Storied City

Seattle's Blue Moon Tavern and the Fight for Historical Buildings

The University District dive, featured in a new PBS show, turns 87 this year. Can it persist as a piece of living history?

By Stefan Milne January 15, 2021

Image: Stefan Milne

At the end of his 1999 HistoryLink article on the University District’s Blue Moon Tavern, Walter Crowley wrote that the bar’s lease had been extended to 2034, “which, barring disaster, will mark the centennial of its founding.” Disaster is upon us. Disaster in the 20 percent of Seattle restaurants and bars that permanently closed in six months. Disaster in the music venues, now silent for 10 months, which may at any moment become forever. 

The Blue Moon is a cross of these, a nexus of what Seattle stands to lose during the extended shutdown. It’s a music venue where fledgling bands (and comedians and opera singers) can still gain purchase in the city’s scene; more established groups like Kinski and Industrial Revelation play too. It’s a vessel of living history, a proper dive bar that turns 87 in April—still all neon signage and knife-etched booths and wild lore. It’s a small, neighborhood business that’s been in the Hellthaler family since 1982.

“It’s not a bar,” Emma Hellthaler, who now owns the Blue Moon, says in a new episode of PBS’s American Portrait, which airs January 19. “It’s a living room, it’s a home.” She grew up there. She met her husband, Justin, there. She married him there. She bought the bar from her dad. Then on March 11—while on vacation—she closed it over the phone. “I was really paranoid about the virus because we do a lot of hugging and kissing at the Blue Moon,” she told me later.

Emma Hellthaler in the Blue Moon Tavern. 

The American Portrait episode, self-shot as a sort of video diary, recounts her work to keep the place afloat last year even with her personal life in turmoil. She’d been on that vacation trying to save her marriage, she told me. Then Justin had an alcohol withdrawal seizure, fell down a set of stairs, and had two brain hemorrhages that put him in the hospital for a month. Then, with schools closed, she had to teach her children. Her focus landed on family, rather than the bar, especially given the nature of Justin’s accident. But bills kept coming in. She opens one on camera: “Rent… holy cowabunga Santa Claus. Total due, $19,556.32. That just made me want to throw up.”

In April, she got a PPP loan. But soon she realized she’d need $40,000 to keep the place around through the end of the year. In June, she put up a GoFundMe. Slowly donations started to come in. Not the full amount, but just enough. In November she opened a coffee window, handing out cups of drip and espresso and, by taking donations, raised about $200 in the first week. At the start of this month, the bar qualified for a Working Washington Grant to improve its coffee window, which she plans to reopen by April 1 (unofficially). And the GoFundMe started picking up steam.

Nevertheless, Hellthaler has fielded offers from buyers, like one who wanted to turn it into a restaurant chain. She said such offers have trickled in since the 2005 indoor smoking ban (which cut clientele by 75 percent she guesses). Her dad always asked too much when people tried to buy. And she doesn’t want to sell. “I’m just too damn sentimental,” she says. “I literally grew up in this place. It would be like selling my sister.”


This is not the first time closure has threatened the Moon. In 1970 a restaurateur tried to “gentrify it,” Crowley wrote on HistoryLink. In 1989, the building’s owners planned to have it torn down and replaced with a posh five-story apartment building. But a group of writers—including Calvin Trillin, Carolyn Kizer (a local Pulitzer-winning poet), and Tom Robbins—mounted an impressive campaign to have it deemed a historical landmark. Ultimately, that landmark designation died in a split vote in 1990. But the campaign did get the landlords to extend the Moon’s lease until 2034. When Hellthaler bought the bar in 2016, she explored applying for landmark status again, but didn’t have the funds to hire a lawyer.

Image: Stefan Milne

Most landmarks in this city are significant bits of architecture. The Moon, a former auto garage, is not. In fact, its dinginess is inextricable from its significance. Landmark proponents have a different argument: The Blue Moon is living history.

If you’re not acquainted, a refresher: In April 1934, four months after the repeal of Prohibition, the Blue Moon opened and quickly earned a reputation as a liberal spirit in the area. “From its beginning...the Blue Moon has appealed to those appalled by the men in gray flannel suits,” wrote Gustave Hellthaler (Emma’s dad) in an essay in Celebrating the Third Place. During World War II, it was one of the only bars outside of the Central District that allowed Black servicemen.

Since then it’s been a hangout for beatniks, bohemians, hippies, communists, anarchists, UW intellectuals. Most famously, it was a longtime literary bar, where patrons included Theodore Roethke, Stanley Kunitz, Carolyn Kizer, Tom Robbins, Dylan Thomas, and Allen Ginsberg. Thomas Pynchon, ever the mystery, almost surely stopped by. He wrote his debut novel V. in a house two blocks away; the book opens, as it happens, with a raucous bar scene.

Purportedly, the Moon’s reputation spread around the world. “At one meeting in the Kremlin, upon being introduced to Mikhail S. Gorbachev, [a Seattleite] was caught off guard when the former Soviet leader said, ‘From Seattle? How is the Blue Moon Tavern?’” Hellthaler wrote in the essay. Another story places Moon-praising bathroom graffiti at a Barcelona bar.

The validity of such tales is suspect, but they’re part of the Moon’s significance. More than a shining facade, it is a place of stories—which, so far as I can tell, is the point of history. I’m not terribly sentimental about old buildings coming down. We change and cities change with us. The Crocodile and Re-Bar are moving—not a big deal. But sometimes a place hangs on long enough, weathers enough eras and wars and developers and anarchists and drunken poets, that its building is its meaning. You can, without a raging pandemic, still step inside and experience what made it special in the first place. Which gets at the trouble with how this city preserves this history.

While a landmark preservation “saved” Mama’s Cantina in 2017, a longtime Belltown haunt not so dissimilar from the Moon, it didn’t preserve “use,” says Eugenia Woo, the director of preservation services at Historic Seattle. The building has to stay, but it does not need to remain a cantina. An 8-story apartment building was planned for its site; only the exterior façade—a pretty standard single story of brick—would stick around. Were the Moon to be named a landmark it may still be eviscerated, which would rob it of its meaning. That’s the same trouble with the Showbox. In other countries, some older cities, Woo notes, do preserve use. With the Seattle facing an unparalleled wave of closure and erasure and gentrification, perhaps it's a good time to consider what’s worth saving, and how we protect it. As one proponent said in that 1990 campaign, “I’d like to see the Blue Moon saved just for the emblematic value, to set a precedent.”

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