December 13, 1999
|The Madonna display in 1965 in West Seattle.||The Madonna display in the 1980s in West Seattle.|
|The Madonna display in 1973 in West Seattle.||The Madonna display this year in Woodinville.|
Philip Gai, one of the owners of the legendary Gai's Bakery in Seattle, got an early start in life as an artist as the cake decorator for the bakery. In 1955, he quietly constructed an eight-foot Madonna in his West Seattle home garage over a six-month period of time.
Early that December, he surprised his neighbors by creating a display in the front of his home with the towering white Madonna standing in a frame and bathed in thousands of lights. Word spread about the beautiful Christmas display and people came to see the Madonna.
From 1955 to 1995, Gai created a new background scene each year for the Madonna and eventually attracted thousands of viewers to the Gai home in West Seattle during the holidays.
"My father used chicken wire and plaster of Paris to build the Madonna and then painted her white. She is all one piece and weighs about 70-80 lbs.," said Ron Gai.
"Every year, a more elaborate background was constructed. My father would start drawing sketches of different background scenes for the Madonna early in the year and then construct them. My father is a people person. He loved community events. He sponsored Seafair, built floats for the Torchlight Parade, and participates in many Italian Seattle civic projects," said Gai.
It was a family tradition to help his father paint the sets, set them up, and change the more than 20,000 Christmas lights on the house.
"Each year, he would only keep the Madonna and some of the stands and arches. He would drive down to Frederick and Nelson and look at the windows, go through different magazines, and get ideas. He was very artistic. He would sketch out his ideas and then begin construction.
"One of the more fun times was the year that my father constructed a candelabra with the base of the Madonna in a large fountain," said Gai. "We would try to keep the water flowing in below-freezing temperatures. We would go out and stir the water and even added anti-freeze to keep it from freezing and still flowing. We put blue food coloring in the water so you could see it.
"The Madonna has survived many wind storms. All seven of us would take turns guarding the Madonna by standing up and holding her for 2-3 hours until wind subsided.
"My dad would go out every night and watch her. He liked talking to the people who came by. He would hand out cookies and hot chocolate. The house is on a side street and required police traffic control to handle the tour buses and thousands of visitors that came each year. One year, he used painted tree branches to construct a 15-to-18-foot crown," said Ron Gai.
"This Madonna was seen by three generations of people in West Seattle. Today, the Madonna stands in Woodinville in my yard. My only regret is that we could not continue to do this in West Seattle, due to my father's health difficulties. Our family wants to continue the tradition here in Woodinville. I have been working on this since the first of October. With the millennium, the Madonna has a new dress of white paint," said Gai.
The Madonna is now displayed in Woodinville in Laurel Hills in a small gated community on a dead-end street. Limited opportunities for viewing are available between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. It is necessary to park on the main street and walk about 1/2 block on NE 182nd.
"Our wishes are for the Madonna to be viewed while maintaining the highest respect for the neighbors," said Gai.