Seattle Now & Then: Van Asselt flambeau, 1940

(Click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN1: The Van Asselt flambeau was built in 1940. In this undated early photo, nearby foliage is scant. (Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives)
NOW: On a rainy Sunday, Karen Spiel crouches beneath the Van Asselt flambeau with her Kirkland-based granddaughter Clara, 6, the same age as Spiel was when she cavorted around and pondered the monument. (Jean Sherrard)

Published in the Seattle Times online on Dec. 2, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Dec. 5, 2021

Questions light up a childlike look at the Van Asselt flambeau
By Clay Eals

Today we return to you, dear readers, for help with one of our periodic puzzles. This one invokes the delights of childhood.

We speak of a 20-foot brick-and-metal monument that looks to be an elevated gyroscope, standing sentinel at the east end of Van Asselt Playground next to the mixed-income Seattle Housing Authority neighborhood of NewHolly (formerly Holly Park) in South Seattle.

In summer 2020, George Scarola, a friend and NewHolly resident, asked what I knew about this unmarked pillar. Off and on, through sporadic digging, I’ve learned some but not nearly enough.

THEN2: An excerpt from the Don Sherwood files describes the Van Asselt flambeau. (Seattle Parks)

From the invaluable, handwritten Don Sherwood research files at Seattle Parks comes its name — the French term “flambeau,” which Sherwood describes as “a flaming torch sundial that was common in the South: a gaslit smudge in the orchards and by whose light the children played.”

As verified only by a 1964 Seattle Times photo caption, it was sponsored by local garden clubs and built by the federal Works Progress Administration in 1940. Sherwood adds that it bore a lighted wick, and a paved area and fireplaces were part of its “pageantry.”

Which garden clubs? Who designed it? What did it cost? Why was it erected in Holly Park? Did it salute flight and next-door Boeing? Was it ever lit? And why does no plaque interpret it?

Larry Webb, a retired auto-service manager and pro-racecar driver from Covington, grew up in Holly Park starting as a first-grader in 1943. He and friends played hide-and-seek in nearby brush but never saw the flambeau lit. Once, he recalls, vandals wrested an adjacent softball backstop and hung it from the tower’s speared, rounded top.

Karen Spiel, a West Seattleite who retired this fall after 33-plus years at Seattle Public Library, grew up “a few skips away” from the monument in the 1960s.

“We used to call that thing the sundial,” she says. “We couldn’t figure out how it worked, but we had lots of weird kid games where the sundial was home base. Sometimes we would walk around and peer up at it, trying to figure out how it worked. We were sure that it could tell you the time, if we just knew how.

“When it got dark, we wanted to stay out as long as we could. We pretended that we couldn’t hear our moms calling us, but when Vern’s mom, whose house was closest, started calling Vern, we knew it was time to head home.”

Her youthful wonderment is persistent, even today: “What a charming and mysterious thing it is!”


Readers, can you clear up any more of its mystery?


To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column later this week!

Below also are six historical clippings from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) that were helpful in the preparation of this column.

In addition, we report that a reader named D. Carver of Marysville posted this comment on the Seattle Times website today:

“My 1973 book about sundials says that this is an armillary sphere. The slanted spear, i.e. the gnomon, casts a shadow on the lower half of the ring, or band, where the hour marks are.”

Dec. 27, 1964, Seattle Times, page 27, part of photo essay on local sundials.
Dec. 30, 1939, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 4.
Sept. 5, 1940, Seattle Times, page 10.
March 2, 1941, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 15.
July 31, 1941, Seattle Times, page 7.
Jan. 1, 1968, Seattle Times, page 32. What’s a five-letter word for “flambeau”?


One thought on “Seattle Now & Then: Van Asselt flambeau, 1940”

  1. Quite an ambitious list and undertaking, were any of these actually completed before or during the war? Were any completed after the war? I would imagine the U.S. funding was transferred for the war effort? The projects must have increased in cost if done after the war.

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