Viretta Park is located in the Denny Blaine neighborhood in Seattle and has elicited more attention, both locally and internationally, than its tiny size should warrant. The 1.8-acre site is on a steep slope overlooking Lake Washington with access on the west on 39th Avenue E and on the east from Lake Washington Boulevard. Because of infringement on its borders by two prominent citizens, Howard Schultz and Kurt Cobain, litigation was started, which prompted new written policies regarding all of the city parks.
Viretta Chambers Denny
Viretta Chambers Denny (1862-1951), photographer and the daughter-in-law of Seattle pioneer Arthur Denny, was the park's namesake. She was born in Olympia to Andrew Jackson Chambers (1825-1908), a pioneer in Thurston County, and Margaret White Chambers (1832-1911). He was said to be a relative of President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), probably because it was believed that he was born on Jackson's estate, the Hermitage in Nashville, Tennessee, where Viretta's grandfather, an immigrant from Ireland, worked.
Viretta's father came to the Northwest in 1845 and settled on a prairie seven miles from Olympia. He owned 3,000 acres there, which was named Chambers Prairie. Viretta had nine sisters, and they all enjoyed riding around the prairie on horseback, even on its muddiest days.
When she was 25, relatives introduced Viretta to Charles Latimer Denny (1861-1919), son of Arthur Denny (1822-1899), one of Seattle's founders, and Mary Boren Denny (1822-1910). They soon became engaged and were married in Olympia on June 15, 1887. It was a sumptuous occasion, with many relatives and friends in attendance and large quantities of flowers. The couple spent their honeymoon on a trip to the Eastern United States, the first visit for both.
View Lots, Handsome Homes, Small Parks
With Elbert F. Blaine (1857-1942), an attorney and former Seattle park commissioner, Charles and Viretta entered into a real estate venture in 1901 to develop what is now known as the Denny Blaine neighborhood. In addition to selling view lots and handsome homes, they were dedicated to retaining open space in the neighborhood. A string of small parks was developed in the area. A tiny plot of sloping land that ended on Lake Washington Boulevard and was part of the homestead property of the Charles Denny family was made a park and named for Viretta.
Elbert Blaine's wife, Minerva Stone Blaine (1861-1940), was memorialized by a fountain and park near the partners' real estate office. It is now known as the Denny Blaine Lake Park, on E Denny Way. Minerva was instrumental in the development of Epiphany Episcopal Church, underwriting the rental of its first site on 34th Avenue. The church chapel was later built at 38th Avenue E and E Denny Way on land that Minerva sold to the church in 1909.
Both couples made homes in the area they had developed, the Blaines in a house adjacent to Viretta Park on the north and the Dennys on the shore of Lake Washington. Viretta and Charles had two sons, Andrew Chambers Denny (1893-1973) and Horton Herschel Denny (1888-1925). After Viretta's death in 1951, the Denny property was sold to the Seattle Tennis Club and is now the site of the covered and outdoor tennis courts at the north end of the club's property.
In addition to being a mother, wife, and real-estate entrepreneur, Viretta Denny was a painter and a talented photographer. Her work reflected her interest in nature and was characterized by a strong sense of composition.
Nicolette Bromberg, the visual materials curator of University of Washington Libraries Special Collections, was fortunate enough to find a cache of Viretta's photographs and glass negatives for sale at a Seattle auction house. The university purchased the collection in 2006 and it is now archived in the library. Some of the photographs are dated as early as 1894.
Viretta Chambers Denny was a founding member in 1901 of the Seattle Amateur Photography Club and a member of the Seattle Historical Society. Upon their deaths, Charles and Viretta Denny were buried in the Denny family plot at Lake View Cemetery in Seattle. Their graves are unmarked.
Howard Schultz's Driveway
In 1991, Howard Schultz (b. 1953), CEO of Starbucks Coffee Company, and his wife, Sherri, bought property immediately to the south of Viretta Park on a site that originally held a residence designed by noted Seattle architect Ellsworth Storey (1879-1960). They built a new $1.4 million home and put in a landscaped driveway, which infringed on park land. This access to the property had been legally established since 1914. Nonetheless, there was a hue and cry from others in the neighborhood, primarily because the driveway of crushed yellow limestone, together with the landscaping, made the entrance to the park appear to be the entrance to the Schultzes' home.
There were neighborhood meetings to discuss the infringement and eventually, in 1994, a group called Neighbors and Friends of Viretta Park filed suit against the Schultzes, Courtney Love Cobain (b. 1964), the estate of Kurt Cobain (1967-1994), the City of Seattle, and the City's Department of Parks and Recreation. The plaintiff group was composed of neighbors Joseph Ballargeon, Coldevin B. Carlson, Jean Carlson, Anna Chesnut, George Hartman, and Janet Yang.
The suit claimed that the City did not have the authority to allow the Schultzes to utilize the park's right-of-way for vehicular access to their property. The estate of Kurt Cobain was sued because the Cobain property to the north of the park also infringed on park land. Two trial-court judgments were rendered in favor of the Friends, but the defendants appealed. On July 21, 1997, the Washington State Court of Appeals of Washington ruled in favor of the Schultzes and the other defendants, and the state Supreme Court refused to review the matter. Despite having won the right to keep the driveway, the Schultzes modified the landscaping to address the neighborhood group's concerns. Shortly thereafter, the Schultzes sold their property and bought two historic properties in the Reed Estate, a private, gated enclave of 12 houses located in Madison Park.
New Policies for Parks
The years of neighborhood turmoil and lawsuits prompted the City's Department of Parks and Recreation to develop policies regarding encroachments on park land. A 1994 investigation by the Seattle Weekly had turned up the names of several influential citizens using park land, including Mayor Norm Rice, Fire Chief Claude Harris, builder Howard Wright, QFC head Stuart Sloan, cell phone scion Keith McCaw, and parking czar Joe Diamond.
The City surveyed all the parks under its jurisdiction and identified 341 encroachments. Some parks had several; 129 either were not abutted by private property or were not encroached upon. A new City policy was developed in 1996 to deal with the issue and included fines and civil penalties for offenders and a directive that records of all park encroachments, permits, and easements be publicly available at city offices.
Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, and Viretta Park
Kurt Cobain, often labeled the spokesman and poet of a generation, was the lead singer and guitarist of the grunge band Nirvana. In January 1994, Kurt Cobain and his wife, Courtney Love (b. 1964), bought the historic Elbert F. Blaine home, which abuts Viretta Park on the north. The home, built in 1901, has 7,000 square feet of space, including six bedrooms, four bathrooms, and five fireplaces. Although the home is not clearly visible from the street, it can be seen from the park.
This international rock star put Viretta Park on the world stage when he took his own life while staying in his home. His body was discovered in the gardener's residence on the property on April 8, 1994. As news of his tragic death traveled worldwide, TV cameras, reporters, and crowds of grieving fans filled Viretta Park. The throngs of fans peering over the fence forced Love to hire 24-hour guards and to tear down the gardener's house. "I'm knocking down the greenhouse where Kurt died because it's become bigger than the Space Needle," she said. (Barber).
In addition, Love added a new rear fence on 39th Avenue East and had the City remove a tree in Viretta Park that people would climb to peer into the property. She also began restoring the mansion to its original design, using old photographs as a guide. The original roofline, dormer windows, and other features were restored.
In 1997 Love sold the house, and its new owners were reportedly surprised by the attention the house still received. Because of the lawsuit filed by Friends and Neighbors of Viretta Park, the new owner of Cobain-Love house moved the encroaching driveway onto his own land. The new driveway enters Lake Washington Boulevard East at a curve, which limits the view of drivers backing out. To increase safety, speed bumps were placed on the boulevard in both directions, paid for by the owners.
Fans of the musician continue to visit the park today (2012), by car, by motorcycle, by tour buses, and on foot. They come from around the world, and it is not unusual for a walker to be stopped by foreigners and asked to take a picture of them in front of the park. Some light candles and sing his songs, and many leave flowers and messages on the two benches in the park, which are engraved with graffiti.
On what would have been Cobain's 44th birthday on February 20, 2011, a group organized by Daniel Johnson, in conjunction with the parks department and KOMO TV, began a cleanup up the park. Many of Cobain's fans believe there should be a memorial in the park, but neighbors resist the idea.
The President Comes Calling
On May 9, 2012, crowds of people, TV cameras, and reporters filled Viretta Park to watch the motorcade of SUVs, police motorcycles, a fire truck, and ambulance that accompanied President Barack Obama (b. 1961) and his staff as it passed on Lake Washington Boulevard before entering the driveway of a private home across the street from the park. Bruce and Anne Blume were hosting the president at a $35,000 per couple fundraising event in their waterfront home.
This was the sixth visit to Seattle for President Obama (he also lived here briefly with his mother in late 1961 and early 1962). It was a thrilling experience for the crowd, and Viretta Park provided the perfect viewpoint.