ASUW Shell House (1918)

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 12/07/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20681

In the waning weeks of World War I, a Naval Aviation Ground School seaplane hangar was built on the University of Washington campus. When the war ended the navy withdrew, and for nearly 30 years the structure was the ASUW Shell House, home to UW rowing crews, including varsity eights that won eight national championships and defeated the world's finest at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The building also housed the workshop of George Yeoman Pocock (1891-1976), a British-born craftsman whose finely-wrought racing shells were eventually used by almost every competitive rowing crew in the country. In 1949 the crew, and Pocock, moved to the new Conibear Shellhouse nearby, and their former space became the Canoe House. For nearly 30 more years it rented canoes while hosting campus-related rowing and sailing groups that produced more champions. In 1975 the Canoe House became the first UW building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and a 1980 renovation eliminated many earlier modifications. In 2018, its centennial year, the building was designated an official Seattle landmark, and a $10-million capital campaign was launched to further restore it as a multiuse waterfront center.

Early Days

Indians of several tribes had been living in the region for millennia when non-Native settlers first appeared in the future Seattle in the early 1850s. The Lakes Duwamish had two villages on Union Bay and a well-worn canoe portage called stukh-ug-weelth ("Carry a Canoe") across the Montlake isthmus to east Lake Union (Portage Bay).

In 1895 the University of Washington moved from downtown Seattle to a 350-acre site that stretched from the north shore of Portage Bay east to Union Bay in Lake Washington. Then still living on Portage Bay were Cheshiahud (1820?-1910), called "Lake John" by settlers, and his wife Tleboletsa, Lakes Duwamish who lived in a cabin on the bay's south shore. After Tleboletsa's death in 1906, Cheshiahud moved to the Suquamish Reservation, where he died four years later.

With easy access to two lakes, student rowing clubs soon formed, and crew racing gained official (if unfunded) university recognition in 1903. In 1906 Hiram B. Conibear (1871-1917), "the father of Washington rowing" (Brown, 46), became its first salaried rowing coach. After the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition closed in October 1909, a Coast Guard life-saving station on Portage Bay became the Varsity Boat Club, headquarters for the varsity crew.

A meeting of long-term significance came in 1912, when Conibear traveled to Vancouver, B.C., and persuaded English boatbuilding brothers George and Dick (1889-1967) Pocock to make a racing shell for his varsity crew. Later that year Dick Pocock and his father, Fred, set up shop in the Tokio Cafe, a flimsy former exposition building just yards from Lake Union, and built the crew's first custom-made eight-oared shell. Before the year was out, both Pocock brothers were in Seattle, crafting shells for the university and for other West Coast schools. In 1913 and 1914 UW rowers in Pocock shells beat both Stanford and Cal, but lost at the national championship races at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association's (IRA) Poughkeepsie Regatta in New York.

On September 11, 1917, Hiram Conibear died in a fall from a tree. He was replaced as coach by Ed Leader (1889-1958), who had rowed on the 1913 crew. Soon after Conibear's death the university's women's rowing program was terminated, not to return until 1969.

The University Goes to War

America entered World War I in April 1917 and on May 18 the university's president, Henry Suzzallo (1875-1933), offered the federal government the use of university facilities for "naval training purposes" (Fifteenth Biennial Report ..., 9), a proposal made especially attractive by the planned opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal less than two months later.

The offer was due largely to the influence of Miller Freeman (1875-1955), the Seattle publisher of Pacific Fisherman magazine. In 1910 Freeman had founded the all-volunteer Washington Naval Militia and was its first commander. He soon returned to civilian live and became a persuasive advocate for Seattle's Fishermen's Terminal, completed in 1914. Freeman went back on active duty in early 1917 and convinced university administrators to make the offer to the navy, which was quickly accepted. With Freeman in command, work began in late June 1917 and went on more or less continuously until the war's end on November 11, 1918. By then several thousand volunteers and conscripts had passed through the program.

Freeman made many other contributions to the Northwest, both before and after World War I. Years later, his devotion to civic improvement would find further expression through his son F. Kemper Freeman Sr. (1910-1982) and grandson F. Kemper Freeman Jr. (b. 1941), both instrumental in the growth and commercial development of Bellevue.

Ground School

In February 1917 the state legislature designated "aeronautic engineering" as one of the UW's "exclusive major lines" of study ("Regulating Courses ..."), and William E. Boeing (1881-1956) donated a wind tunnel and other equipment to the school. Suzzallo offered the navy additional facilities specifically for training pilots and mechanics. It wasn't until March 1918 that the offer was accepted, and the Naval Aviation Ground School on campus opened two months later.

The ground school's equipment included three disassembled Burgess seaplanes, and in August 1918 Captain Luther E. Gregory (1872-1960) of the navy's Civil Engineering Corps, who directed project planning in the Thirteenth Naval District, signed off on drawings for a hangar to be built on Union Bay at the northeast end of the Montlake Cut. It is unclear precisely when the building was completed, but it could not have been before September 1918. By then 559 men had completed ground school, but the hangar was used for only two months at most before war's end. The last entry in its log book came on February 28, 1919: "All records of this school were this day closed" (Besch, 185-186).

Purpose-built

Hangars for airplanes and dirigibles needed large, uninterrupted interior spaces, and bridge designs developed in the nineteenth century provided the architectural answer. The roof of the UW hangar was (and still is) supported by seven timber Howe trusses, a design first used in bridge construction in 1840. They span the building's 70-foot width at 20-foot intervals, each supported by two 10-inch-square timber end posts, one vertical and weight-bearing, the other raked outward nine feet at the bottom, providing stability and giving the building its unusual sloping sidewalls. The foundation is a four-inch-thick concrete pad measuring 88 by 120 feet, with an almost unobstructed 70-foot-wide floor area along its entire length. As originally built, a small office and restroom areas occupied the southwest corner. In later years a walled-off, 20-foot-wide storage area took up most of the west wall.

The bottom chords (lowest members) of the seven roof trusses are straight, linked one to another at five places by longitudinal timber joists with cross bracing. A standard Howe truss has a horizontal top chord, but the hangar trusses are angled to support a gambrel roof, each side having two slopes, a very shallow upper section and a much steeper lower section. A steel girder for a rolling crane was suspended from the the trusses along the length of the building.

When built, the hangar's sloping east wall had six identical pairs of large multi-paned windows, while the west wall had five, plus two smaller ones for the office and lavatory. The north (rear) wall had four sets of windows identical to the large ones on the two side walls. The south end of the hangar adjacent to the water featured a four-section sliding door approximately 20 feet tall, with 12 pairs of similar windows arrayed along its upper half. The sections rolled on an overhead track that extended beyond the envelope of the structure, allowing the doors, when functional, to open a full 70 feet. A 44-foot-wide planked ramp led from the doors to the water's edge.

From Hangar to Shell House

The navy's buildings were turned over to UW after the war, and in August 1919 it was announced that most would be sold and removed. The "old hangar," however, would be kept as "a shell house for the university crew" ("To Sell Camp Buildings"). Hangars of this type were considered temporary structures by the navy; most were demolished after the war, and UW's is one of only two known survivors. With an estimated value of $18,000 (in 1920 dollars), it would be the most expensive university shell house in the nation. On April 4, 1920, The Seattle Times reported:

"[T]he new crew house, which is being constructed out of the former Naval Aviation hangar on the Lake Washington Canal, will be ready about the 20th of this month. [Coach Leader] is expecting an appropriation of $2,800 from the student board of control to construct lockers, showers, dry rooms, and shell racks" ("Crews to Start ...").

Student volunteers and crew members dug a 1,000-foot trench to carry steam pipes from Lander Hall to heat the cavernous space, and when all was ready, large letters painted above the huge doors spelled out "A.S.U.W. Shell House."

At home in their new headquarters, UW's varsity-eight crew steadily improved under Leader's coaching, and in 1922 was barely beaten by powerhouse Navy at the IRA championship races in Poughkeepsie. Two weeks later, Leader was offered and accepted the crew-coaching position at Yale University.

New Coach, New Boat

In early 1917 George and Dick Pocock had been hired by Boeing to manufacture seaplane pontoons at the now-famous Red Barn on the Duwamish River. There they would both stay until 1922, when Dick decided to accompany Ed Leader to Yale. George, recently married, remained at Boeing.

Russell "Rusty" Callow (1890-1961), captain of the 1915 UW crew, replaced Leader as coach in September 1922 and quickly persuaded George Pocock to build a new eight-oared shell for the 1923 season. Pocock agreed to do it in his spare time while still working at Boeing, but only if Callow would provide workshop space. Callow agreed, and knew the place -- the Shell House, whose 70-foot width provided just enough space to build eight-oared shells, which averaged about 60 feet in length.

Using contributions, Callow had a 20-foot-deep, walled-off mezzanine workshop set up at the north end of the building, its floor spanning the first two trusses. A row of clerestory windows was added spanning the width of the north wall to provide natural light. The space was spartan and heated by a few inadequate steam radiators, but sufficient for what Pocock intended as spare-time work. Workbenches, shelves, storage areas, and all the other accoutrements of a workable shop were provided, and in early December 1922 Pocock started on an eight-oared shell for the University of California, after which he would craft one for Callow.

Here George Pocock reached a turning point in his life. He later wrote, "a man cannot split his loyalties ... On December 22, 1922, I left the Boeing Airplane Company and started anew in my old love, boatbuilding" and, paraphrasing Aesop, described giving up the security of his Boeing job as "forsaking the substance and grasping the shadow" (Ready All!, 65). It was a decision he would never regret.

A Winning Combination

After using an older boat to dispatch Cal on the Oakland Estuary in April 1923, the UW crew returned home to prepare for the IRA championship races. Pocock put the finishing touches on Husky, the eight-oared shell ordered by Callow and named for the school's new mascot. In June Callow, Pocock, the UW freshmen and varsity crews, and the lashed-down Husky headed east to Poughkeepsie by train.

The combination of a new coach, a new shell, and an experienced crew had a dramatic effect. On June 28, in a light rain, the UW varsity oarsmen powered Husky to the national championship, beating Navy in a grueling and dramatic three-mile battle. For the Huskies (as they were now called) it was a double first -- the first IRA title won by a West Coast school and UW's first national championship in any sport. Within just a few years, Pocock-made boats dominated American crew racing.

The Huskies repeated as national champions in 1924, lost to Navy in 1925 (their first varsity loss under Callow), then beat their toughest rival again in 1926, rowing a new Pocock shell. After the 1927 season, Callow moved on to coach at the University of Pennsylvania. During his five years at UW his crews won three national varsity titles and three junior-varsity titles. He was replaced as coach by 24-year-old Al Ulbrickson (1903-1980), who had occupied the varsity stroke seat in the 1924 and 1926 championships.

The Boys in the Boat

Ulbrickson's varsity crews would not win another IRA championship during his first eight years as coach, a disappointment eased somewhat by several victories of freshmen and junior-varsity eights at Poughkeepsie and second-place varsity showings in 1927, 1929, and 1934. And in 1933, with the Poughkeepsie Regatta canceled due to the Depression, the varsity eight crew won a non-IRA 2,000-meter national-championship race at Long Beach, California, beating Yale, Harvard, and Cornell to finish its season undefeated. In 1935, both the freshmen and junior varsity took first at the IRA championships, a harbinger of the remarkable year to follow.

On June 22, 1936, back once more in Poughkeepsie, UW crews swept all three championship races. The varsity men went directly to Princeton, New Jersey, to compete in trials for that year's Olympic Games in Nazi Germany. On July 5 the Huskies won the right to go to Berlin by defeating crews from Cal, Penn, and the New York Athletic Club. Said The Seattle Times, "No longer is the Husky crew just the University of Washington varsity. Today it belongs to the nation" ("Washington Earns ...").

On August 14, 1936, the men's eight-oared competitors lined up for the gold-medal race on the Langer Se, a lake in the Berlin suburb of Grünau. Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and Hermann Goering looked on, as did George Pocock, who had put all his skills to work preparing the American shell, Husky Clipper. The Nazi leaders watched with dismay, and Pocock with joy, as the Huskies pulled away from the Italian and German crews to win gold by a nose, a victory immortalized in Daniel James Brown's 2013 best seller The Boys in the Boat.

Husky varsity crews secured their place as one of the sport's dominant rowing programs with national championships in 1937, 1940, 1941, and 1948 (IRA races were not held from 1942 to 1946). In 1949 they were rewarded when the spacious new Conibear Shellhouse, on Union Bay north of Husky Stadium, was dedicated as the program's new headquarters and George Pocock's new workshop. But what was to become of the ASUW Shell House, the war-surplus hangar that had been home to so much history?

The Canoe House

George (1877-1969) and Cora (1883-1980) Leis moved to Seattle from Nebraska in 1908, and in 1913 George, UW's campus postman, became manager of the school's canoe-rental concession, which he and Cora would run for the next 42 years. They began in a building at the far north end of Union Bay that was left high and dry when Lake Washington's water level dropped after the 1916 opening of the Montlake Cut. The Canoe House moved to a new home, on Portage Bay at 17th Avenue NE, near Conibear's old Varsity Boat Club. Another move came in 1932, back to Union Bay, and the last move came in 1949, to the former hangar that had been the ASUW Shell House for nearly 30 years, and would be the Canoe House for nearly another 30.

At the Shell House, a nine-room loft apartment with an exterior staircase was added to the southeast corner of the building for the Leis family. Two sections of the large sliding doors were removed and replaced by a wall with four small windows. The large windows in the remaining sliding doors were either covered or removed, and two large windows in the sloped east wall were replaced with smaller bay windows that provided light to the apartment. These changes were the most significant made to the building since it was erected in 1918. Another alteration, dating from the late 1940s or early 1950s, was the addition of a long, slope-roofed shed to the west side of the Canoe House. Sometime later, almost all the windows on that side were boarded up and shingled over.

Generations of Champions

George and Cora Leis retired from the Canoe House in 1956. Two years later a group of about 30 former college oarsmen, from both UW and other schools, organized the Lake Washington Rowing Club (LWRC) with the immediate goal of competing in the 1959 Pan Am Games in Chicago and the 1960 Olympics in Rome. One organizer, Dan Ayrault (1935-1990), explained, "Rowing talent is going to waste here ... After four years a college oarsman has just reached his peak, but we have provided him no means to remain in competition" ("Ex-College Oarsmen ...").

The LWRC would store its shells and other equipment rent-free in the Canoe House shed. George Pocock and his son Stan (1923-2014) agreed to donate the club's first boats. Stan, the UW freshmen crew coach since 1950, had resigned the post in 1955 to work fulltime with his father, and he agreed to coach the LWRC's small boats. The rowers must have felt the pull of history as they launched their Pocock-built shells from the former home of so many champion crews.

As in 1923 and 1936, the combination of crew, craft, and coach proved almost magical. In August 1959, at the U.S. qualifying races for the Pan Am Games later that year, LWRC rowers won four national amateur championships on the Detroit River. Within a month they had won three gold medals at the Pan Am Games in Chicago. At the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, coached by Stan Pocock, LWRC's coxless four shell won gold and the coxed pair took home the bronze.

In February 1964, after 42 years on campus, the Pococks moved their shop to a private site on Union Bay after a determination that a private business could not operate on school property. Later that year at the Tokyo Olympics the small shells repeated their earlier wins, but in reverse order, with the coxed pair taking the gold.

Women joined the LWRC in 1963, and in 1966 their eight-oared shell won the first-ever National Women's Rowing Association championship. In 1969 they again won the American crown, and were the first U.S. women’s crew to compete in the world championships in Europe.

Another category of boating athletes began using the Canoe House in 1951. The student-run Washington Yacht Club comprised UW students, faculty, staff, and alumni who stored and worked on their small sailboats in the building. Eventually the sliding doors were no longer functional, so openings were cut in and above them to provide clearance for boats and masts, apparently the last changes to the building's original appearance. Club sailors won the Northwest Regional Intercollegiate trophy 13 times between 1951 and 1969. In 1984 Bill Buchan Jr. (b. 1935) and Carl Buchan (b. 1956), who had sailed out of the Canoe House in earlier days, won gold at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, the first father and son to do so in separate events in the same year.

In 1969 the university resurrected women's rowing after an absence of 52 years, and the program was assigned the old Canoe House as its headquarters. The LWRC had been using the shed for a decade. Seattle University's crews also had been storing equipment there, and according to Husky coach Dick Erickson, doing so without permission. Seattle U was asked to remove its equipment from the campus, but arrangements were made to allow the LWRC to use Conibear Shellhouse until another site could be secured.

A Close Call

In 1972 the Canoe House was still in business renting canoes and providing bargain rental space for boats and related paraphernalia to students, faculty, staff, and alumni. But there were ominous rumblings in the press that it would be torn down as part of a project to build an "aquatic-recreation center" just to its north on Union Bay ("UW Asks Funds ..."). In March 1974 a draft Environmental Impact Statement was released that included "demolition of the existing Canoe House and development of a picnic area" ("Notice of Draft ...").

This brought immediate action from preservationists and in August 1974 the city's Landmarks Preservation Board, over the objections of the university, voted 9-1 to designate the former ASUW Shell House a landmark, a decision endorsed by a divided city council three months later. (For reasons that are unclear, this designation never made it into official city records, and in January 2018 the Shell House/Canoe House had to earn landmark status again, this time with the full support of the university.)

Less than a year later, in July 1975, the Canoe House became the first building on the university campus listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The basis for its listing was not its role as home to famed Husky crews and George Pocock's equally famous workshop, but rather its earliest days as a hangar -- "a rare, if not unique, example of an architectural type developed in the early years of aviation" ("Movie Theater, Canoe House ...").

In 1976 the university's new Waterfront Activities Center opened, the canoe rental operation moved there, and the Leis apartment was removed. Although protected from demolition by its historic status, the old Canoe House was in bad shape and closed to the general public. It continued to rent storage space to people associated with the university, and in 1979 the school announced it would earmark funds in its 1980-1981 biennial budget request to make badly needed repairs.

Bringing It Back

In 1980 work began on a $170,000 repair and renovation of the Canoe House. Some of it was described as necessary just to keep it "from falling down" ("Canoe House, Theater ..."). Work included restoring the structural frame and new roofing, gutters, and siding. A fire-sprinkler system was added.

The state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation reimbursed the university more than $52,000, primarily for restoring or replacing most of the original windows and sliding doors. The eyesore shed that had been tacked onto the building's west wall was removed. With the rowing and sailing clubs gone and the glory years long past, the building settled into nearly three decades of useful anonymity as convenient and low-cost storage for UW-associated boaters. Then, in 2013, came the book.

Reborn: The ASUW Shell House

The ASUW Shell House was rescued from obscurity by The Boys in the Boat, which stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for more than two years. Despite its presence on the National Register of Historic Places, few knew the details of the building's remarkable history -- a wartime seaplane hangar that became home to U.S. and Olympics championship crews and the workshop of George Pocock, a peerless philosopher of rowing and builder of the world's best racing shells. With the Shell House's centennial year approaching in 2018, it seemed unacceptable that something so central to so much university history should have no nobler function than mere storage.

It fell to UW Recreation to set things right, and in 2018 a $10-million capital campaign was launched to bring new life to the Shell House. To do so, the stored boats and equipment had to vacate, an understandably unpopular decision. But it was a first step in plans for the ASUW Shell House to be reborn by 2021. The plans called for classroom space and making the building available to rent for private events, but envisioned its primary function as a heritage center, with George Pocock's famous workshop restored and curated exhibits tracing the history of the site from its earliest days forward.


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