You would probably recognize the Carnation name off of a can of sweetened condensed milk. After all, that’s the origin of the town’s name. But some locals prefer the original name: Tolt.
Occupying just over one square mile with a population of 2,220, you wouldn’t be the first to dismiss Carnation as a blip on a map. For the past century, the main street of Tolt Avenue has been less of a Disneyland-kind-of main street and more of a rugged thoroughfare. But over the years, passionate Carnationites banded together to elevate Tolt Avenue to the charming main street it is today.
Today Tolt Avenue has the vintage charm of 1900s storefronts next to a two-lane highway. Throughout the day you’ll witness joggers and bicyclists using the extra-wide sidewalks. Street-side parking offers easy access to shops and restaurants. Stunning details mark this street as uniquely Tolt Avenue.
This painstaking transformation of Tolt Avenue is a testament to the power of community.
Developing Tolt Avenue
Severely crowned in the middle, the Tolt Avenue of yesteryear presented a few problems. One was drainage issues that led to pervasive puddles humorously nicknamed Lake Carnation.
Another was that the roadway wasn’t welcoming to pedestrians. When busy with traffic, crossing the street could be a game of chicken. The business fronts looked much the same as today, but with narrow sidewalks, vehicles were given priority over pedestrians.
These and other issues became a point of fervent discussion in 2010 when Jim Berger was a Carnation city council member, before his term as mayor.
Jim recalls what the City Manager told the council at the time: “You guys need to do something about your downtown. You look like a map dot on a state highway. The town’s going to wither if you don’t come up with a way to turn it into a destination.”
The city council formed a committee of business owners and other community members to help inform the revamp of Tolt Avenue. A design team was hired to turn the committee’s suggestions into actionable ideas that were curated and passed on to engineers.
The goal was to turn Tolt Avenue “into a nice little gathering place,” Jim explained. “Make it safe, make it fun, make it comfortable.”
A monumental aspect of the project, which is hidden from the public eye, was installing an extensive stormwater collection system to drain Lake Carnation once and for all. Planters help disguise the stormwater vaults.
Power lines were also relocated underground and sidewalks were widened.
Then there were the finishing touches: bicycle racks, waste bins, light posts, brickwork, color palettes, banners, benches, art installations—a wide-ranging slate of choices that needed to be made. These choices were heavily influenced by the voices of community members like Jules Hughes and the Lee Arts Foundation (LAF).
The Lee Arts Foundation
To understand the Lee Arts Foundation requires going back a decade to when Lee Grumman was mayor of Carnation. Lee was a Boston transplant with a passion for Carnation and its history. She was artistic and musical, hosting many arts events to bring the towns of the Snoqualmie Valley together.
When the Miller’s building on Tolt Avenue went up for sale, Lee took a risk and bought it. She asked the original owner Howard Miller if she could continue using the name from his Miller’s Dry Goods store days. He agreed, and Lee started Miller’s Community & Arts Center. The Center later evolved into Miller’s Mercantile, which featured works by local artists in Lee’s beloved general gift store.
Lee’s community activism was unrivaled. She joined the Carnation Planning Board in 2001, served for ten years on the Carnation City Council, and was part of many local groups like Tolt Historical Society. She had endless ideas and ambition to bring communities together. In 2018, she passed away after a battle with cancer.
Lee’s partner, Jules Hughes, co-created the Lee Arts Foundation (LAF) with fellow landscape architect, Simone Oliver. Their mission was to help Lee’s passion for the arts live on. Miller’s became an unofficial hub for the Foundation in addition to its regular use as a music and event rental venue.
LAF contains “architects, artists, landscape architects, and local community members and has a close connection with the Tolt Historical Society,” Jules explained.
LAF members volunteered their time and expertise to work specifically on public art and unique elements along Tolt Avenue. They worked with Tolt Historical Society and the Snoqualmie Tribe to imbue project elements with the history, art, and culture of Carnation.
When it came to the Tolt Avenue project, “there were a lot of questions that were unanswered like look and feel,” Jim said. “LAF not only provided suggestions but provided artistic ideas . . . and narrowed them down with the input of the committee and design team.”
“I think it was really important to local residents to have this telling of history and culture and art being woven into this project. And we were seeking ways to do that through materiality,” Jules explained.
LAF’s artful guidance has resulted in many of the stunning details on the street, like the rustic color palette, brick sidewalk accents, and intricate art deco patterns in the tree grates.
Community members, including Lee, were nostalgic about the old electrical poles, which had been around for a hundred years. LAF found street lamp designs that mimicked the old poles and added laser-cut banners depicting scenes of Carnation.
These laser-cut designs appear on street benches as well. Some of the scenes included fish in the river, fall leaves, a motorcycle passing through town, the local church, and a historic barn. LAF provided photos of landmarks and local scenes to the design team to guide the direction of these designs.
Boulders from Kapowsin Quarry
LAF didn’t leave anything up to chance. As an architect herself, Jules felt that seeing the materials in person was an important part of getting the look right. In fact, when it came to the boulders in the planters, Jules took a 130-mile round trip with engineer Jordan Perry to Kapowsin Quarry to handpick each one. Jordan works for civil engineering firm KPG Psomas, who worked on the Tolt Avenue project.
“When we go down to the river, we see this natural palette of colors in the river,” Jules explained. “So we wanted that to be reflected in the main street.”
Washington Rock quality control manager Ryan Hogg hosted Jules and Jordan and helped them find the boulders with the correct dimensions for their project. Jules used LAF’s style guide to pick boulders with right style and color and marked each one for transport.
The trip to Kapowsin Quarry was “an amazing odyssey,” Jules said. “It was pretty spectacular to go there and feel like this tiny ant.”
Jules and Jordan handpicked 70 boulders in total. The boulders are now in their permanent homes in planters all along Tolt Avenue.
Walking Through History
It’s a cloudy day in fall when townspeople gather together at Miller’s. The smoke from wildfires is finally dissipating, leading to better views of how Carnation sits in a river valley with vast stretches of forest and farmland.
The Tolt Avenue project was already recognized during a summer celebration, but today visitors are here to walk the completed sidewalks and view one of LAF’s most important contributions: fifteen porcelain tiles placed along Tolt Avenue. The tiles were fabricated by Laura Brodax Tile Studio.
Each tile contains a historical photo from important points in Carnation’s history. The tiles are located along a “frontage zone,” an 18-inch-wide strip of sidewalk that runs alongside the buildings. Their placement is purposeful, as the photos depict the historical version of a modern location or a related historical event. They were handset by Jim Berger.
In Miller’s, Lee’s picture sits on the upright piano. People chat. On the stage are tractor pedestal seats, which will soon be installed along the sidewalk. Lee Arts Foundation founders Simone and Jules take the stage to kick off the event.
The attendees are then divided into two groups. One is led by Jules and another by Tolt Historical Society member Jackie Norris, who has lived in Carnation since she was a little girl.
The groups take opposite routes, stopping at each tile to learn about the moment in time they represent. A tile outside the Carnation Cafe depicts a Fourth of July celebration in 1950. A pair of benches near the tile offer ideal seating for future parades.
A tile outside Giordano’s Vintage Motors shows a postcard of Tolt Avenue in 1914 with Model Ts parked on the street, the original electrical poles in view. A tile in front of the Snoqualmie Tribe’s office shows tribe members canoeing the Snoqualmie River under the Tolt Hill Bridge in 2019. A 1914 photo of tribe members canoeing in the same area is located next to the bank.
The tiles are a “scavenger hunt of history,” Jules explains.
It was a work of determination and love for Carnation that brought so many community members together to appreciate the end result: a cultural and historical experience that will be here for generations to come.
Just the Beginning
Jim knew the project succeeded when a visitor told him, “This really makes this whole town look like a place to stop.”
“Yeah, we nailed it,” Jim said, “It was really kind of cool getting that affirmation.”
This isn’t the end of the improvements to Tolt Avenue—or the contributions made by LAF. Since the beginning of project planning in 2010, many people have moved to Carnation because of the Great Recession and COVID-19. The influx of residents has led to the need for more development and improvements.
“This is just the beginning of the long-term vision to turn this whole area into a great place to hang out,” Jim said.
No matter the work required, members of LAF are sure to be working behind the scenes.
“There’s this interesting transition that so many little towns go through where you want to welcome new development, and you want to make sure that it’s somehow complimentary of the existing local feel of the town,” Jules said. “So that was one reason we worked really hard to try to infuse as much of the existing history and local cultural flavor of the place into this project.”
This article was originally published on May 28, 2023, and was republished with a new video on October 23, 2023.