The ASUW Shell House was built on the shores of Lake Washington in 1918 by the United States Navy as a seaplane hangar during World War I. Between 1919 and 1949, it was the home of UW Rowing and, now, UW is trying to raise money to renovate the building for the modern era.
The Shell House is most famous for being the home of “The Boys in the Boat,” UW’s 1936 men’s rowing team, who won their event at the Berlin Olympics that year, as retold in an award-winning book by Daniel Brown. It also housed George Pocock’s workshop, where many of the racing shells the rowers used were built. Recently, the site has garnered attention through actor and director George Clooney’s upcoming adaptation of the book into a film.
When “The Boys in the Boat” was released in 2013, UW Recreation — who has managed the Shell House since 1950 — realized that it should be more than just a warehouse.
“It should have some history, interpretation, and more people should be coming through the doors,” Nicole Klein, who leads fundraising efforts for the renovation project, said.
The campaign to renovate the Shell House began in 2017, as the public grew interested in seeing the place where the Olympic winners had trained, according to Klein.
Klein said about $8.5 million has been raised for the Shell House so far. Microsoft president Brad Smith and his wife, Kathy Surace-Smith, donated $5 million toward the renovations, and Microsoft Philanthropies donated $2 million.
“[O]ur job is always to build community — artists, teachers, historians, engineers, public servants — people from all walks of life coming together and rowing in the right direction,” Jane Broom, senior director of Microsoft Philanthropies and UW alum, wrote in an email. “And as a metaphor, this building represents all of that. We have an opportunity here to preserve that legacy and ensure that these stories exist for generations to come, at this place where we can all gather and remember that community is the most important thing that we build.”
To move forward with construction, the Shell House needs $15.5 million in funding, as well as an additional $3 million for operations and maintenance. Klein hopes to reach the construction goal by this summer.
One key facet of the Shell House’s history is its relationship with Indigenous peoples. Before the Shell house was built, the area now known as the Montlake Cut was called stəx̌ʷugʷił, or “Carry a Canoe.”
Owen Oliver is a member of the informal ASUW Shell House advisory board that has been tasked with sharing ideas from many stakeholders and interest areas, member of the Quinault tribe, and a former UW student.
“We call it ‘Carry the Canoe’ because that was a way we could portage our canoes from Lake Washington to Lake Union,” Oliver said. “We would carry our canoes and put them on the other side.”
However, when the Montlake Cut, which connects Lake Washington with Lake Union, was dug in 1917, it destroyed stəx̌ʷugʷił by lowering Lake Washington’s water level by about nine feet, according to Oliver.
“When Western civilization came over here, they were very focused on trade and how to build a progressive city that stressed economics, without regard of Indigenous people,” Oliver said. “So by [creating the Montlake Cut], it destroyed many salmon stocks without care of the environment or the people around it.”
To acknowledge the Indigenous history of the place the Shell House sits on, UW Recreation has made steps toward bringing in Indigenous voices. Oliver describes how the advisory board includes Indigenous voices such as Oliver’s aunt and himself. The building is also used to house Indigenous classes, including a canoe carving class.
The Shell House is also one of the spots that canoe families use to launch their canoes and begin their canoe journey during Paddle to Seattle, an event started by Oliver’s grandfather, Emmett Oliver, where tribes carve canoes and race and journey on Puget Sound’s waters.
“It’s just another spot in Seattle that is welcoming to these Indigenous traditions,” Oliver said. “There’s not a lot of spots like that. There’s a lot of bureaucracy, permitting, and zoning. Sometimes you can’t have those there, but I would feel [the Shell House is] a safe spot where new families can always reach out and launch.”
Oliver hopes that the Shell House renovation project will continue bringing in Indigenous voices. He wants the Shell House to highlight more than just “The Boys in the Boat” and aviation history.
“Make it accessible for Native students to come in,” Oliver said. “Make it cheaper to rent, if you want to rent out that space for students. Make it a shining spot on campus that is a rental space, but also an active learning space.”
Denzil Suite, vice president of student life, believes that the Shell House can be an essential part of student life where students host events and build community. Suite thinks the Shell House will be one of the most sought-after places on campus, especially by students.
“Universities exist for the betterment of society,” Suite said. “We tackle some of the most vexing problems, and we do this by keeping one foot planted firmly in the past, but the rest of our bodies oriented to the future. This way we can ensure solutions are both grounded and lasting. I think the ASUW Shell House embodies that [ideal] beautifully.”
Once students recognize that the Shell House is available for them to visit and enjoy, Suite believes they will be willing to take the trek down to the waterfront.
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