Feb 13, 2023 - News

University of Washington historic boathouse awaits revival

Wooden racing shells in front of pictures of the Olympic Gold Winning team from "The Boys in the Boat."

Inside the ASUW Shell House. Photo: Courtesy of the University of Washington

A project to restore the University of Washington's historic ASUW Shell House on Montlake Cut — which burst into Seattle's collective consciousness with the 2013 publication of "The Boys in the Boat" — is looking for a boost.

Driving the news: Fans of the project hope the university's $18.5 million campaign to restore and renovate the nearly forgotten building will see renewed interest with the upcoming release of George Clooney's movie.

  • There have been big donations — including $5 million from Brad Smith and Kathy Surace-Smith and $2 million from Microsoft — but the project is still a few million short of its goal.
  • Nicole Klein, capital campaign manager for the project, said she would love to see ordinary Seattleites contribute. They did decades ago to help the team featured in Daniel James Brown's book raise $5,000 to enter the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In two days, contributions ranging from 5 cents to $500 poured in — and the nine-member team won gold.

Why it matters: In a city where parts of our past are lost to development daily, holding onto the layers of history that teach, inspire and unify us is more important than ever, Klein told Axios Seattle.

  • The location honors the spirit of the Duwamish people who used the spot to portage between Lake Union and Lake Washington. Its Lushootseed name, stəx̌ʷugʷił (stukh-ug-weelth), means “carry a canoe.”
  • Klein said the project will catalyze the university's waterfront, while opening an underused space for learning, gathering and celebrating.
  • It's not just a UW building, she said, but a community project — a local, state and national treasure that will highlight the city's water culture, becoming a destination for not only local school tours but also for tourists visiting from across the world.

Flashback: The wooden World War I hangar was built by the U.S. Navy in 1918 as a place to store seaplanes and train aviators and was turned over to the university in 1919 when the war ended.

  • It was the University of Washington's shell house from 1919 to 1949 where generations of Husky rowers trained, including the “The Boys In the Boat.”
  • From 1921 to 1949, it also served as the workshop of master shell builder George Yeoman Pocock, whose finely crafted racing shells were used to win 21 gold medals.
  • It was home to the Lake Washington Rowing Club, whose women’s team won the National Women’s Rowing Association Championship in 1966. In 1969, an LWRC crew became the first U.S. women’s crew to compete in the world championships in Europe.

Over the years, the humble wood-shingled building fell into obscurity and disrepair.

A wooden hangar sits on the edge of Seattle's Montlake Cut.
Photo: Courtesy of University of Washington
  • The Shell House project was born when Brown's bestselling book sparked fevered interest in the structure and the university had to ask itself why this treasure was neglected.

What they're saying: The Shell House's story resonates with the people of our region and celebrates the values and attitudes that define us, Brown said in a 2022 speech.

  • "We have an eagerness, for instance, to reach for audacious goals — to go for gold in Berlin in 1936 – but really it’s the same impulse that causes us to build great software companies, great coffee companies, great aerospace companies, online retailers – and to do those things on an audacious scale — a scale nobody has ever attempted before," the author said.

What we're watching: UW officials intend to complete the renovation in 2025 or early 2026 at the latest.

  • Rumors are that there will be a Seattle premiere of Clooney's recently wrapped movie!

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