Normandy Park -- Thumbnail History

  • By Kate Kershner
  • Posted 4/03/2014
  • Essay 10759
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The town of Normandy Park is located in King County, on the shores of Puget Sound between the cities of Des Moines and Burien. Native American tribes traveled to the area to gather clams on the area beaches and fish for salmon. A few families established themselves in the region late in the nineteenth century, but it wasn't until the 1920s that the Seattle-Tacoma Land Company began selling lots to develop the city of Normandy Park -- so named due to the French Norman architecture of the new homes. Population grew steadily after the Depression ended, and Normandy Park established a reputation for prosperity and exclusivity, due to the private beach access afforded only to certain residents. Normandy Park had bumpy political maneuverings in the 1980s and 1990s, and in 2012, city layoffs that resulted in a property tax levy for residents. The city's population had reached 6,335 by 2010.  

Early Days

Various bands of Lushootseed speakers, including the Duwamish and Puyallup, originally traveled through the area around Normandy Park (as well as bordering Burien and Des Moines) to hunt and gather. Beaches along the coast were loaded with clams, and tribes canoed down Miller Creek to fish the salmon runs in the summer. Reports of Indians camping on Miller Beach (in the northwest coastal corner of what is now Normandy Park) continued into the early 1900s.

The Homestead Act of 1862 provided for 160 acres to anyone who lived on the land for five years. As the Surveyor General's office started platting sections of land to create townships, an early outline of Normandy Park was established. The book Wonderful World of Woods and Water, a history of Normandy Park authored by the Normandy Park Historical Committee, relates that eight people filed for homestead claims in the Normandy Park area during the period of 1869 to 1885.

In 1853, one man beat them all to the punch: William H. Brown was the earliest homesteader in the Normandy Park area. He made a claim on 163 acres and settled near what is now Shoremont Avenue. He built a cabin near an Indian trail that snaked by Miller Creek, eventually ending at the Duwamish River. This was a convenient path for a settler who might want to make it through the brush to Seattle every once and awhile.

By the 1880s, a few families had established themselves in the area. George and Elizabeth Oulette had bought 100 acres from William H. Brown's son in 1875, and the younger Brown threw in "cabbage, turnips, and all farming utensil of every kind and all the house-hold furniture on said ranch" for good measure (Wonderful World of Woods and Water, p. 5). On the south end of the Oulette property, E. Charles and Anna Gardner farmed their own homestead. Since both families had children, demand for a school grew and a one-room classroom was built near Miller Creek (in what is now Burien) to accommodate the three Gardner and two Oulette children.

Boats making the trip from Seattle to Tacoma stopped regularly at Burien and Des Moines, carrying cargo and passengers. Wonderful World of Woods and Water reports that during the late 1800s, Normandy Park residents seeking to hitch a ride could flag down a dinghy to row them out to the big steamers.

Miller's Beach (near Normandy Park Cove) became a popular recreation area early in the history of the region. Controversially, it has remained a community property -- but exclusive to those who have residences within the original tract.


Around 1890, the Gatzert-Schwabacher Land Company began buying up 1,700 acres of land in what is now the Normandy Park area. No one quite knew why, but speculation was that the Schwabacher family was hoping a new Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company rail line would go through Des Moines, putting a premium on the land around it. There was also talk of Des Monies becoming the capital of Washington state, due to its convenient location between Seattle and Tacoma.

Alas, neither came to pass and from the 1890s on, the Schwabachers leased the land to farms. Little growth or development took place, aside from the area receiving electricity in 1915 and the construction of a few roads. By 1926, the Schwabachers were ready to sell and Alvon Alvenslaben and Russell Phinney purchased the entire tract under their newly formed Seattle-Tacoma Land Company. Now development of the Normandy Park townsite began in earnest. 

The Seattle Times announced the formation of Normandy Park in a 1928 story that pointed out the area's "unusual opportunities for the development of a residential suburb of high character" ("Residential Park Will Rise ..."). The story rather breathlessly cites the shore-to-mountain vista, and is quick to promote the planned amenities, including an 18-hole golf course and yacht clubhouse -- all in the French Norman style of country estates, of course, which lent Normandy Park its name. Advertisements for Normandy Park sales from the period also reiterate the reputation that Normandy Park founders desired: high class, suburban, and protected. Profit sharing in the Seattle-Tacoma Land Company was also offered to entice prospective Normandy Park buyers.

A Town's Ups and Downs

Appeal for a community like Normandy Park seemed to be strong. The Seattle Times followed sales of the lots quite closely, and reported when an investor from Chicago was interested in backing the development. The development sped along in the late 1920s, as $42,000 worth of road and landscaping improvements took place. Ads promoting Normandy Park and boasting of amenities under construction continued to fill The Seattle Times. The formal opening of Normandy Park drew huge crowds, and within a few months seven homesites were sold with the promoters promising "great value" for the "shrewd investor" ("7 Homesites Sold. . ."). 

Unfortunately, the year was 1929 -- not a historically propitious year for economic growth. As the Great Depression took hold in late 1929, Normandy Park sales withered. Instead of animated descriptions detailing the wonders of the new development, the little community made the news when The Seattle Times ran stories about the once-wealthy president of the Northern Radio & Telegraph Company committing suicide after fearing the loss of his Normandy Park home.

The Seattle-Tacoma Land Company folded in 1934, and several of the homes built in Normandy Park were not the country-estate behemoths once anticipated. They were now being marketed as "budget homes," appealing to the more reasonable Depression-era customer. Normandy Park resident Bernice Redington (1891-1966) -- who went by the byline Prudence Penny as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer home economics writer -- even promoted "Prudence Penny Budget Homes" to entice interested buyers to Normandy Park open houses.

The tide began to turn in 1939. The Normandy Park Company was formed, and began auctioning off lots and selling acreage. New development began slowly taking place and by 1940 a community club was established to "enforce building restrictions in the area, foster new improvements and provide a social program for the community" ("Normandy Park Club to Form"). But the activity slowed once again as the United States entered World War II.


After Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was put to modern civilian use in 1949 and The Boeing Company grew in the post-war economy, Normandy Park saw a steadier influx of residents. Population estimates during the early 1950s put the populace at just under 1,600, and in March 1953, a hearing was set to discuss Normandy Park incorporation. The Normandy Park Community Club encouraged incorporation as an attempt to enforce the residents' right to the beaches of the small community, amid fears that King County was looking at the area for a sewer treatment plant.

The May 1953 vote was quite close: 261 residents voted for it, and 254 against. The town was officially incorporated on June 8, 1953, as a town of the third class. It chose a council-manager system of governance. The move apparently sat well with quite a few; The Seattle Times reports that almost 300 people moved to the area in the six months following incorporation.

Exclusive and Reserved

And no wonder, as Normandy Park continued to be on the receiving end of glowing media attention. One 1954 Seattle Times feature points out that Normandy Park had the honor of largest seaport between Seattle and Tacoma -- a title in name only, simply because four-times-larger Burien wasn't incorporated. The feature goes on to brag about the copious numbers of clams on Normandy Park beaches and the reserved atmosphere in the little city, where no bars or dance halls existed to cause a nuisance.

One huge boon for certain residents of Normandy Park remained the private beach, a community property for those within the original ("Lot A") tract of the townsite. But the boon of the beach was not retained without a fight; often the Normandy Park city council or King County stirred anger among the homeowners by trying to acquire parts of the beach, or areas around it. In the mid-1950s, many were eager to turn the area into a park or playground. Homeowners opposed them, worried that the city would encroach on private beach property. 

The area's reputation for exclusivity showed again when a municipal league formed in 1960 to combat a proposed development of apartment buildings in the area, with one eye still to the community beach debates. Municipal league president Lloyd Morgan was quoted in The Seattle Times:

"The building of apartment houses, however fancy the lawn and trimmings and however expensive the rentals, will mean the influx into Normandy Park of large numbers of nonproperty-owners. The presence of these rental units will raise difficult problems in relation to the use of the beach property now owned by all of the property-owners in Normandy Park in a common tenancy" ("Normandy Park Folk Plan...").

Normandy Park's reputation for exclusivity arose again in 1971, as King County eyed beach property for a public park. The idea first arose in 1969 when Forward Thrust funds (bond propositions to fund various county improvements and development) were available, but Normandy Park was none too pleased with the idea of opening beach property to the public.

Insularity provided advantage to the residents. In 1977, Normandy Park was reported to have an extremely low burglary rate in comparison to other King County communities. The lack of multi-family housing and relative wealth of the area didn't hurt, and Normandy Park's police sergeant pointed out that "we pretty much know who belongs here and who doesn't belong here" ("Town Has Quiet Success. . . ").

The security of the town was also cited when a 1978 proposal to annex nearby North Hill was voted down; opponents were disturbed that North Hill might bring with it a motel-apartment complex, and seedier growth. But Normandy Park was happy to annex the community of Manhattan in 1983 -- and receive the $90-million tax boost that came with the 1,800 new residents.

Fraught Times

The mid-1980s and early 1990s proved to be a fraught time for political officials in Normandy Park. From 1987 to 1990, the town went through four mayors. Six city managers helmed the town from 1982 to 1995. Some of the resignations were rather abrupt, as in 1987 when Jack Dawson, an 18-year veteran of the city council and mayor for 12 years, walked out of city council meeting with two years left in his term. He cited the election of new city council members as fostering an "ugly, suspicious environment" ("Normandy Park Mayor Quits ..."). City politics in Normandy Park became even bumpier after Dawson's replacement. A 1989 mayor resigned after a failed recall against two city council members; his replacement quit nine months later, accusing council members of undermining him.

Just a year later, City Manager Ehman Sheldon was given a vote of no confidence from city employees and the Normandy Park Police Officers Guild. Sheldon agreed to resign his post, on the condition he receive $18,000 in severance pay. City employees described Sheldon's behavior as "detrimental to the efficiency and morale of the staff," whereas Sheldon claimed he "imposed an accountability structure that the employees didn't like -- 'cause they don't like accountability" ("Embattled Normandy Park Chief ..."). The city council fired Sheldon within two days (giving him $14,700 in severance after taxes) when he kept showing up to work -- while the rest of the city employees stayed home in protest, leaving the police to answer telephones at city hall.

Normandy Park remained a wealthy enclave. The average 1992 household income was $67,000, and the average house was around $225,000. Apartments were still verboten, and the town boasted a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house built in 1954. And as long as you were willing to pay the $25-a-year dues, families in the entitled area were still enjoying the waterfront, beach, and community club that excluded the general public. Despite years of controversy, only 1,800 households in certain areas are given membership to The Cove (or Normandy Park Community Club), which entitles them to the private beach access.

Today's Normandy Park

But Normandy Park wasn't entirely insulated from outsiders. Like nearby Burien and Des Moines, the town budgeted money to fight a third runway proposed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 1993. After a 10-year fight, the communities agreed to drop their opposition after receiving $150 million for school improvements, insulation for homes that would be affected by jet noise, and strict permits to protect the environment. 

As recently as 2012, Normandy Park was facing a cash shortage that caused a layoff of one-third of its employees. Residents were asked to raise property taxes to help with the budget. The 2012 measure was approved with 65 percent of the vote. The city has more than 100 areas of public parkland, including nature reserves, and six major parks. 

The 2010 census cites Normandy Park's population at 6,335 residents.

Sources: The Normandy Park Historical Committee, Wonderful World Of Woods and Water,(Kent, Washington: Emerald City Graphics, Inc., 1991); City of Normandy Park website accessed March 2014 (; "2010 Census," website accessed March 2014 (; Normandy Park Community Club website accessed March 2014 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Burien" (by Dotty DeCoster), "SeaTac" (by Paul Dorpat and Walt Crowley), "Des Moines" (by Alan J. Stein), "Airport Communities Coalition drops opposition to SeaTac International Airport third runway on August 19, 2004" (by David Wilma), (accessed March 2014); "Residential Park Will Rise on 1,000-Acre Schwabacher Estate," The Seattle Times, April 8, 1928, p. 32; "$800,000 Seattle-Tacoma Land Company" (advertisement), Ibid., April 8, 1928, p. 16; "Normandy Park" (advertisement), Ibid., April 26, 1928, p. 12; "First Prices Are Set On Lots in Normandy Park," Ibid., June 10, 1928, p. 24; "Company Reports New Interest In Normandy Park," Ibid., July 1, 1928, p. 27; "Public is Invited to Normandy Park," Ibid., July 8, 1928, p. 24; "Chicago Bankers Impressed With City's Growth," Ibid., July 12, 1928, p. 12; "Normandy Park Will Be Beautified Soon," Ibid., January 13, 1929, p. 26; "Normandy Park" (advertisement), Ibid., April 28, 1929, p. 15; "Normandy Park Formal Opening Draws Throngs," Ibid., May 5, 1929, p. 24; "Open Club House at Normandy Park," Ibid., June 16, 1929, p. 34; "7 Homesites Sold at Normandy Park," Ibid., August 11, 1929, p. 30; "Reverses Drive Ex-West Point Man to Suicide," Ibid., June 13, 1931, p. 3; "Normandy Park Lots to be Auctioned," Ibid., May 14, 1939, p. 57; "New Homes Speeded at Normandy Park," Ibid., June 18, 1939, p. 15; "Normandy Park Club to Form," Ibid., March 13, 1940, p. 13; "Hearing Set on Normandy Park Incorporation," Ibid., March 25, 1953, p. 4; "Normandy Park Incorporation Wins by 7 Votes," Ibid., May 25, 1953, p. 5; Walter Martin, "City Government Truly 'Local' in Normandy Park," Ibid., January 9, 1954, p. 18; Byron Fish, "Normandy Park, as Port, Ranks Between Seattle, Tacoma," Ibid., January 28, 1954, p. 12; "Normandy Park Budget Revives Dispute," Ibid., October 11, 1955, p. 15; "Normandy Park Folk Plan Civic League," Ibid., January 19, 1960, p. 2; Paul Andrews, "War Over Waterfront Park Is Not Over Yet," Ibid., November 7, 1971, p. 17; Eric Pryne, "Normandy Park," Ibid., July 6, 1977, p. 107; Eric Pryne, "City Council Rejects North Hill's Annexation Bid," Ibid., October 18, 1978, p. 114; Louis T. Corsaletti, "Manhattan Added to Normandy Park," Ibid., February 16, 1983, p. 97; Blaine Schulz, "It's a Quiet Community, But Big On Citizen Participation," Ibid., April 22, 1987, p. H-3; Blaine Schulz, "You Can Move City Hall," Ibid., April 22, 1987, p. H-1; Charles Aweeka, "Normandy Park Mayor Quits," Ibid., December 15, 1987, p. F-3; Charles Aweeka, "Manager's Departure Linked to Clashes," Ibid., March 15, 1988, p. D-3; Charles Aweeka, "Wanted: City Manager's Job," Ibid., May 20, 1988, p. E-3; Charles Aweeka, "City Hall Drying Off After Flooding Prank," Ibid., August 5, 1988, p. B-3; Charles Aweeka, "Normandy Park Mayor Resigns," Ibid., February 16, 1989, p. D-3; "Normandy Park Fills Mayoralty Vacancy," Ibid., March 16, 1989, p. C-3; Charles Aweeka and Linda W.Y. Parrish, "Normandy Park Mayor Resigns," Ibid., October 11, 1989, p. F-1; "City Manager Gets No-Confidence Vote," Ibid., November 10, 1990, p. A-4; Stephan Stern, "Embattled Normandy Park Chief Steps Down," Ibid., November 14, 1990, p. A-1; "City Manager Stays Despite Staff's Vote," Ibid., November 15, 1990, p. F-3; Stephan Stern, "Normandy Park Fires City Manager," Ibid., November 16, 1990, p. A-1; Charles Aweeka, "Your Average Small Town," Ibid., August 20, 1992, p. F-1; "Runway Fight is Likely To Cause Budget Cutbacks," Ibid., January 14, 1993, p. E-4; John H. Stevens, "Anti-Harassment Order Filed Against City Manager," Ibid., May 20, 1994, p. B-1; Tyrone Beason, "Normandy Park Finds No Peace In Politics," Ibid., July 12, 1994, p. B-1; Wayne Wurzer, "Normandy Park City Manager Resigns," Ibid., July 27, 1994, p. B-1; "Normandy Park Quits Council," Ibid., November 9, 1994, p. C-2; Florangela Davila, "Normandy Park Hires New City Manager," Ibid., March 20, 1995, p. B-3; David Schaefer, "Costly War Waged Over Third Runway," Ibid., December 26, 1997, p. B-1; Christy True, "Normandy Park Challenges King County Over Taxes," Ibid., April 29, 1998, p. B-3; Madeline McKenzie, "Close Location, Distant Feel," Ibid., September 12, 2010, p. E-1; "Around the Northwest," Ibid., July 12, 2012, p. B-4; "State Election Results," Ibid., November 7, 2012, p. A-9.

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