BY ANDY ANDERSON
COURTESY NICOLE KLEIN, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
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As an Easterner, I hope I can be forgiven for not knowing as much as I should about the great rowing traditions in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle has been the locus of rowing for over a century; the University of Washington and George and Stan Pocock are well known throughout the rowing world. When The Boys in the Boat, a soon-to-be major motion picture, was published 10 years ago, I remember opening its pages and, after reading the prologue, marveling at a photo of the Washington Shell House in the 1930s. The black-and-white photo shows multiple groups of nine men gathered on the dock in front of their boathouse pointing their oars to the sky, waiting to be photographed.
The Shell House sits at the edge of the Montlake Cut, the narrow waterway that connects Lake Union to Lake Washington. It is vaguely shaped like a Quonset hut but colossal in size, with a flat roof. It was the home of the great crew that would go on to win the gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Author Daniel James Brown doesn’t devote many words to the building; the real action is in the homes of the Depression-era young men who rowed for the Huskies and on the water. Brown, who reportedly had to sneak into the building to get the feel of it, gives it a brief description: “Perched on the point was an odd-looking building. Its sides—clad in weather-beaten shingles and inset with a series of large windows—slanted obliquely inward, rising toward a gambrel roof. When the boys moved around to the front of the building, they found an enormous pair of sliding doors.” It was built during World War I as a place to train seaplane aviators but was used only for three months before the war ended. The Navy sold it to the university for one dollar to house its crews.
George Pocock used a part of the Shell House for his workshop, and it was there that he built the lovely cedar shells that were the envy of the rowing world. I visited Seattle some years ago and was a given a tour of the Conibear Shellhouse, the present university boathouse. I saw the Husky Clipper, the eight that had carried the nine men to victory in Berlin, suspended from the ceiling in the dining room. Like many visitors, I was so impressed with the present boathouse and its setting that I forgot about the old structure that I had seen in photos.
But although the ASUW Shell House (Associated Students of the University of Washington) had been forgotten by many, there was a group of enthusiasts who carried a torch for it. I contacted Nicole Klein at UW, who is leading the effort to save the old building from destruction.
“After the crews moved into their new boathouse in 1949, the old shell house was given over to canoes for rent, sailing, and some storage for recreational rowers and became known as the Old Canoe House,” she told me. The university wanted to tear it down in 1975, but the community rallied to save it for the first time. “And not just rowers. This building had so many people who loved it. Architecture professors pointed out its uniqueness—a giant building constructed entirely of Douglas fir, it is one of only two all-wood hangers left from WWI and the only one to house seaplanes.” But nothing happened until it became a focal point of The Boys in the Boat.
There has been interest in honoring Native Americans who used it as a gathering point for the Coast Salish peoples (it was a natural portage between Lake Washington and Lake Union for families and tribes). It is the first UW building to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places (1975, as the Old Canoe House), and the first UW building to become a Seattle Landmark (2018).
Brown’s book sparked a second effort to save the great building. To date, $13 million has been raised toward the $18.5 million budget for its restoration and preservation, and Klein says that they’re closing in on the goal.
What will it be used for? “It will be a thought-inspiring multi-layered venue that connects Seattle’s past to the future,” said a university representative. It will celebrate UW’s legacy of connection to the water and the Pacific Northwest, hosting thematic programs, courses, and events. Pocock’s workshop will come alive again with boatbuilders. It will be, undoubtedly, a major destination for learning about rowing history in the United States. Above all, it’s envisioned as “a catalyst for the rethinking of the 2.1 miles of UW campus waterfront. It will bring community and visitors back to the water and invite them to experience a building that stands as a living symbol of our proud Northwest values.”
It’s a project that interests not just rowers, Klein guided me to a speech made by Microsoft’s Brad Smith, who, together with his wife, Kathy, gave the lead gift of $5 million. Smith made a speech shortly after The Boys in the Boat was published that urged Seattleites to look to the future and he talked at length about the inspiring story of the 1936 crew. He ended by saying that as great as the crew’s feat had been, “all we have left now is the boat,” the Husky Clipper.
But he was wrong. The old Shell House is still here to remind the community of the great things that can be done by working together. Just looking at the Shell House and its beautiful wooden interior, a space that will be able to host 350 people for meetings, gatherings, and celebration, feels inspiring. Sadly, it was not used in the movie of The Boys in the Boat because the surrounding area was too built up. Instead, an exact replica was built in Gloucestershire, England. When you see the movie, as most rowers inevitably will, remember the awesome building from which the men of ’36 set out each day. What could be a better tribute to the Olympians—the 1936 gold medalists in the eight, and the 1948 gold medalists in the coxed four—who rowed out of it?