The Museum That’s a Ship
The New Museum of History & Industry and Our Better Future
Courtesy of Mohai
Lorraine McConaghy, public historian and Seattle's coolest living person, shows me into the soaring central atrium of the new Museum of History & Industry. She points down at my feet, to the coolest structural feature of the building: its floor. Instead of wood boards laid in normal rows like lines on a notebook, these are on end, feet facing up. They were placed this way—vertically—for strength in 1942, when the building was constructed in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. "This is where they did military drills, rolled out cannons," McConaghy begins. The wood is every shade of orange Douglas fir, bright vitamin C glow to burned/rusty. Its grain patterns make the floor look like a puzzle. It is a work of art, however much it collaborates with chance, nature, and industry, too.
McConaghy's head is full of fascinating facts that drop out casually. But I tune even her out, eyes locked on that floor. How far down do the boards go? Do they stretch down into the cold water of Lake Union under the building and then maybe into the earth's core? Do they anchor this place to the planet itself? Is there a whole inverted forest down there?!
Part of why I'm catapulted onto this mental trip is that this is what good museums do to us. They provide environments that ship us to places unplanned. What's right below your feet when you're standing in the atrium at the new MOHAI is not an inverted forest, or even long planks stretching deep into the earth, but water. (The floorboards are only three inches deep, it turns out.) The building, shaped like a hollowed-out ship, juts out over the water from the shore of Lake Union Park. The atrium is very, very long and four stories tall—56 feet from floor to ceiling—with balconied mezzanine levels (where exhibits go). In the middle of the atrium, connecting the floor to the roof, is a tree-trunk-like sculpture by Seattle artist John Grade—a major art installation running smack down MOHAI's middle. It stretches up through the roof of the building—you actually see its tip jutting up on the building's roof outside—and down through the floor into the water of Lake Union. A window has been built in the floor so that you can look directly into the water, lit by lights also installed by the artist. This moment is profound—to actually cut through a historic building required all kinds of special pleading and permits, and the psychological effect is powerful: You disbelieve your eyes and sort of can't stop looking up toward the sky and down into the water as you're standing inside the sculpture. The water is dark and nothing is happening in it. Grade wishes a beaver would swim by someday.
Did I mention this is a good museum? Not only did MOHAI make the great, bold decision to place a major art installation smack dab down its middle, the wood itself that the sculpture is made from has a history. It was salvaged from the 1897 Wawona schooner (retired in 1964 and floundering since), i.e., MOHAI solved a historical problem while making a new work of art. (MOHAI wasn't finished installing the exhibits when writers and photographers were allowed in earlier this month, several weeks in advance of the grand opening on Saturday, December 29. But we got the gist.)
Throughout the museum, plainspoken, present-tense labels mark the artifacts: "Native people use cedar for everything." Exhibits also go inside four silver silo-like structures, one at each corner of the atrium. Each silo stretches multiple stories high and looks like a trash bin from a robotic future. One silo wears a tall neon drawing. The blue lines flick on; they form the shape of the Stuttgart Tower in Germany, the sight of which inspired Seattle artist Edward E. Carlson to make the original sketch for the Space Needle design in 1959 on a place mat in a coffeehouse. White lines flick on overlaid on the blue; they form the place-mat drawing, writ large. This pair is the blinking eye that watches over MOHAI's atrium. The two colors go on and off in various combinations, a past and a future dancing together in flashes. This is the Innovation tower.
Another tower with a huge lit sign down its front is the Digital tower. The light is a waterfall of zeroes and ones. Between Innovation and Digital is a grid of iconic objects that looks like a display case for the knickknacks of colossi. These are things the museum owns that are big in signifying Seattle and also just big-big. There's the gleaming red Rainier "R," formerly displayed, tawdrily, in the gift shop. Ivar's cartoon clams are here, the size of bedside tables. A small-scale Mount Rainier appears. The 1934 wooden model of the art-deco ferryboat the Kalakala is buoyed on painted waves so cute, you are surely in a Wes Anderson movie. "An out-of-work Boeing engineer carved that Kalakala," McConaghy says, adding that out-of-work Boeing engineers are part of Seattle's DNA. (She does not let on that her husband was once one of them.)
Back in the 1950s, Boeing kicked in money to pay for MOHAI's original building in Montlake, which will be demolished in 2013 to make way for the state's new Highway 520 bridge. To give you a sense of how big the new South Lake Union space is, Boeing's 1919 open-cockpit spruce plane—the plane that first carried international mail—is slung over one corner of the atrium. It's positioned on the actual flight path for a water landing in Lake Union. Up in the bow of the museum is a bridge in the same way there's a bridge on Star Trek. When this building was used for naval training, its bridge was a state-of-the-art control room. Today, in the middle of the room, is the museum's World War II periscope, where you put your face to the goggles, your hands on the brassy arms, and get views of everything from the Space Needle to ZymoGenetics to Mercer traffic. Or you can just gaze out the 180 degrees of the bridge's front windows toward Gas Works Park.
The bridge is lit within by a glimmering golden fixture the size of a refrigerator. It's a beacon taken from the Smith Island lighthouse in the San Juans, a lighthouse that has long since toppled into the sea, and it's a ringer for the dazzling top of the Chrysler Building in New York, blindingly beautiful—another work of art. This jewel hasn't been out of MOHAI storage for decades, McConaghy says. There was no room for it at the old MOHAI. Many strange and wondrous objects have been living in storage. Another of them is the life-size figure of a Japanese dancer sent to Seattle's first postwar American-Japanese trade fair, held at the University of Washington in 1951. She has not been out of storage since 1954. She stands prominently at the new MOHAI, arrested beneath a strafing of diamondlike spotlights in a fan-shaped glass case on the mezzanine, overlooking everything. In 1942, this building was a warship pointed at this woman's home.
Since the old MOHAI's public farewell party in June, it has been a dismantled ruin. I had never seen a dismantled museum, so I asked special permission to get in.
I found dioramas in the dark, wooden boardwalks re-creating early Seattle that have become ghost towns for this short purgatorial period. Walls of display cases still advertised contents, but the contents were gone, like a ransacked jewelry store. Maps and murals and timelines printed on the walls waited to be torn up by the teeth of a Cat excavator. The haphazard lighting was the most striking aspect of all. Museums are theaters, and this building's show is over and its set just waiting to be struck. Martha Aldridge, a modest Southern transplant who works at MOHAI and has overseen the move, talks about it like somebody selling a starter house. "It's surrounded by soil on three sides," she says. "That's made it easy to heat and to cool. It was a very good building."
The building was designed by Paul Thiry in 1952 and looks like a cross between a modernist house in a California hillside and the Frye Art Museum, which Thiry also designed (along with what's now KeyArena). It was 50,000 square feet. The new MOHAI in Lake Union Park is 50,000 square feet, pretty much all of it public space. In the old building, much of the space was not open to the public and instead served as basement storage and offices. But there's no basement at Lake Union Park—because of Lake Union (recall the beaver Grade hopes will swim by). MOHAI has also taken 50,000 more square feet in a handsomely rehabbed warehouse in Georgetown. That's the home of the staff offices and the research library and a trove of four million photographs, open to the public. There's also soaring, customized, climate-controlled storage for everything from girdles and flags to the stained-glass-windowed 1888 Yesler Way cable car and the green 1970 Dodge Challenger of Seattle high school teacher Al Young, the first successful Asian American drag-car racer. There's a sparkling new restoration studio. When I was there, two gloved and goggled women were working on the "Indian Head" terra-cotta cartouche that graced the former building; the same cartouches can be found on the 1910 Cobb Building at Fourth and University.
MOHAI originally intended to move into a property at 800 Pike Street, but that plan was scrapped for the armory—rich with symbolism and its own history. MOHAI's new building is older than its old one. It sits on the spot where the city's first wagon road led. The renovation is said to have cost $90 million, $41 million from the state.
The new MOHAI also provides a case study in exaptation. This is what the armory looks like: a sheet cake with a long, pointed roof laid down on top. (Where the roof is, that's the huge, soaring central atrium.) The building is painted a surprisingly soft creamy-gray color, with navy-blue accents and what the landmark nomination form calls "nautical-themed detailing," with "regular" fenestration, its forms "rhythmic," neoclassical, a mix of art deco and art moderne styles. There's this note, also in the nomination (partly authored by McConaghy, and you hear her voice in it): "The solidity and straightforward, classical base/shaft/cap facade composition of the subject building also recalls the Starved Classicism aspect of Moderne."
This armory—designed primarily by B. Marcus Priteca (the Paramount Theater; the Coliseum, now Banana Republic, downtown; as well as Pantages vaudeville theaters all over, including in Tacoma; and what is now the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, first a synagogue)—has moments of breathtaking grace, but it also has kitsch. They come together under the surprising rubric that an armory—the ultimate in utilitarian, military structures—should be stylized at all. It's almost as if it knew its better future was as a museum. Evolution is full of stories like these, when things become what they are, rather than being born that way. There are lessons there, about how to read and live and learn history, for us to find.