Vashon is a wonderful mix of old and new

For the past year I have been doing research for an exhibit at the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum called “Main Street Vashon: The Ever-Changing Face of Vashon Highway,” opening June 1. With more than 50 historic photos, it is a rich story of development and community, of change and consistency.

Up to the late 1950s, Vashon was not a commuter-based community; few people had cars or easy access to Seattle. So Vashon stores sold everything — from farm supplies to furniture, appliances to cars. Now, with most of our population made up of commuters who have easy access to stores on the mainland and the ability to order anything under the sun via the Internet, Vashon’s business core is weakened, and growth is stagnant. I represent four generations of Brennos who have lived and worked on Vashon. I am part of a dying breed that has always given life to this community and that counted on Vashon businesses for their goods and services.

Downtown Vashon has always had a kind of hodge-podge look of overhangs and storefronts — from art deco to shingles, from brick to wood. It has its own charm and reflects how unique our community really is. Vashon town is home to four 100-year-old buildings and at last five buildings that date to the 1920s. This funky mix of old and new leaves a visual mark of Island history.

I rejoice when I drive from my house on the north end to Burton and pass more than a dozen 100-year-old buildings. I love the look and character of Vashon. At times, when I’m feeling cynical, I realize Vashon was irrevocably changed some 30 years ago when we became more of a bedroom community. But then I realize that half of my friends here are among those newcomers, and in some ways change has made Vashon better for me. Old-time Islanders hold onto the past and have a special unspoken bond. An example is the more than 1,500 friends of a Facebook page, Old Vashon Pictures and Stories, shared by multiple generations of former and current Islanders. People who were here during the bridge scare — when we had the same population as Issaquah — may feel the amount of growth on Vashon is tolerable when compared to the greater Puget Sound region.

That brings me to Vashon Allied Arts and why I support its goals. For more than 30 years, VAA has been an excellent steward of the 100-year-old Blue Heron Arts Center, a King County landmark. VAA has kept the building a vital community space. What’s more, VAA is an economic engine for artists and patrons on Vashon. I recently asked VAA how much it paid out to artists; last year, I was told, the organization paid 367 artists a total of $300,130, supporting an arts economy that gives artists a chance to live and work here.

A new arts center would increase opportunities for Island artists and ease facility access for performing groups. In the Main Street Vashon exhibit, there will be a photo of the old Vashon theater built in the early 1900s; it was a big square box with a false store front. If VAA’s building were built in that style, there would be a big box and a blank wall with few windows along Vashon Highway. Would that be better, less intrusive?

Center — the intersection where the Blue Heron sits — has been a hub of business and community for more than 100 years, with buildings coming and going and changing. The VAA building is not the only building project in the works at the intersection; LS Cedar will be building soon also. Both projects are being done by longtime Island entities that hire Island employees and add to our community and the vitality of the Center neighborhood.

Center will still be home to at least five historic buildings. I want that legacy to continue. I like the small town, big false-storefront feel of Vashon. I’m just not sure every building needs to have that look or that more modern architecture has no place in our commercial neighborhoods.


— Brian Brenno, a fourth-generation Islander, is a glass-blower.


The Heritage Museum’s new exhibit “Main Street” opens at 6 p.m. Friday during the Gallery Cruise. The photo exhibit, drawing on the museum’s vast photo archive, shows the dramatic changes that have occurred on the Island over the last 130 years.


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