A simple walk through Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood can take you around the world. Start in Russia, under the shadow of the massive Vladimir Lenin statue, and after just a short walk you’ll meet a character most well known from a popular Norwegian children’s tale: the bridge guarding troll.
People from around the world come to see the giant, cement troll who lives under the Aurora Bridge, but a lot of us have no idea where it came from. That’s why Michael Falcone has been working for the past three years on a documentary called Hall of Giants. I met with him and UW architect professor Steve Badanes, one of the artists who created the troll, in front of his creation.
Steve says the location was pretty gritty in 1990, the year the troll was built.
“It was like a lot of bridges in North America. Mattresses and bottles and crack pipes and the normal stuff you’d find under a bridge anywhere. They thought maybe a piece of public art could help deal with that problem. So they sponsored a competition.”
“They” is the Fremont Arts Council. The troll design went up against several others, including a giant chair, and won the public vote at the Fremont Fair. The design was, in fact, based on the children’s story.
“I guess that old story of the three Billy goats gruff and the troll under the bridge is kind of lodged in your brain from way back as a kid. We went to the library, got some images of trolls out of a book and one of them had this big, shiny eye.”
It only took a few months to build the troll, who is clutching an actual VW Beetle.
“Black Duck Motors had a VW that had been in a front end wreck, but it doesn’t really matter. We got the idea of making it into a time capsule and school kids from all over Seattle came and brought stuff to put in there. Then people thought there might be something valuable in it so it was broken into a bunch of times in the early years. The only thing that was taken was this bust of Elvis Presley. There are ashes of a friend in there. A friend of ours who died during the construction. We got a little piece of her and we put it in there. Sandy Smith, she loved the project, she didn’t get to see the end of it. So we thought, well okay, she wanted some of them in there. The rumor is Kurt Cobain’s ashes are in there and that’s not true.”
They were only given $15,000 to build the troll, but Steve says that might have been to their benefit.
“Sometimes it helps. It’s certainly true in architecture. Some of the most expensive projects turn out to be the ones where nobody was able to make a decision because you could have anything you wanted. When you have limited resources you’re forced to be a little more creative. The budget was incredibly tight compared to this other piece of public art, under the I-5 bridge. It cost over $100,000 in it’s day, which was before this one, and I don’t think anyone knows about it.”
Mike, who works in an accounting department by day, went into this film project focusing on the troll, but he ended up learning a lot about the neighborhood and how art has made it what it is today.
“This neighborhood was a hard scrabble neighborhood. J.R. Burke had a mill down on the canal and it closed up and a lot of jobs went away and this area went into decline. So what happens when you have cheaper rent? You have artists come in and take over and basically beautify the area. Because of that it became a more popular neighborhood. Some of the things that the troll represents? The specter of gentrification and development, really. The troll’s greatest enemy is development and pollution, right? That’s part of the mythos.”
He’s excited to release his film this summer, so people can learn the stories behind the icon.
“It’s interactive. You know, it’s not like a lot of art where it’s behind a piece of glass. you can go up to it, you can stand on it. Also it’s just fun. There’s a lot of whimsy to it. It’s an icon.”
Follow the Hall of Giants Facebook page to keep up to date with the film and its release.