Arts Village right away, because there wasn't much there. If you needed water you brought it up from the lake in a bucket. There was no electricity, and there were no phones -- messages from Seattle were carried to Leschi and delivered to the village by boat. The nearest grocery store was in Midlakes (the area near what today is NE 8th just east of Interstate 405 in Bellevue), or you could buy groceries once a week when the "grocery scow" docked at the wharf. That began to change before long. Beaux Arts Village got its first school in 1911 and a bigger one in 1913. The village got a post office in 1913, and by that year the community also had a water system in operation. Electricity arrived in 1917 and telephone service in 1921.
A Bit of a Scandal
By the mid-1910s 15 property owners and their families lived in Beaux Arts Village. Another 63 owned title to lots but didn't live there, and some absentee owners rented their homes to others. One of these renters was Ralph DeBit (or Debitt) (1883-1964). DeBit was a unique character who brought considerable, and unwelcome, attention to the little village in the mid teens. In 1914 he began giving sermons on Christian Yoga in Seattle, and in June 1915 he and others filed articles of incorporation in the name of the American Council of Christian Yoga, an organization formed, in its words, "to reveal man's relation to God and to bring humanity to a realization of its own divinity" ("Incorporation Articles"). The organization's goals included "Burbanking" souls, an action described by DeBit as a mental process in which bitter experiences were transformed into pleasant ones, and the organization planned to headquarter a small college for this purpose in Beaux Arts Village. This did not go over well with the villagers. In those days Yoga was a suspect practice, and allegations of nude swimming by its disciples only fueled the scandal.
But DeBit had a bigger problem. In the summer of 1915 he was charged by the state with a "statutory offense" -- contemporary press accounts are vague and don't provide more specifics -- for an affair he was having with a married woman who was in the process of getting divorced. He and his mistress were acquitted that October, but this didn't solve the problem of his presence in the village. The locals wanted him out but he stuck around, though his college never happened. Presumably he could have been evicted since he was a renter, but it apparently wasn't that easy. In August 1917 the village trustees finally obtained an injunction against him that barred him from Beaux Arts Village, on the grounds that "no objectionable person could use their property" ("Bar De Bit…"). He moved to California and then to Colorado, then finally settled in far Eastern Nevada before passing to the great beyond in 1964; his school, the School of the Natural Order, lives on in Nevada.
Beaux Art Village's population gradually expanded as the twentieth century rolled on. However, the 10-acre tract in the center of the community never developed into the envisioned art mecca, and Calvert sold the acreage to the Western Academy of Beaux Arts so he could pay off the loan on the 50 acres. The academy subsequently forfeited the property to King County to pay back taxes during the depths of the 1930s Great Depression. In the early 1940s the Beaux Arts Water District bought the 10 acres from King County and sold it for home sites. By the early 1950s a pleasant community of nearly 300 souls was in place.
By this time the Lake Washington Bridge had been up for a decade and bringing suburbanization to the Eastside, which by the early 1950s was growing in leaps and bounds. Neighboring Bellevue incorporated in 1953 and quickly began annexing surrounding territory. The villagers saw what was coming and knew if Bellevue annexed the little community it would be the end to the bucolic life they had known. Residents wanted to incorporate as a fourth-class town, but they had a problem: Washington law required a town to have a population of at least 300, and the village was a few numbers shy. Word went out and soon some of the women in the community were pregnant. The new babies boosted the population just past the magic number; indeed, there were 10 residents to spare by the time of the requisite incorporation vote on May 4, 1954. It wasn't even close. Final results tallied 110 in favor of incorporation to 6 opposed, a remarkably lopsided margin of nearly 95 percent approval.
Beaux Arts Village Today
The village enjoyed a further population spurt (the 1970 U. S. Census put it at 475) before settling back closer to 300 residents through the rest of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. At first, it remained a relatively affordable place to live. A 1976 Seattle Times article acknowledges a large number of high-income earners in the town but adds "there's a healthy smattering of middle-income people, too" ("Beaux Arts"), and house ads from the era bear this out. In 1978 you could buy a three-bedroom house (with a rec room) on a third of an acre for $124,950. This equates to $477,500 as this is written in January 2016, which is slightly less than the average current price of a home in King County, but half of what you can expect to pay for a similar house in Beaux Arts Village.
Beaux Arts Village remains a pleasant enclave nestled between Bellevue and the I-90 bridge, but few now would describe it as middle-class. The village reported 299 residents living in 113 households in the 2010 U.S. Census, with nearly 78 percent of the households identifying themselves as family households. Caucasians accounted for 95 percent of the village's population, 4 percent were Asian, and the remainder Hispanic. There were no African Americans recorded in Beaux Arts Village in 2010. The average price of a house in 2013 was reported by City-Data.com to be more than $950,000 but most homeowners could perhaps afford it, since the village's estimated median household income that same year was $156,925, more than twice the average median household income in King County.
Beaux Arts Village's small size means it has little local government. It has its own water system, but it contracts with the King County Sheriff's Office for its police services and with Bellevue for its fire and Medic One services. Likewise, its children are educated in Bellevue schools and its postal needs are met by Bellevue. However, that's not to suggest there's no local government in Beaux Arts Village -- in fact, two different entities handle town affairs. The town council (a mayor and five council members) oversees the town's municipal affairs, while the Western Academy of Beaux Arts is responsible for the 1,100-foot community beach, its docks and floats, and the beach roads. The academy also serves as the town's community club.
Beaux Arts Village is one of the state's smallest municipalities in area, with a land area of only 0.09 mile, or fewer than 60 acres. It feels that way when you drive into the village: Single-lane streets studded with speed bumps limit your speed to the posted 10 m.p.h., and tall, elegant trees give the well-maintained neighborhoods an almost pastoral feeling. (And in the village it's all about the trees, which in recent years have proven to be a point of contention between some of the neighbors in the little wooded utopia.) There's an emphasis on community activities in the village, including an annual summer picnic and, since 1967, sailboat races every Wednesday evening in June, July, and August by members of the Beaux Art Racing Fleet, known affectionately as BARF.