November 15, 2018

ASUW Shell House commemorates Armistice Day


By: Sean Harding

Two bald eagles were perched over the shores of Lake Washington Sunday, overlooking a sunny autumn afternoon at the ASUW Shell House on Veterans Day. It was a little crisp inside Shell House, but the 100-year-old structure also had a rich, historical essence that kept it feeling cozy – the two heat lamps inside, and the treats from the gyros truck parked outside, might have helped too. The light chatter and slow blues coming from the radio and the light coming enormous skylights served as an ideal backdrop for the exhibits from UW Libraries and the Museum of History and Industry on display on the floor.

UW Recreation, in partnership with UW Libraries and Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, held an Armistice Day Centennial Commemoration at the ASUW Shell House Sunday, recognizing the deep history and important role the ASUW Shell House and the University played in World War I. Fifty-eight UW students, alumni and faculty members were killed in the “war to end all wars.”

“You only get a 100th anniversary of something one time,” said UW Recreation director Matt Newman. “I think UW played a pretty big role in military training for WWI.”

Inside the Shell House, the Museum of History and Industry had a “pop-up” version of the World War I exhibit on display at its South Lake Union location covering the last 100 years of history of the Shell House. UW Libraries also had exhibits covering World War I on display from its special collections. After visitors watched saw the exhibits in the Shell House, they could board a free ferry run by Argosy cruises through the Montlake Cut and Lake Union to the Museum of History and Industry for an exhibit that charged no admission for active duty military members and veterans.

As these projects gained momentum, UW staff grew increasingly aware of the Shell House’s duty during World War I. The Navy constructed the Shell House as a seaplane hangar as part of the Naval training station established on UW’s campus in 1917. Once the armistice ended the war in 1918, the Navy returned the land to the UW the following year. The Shell House is one of the last visible reminders of the University’s wartime role.

“All of that feels really good. And rich and important for UW’s history,” Newman said.

The Shell House’s history runs deeper and encompasses more than just World War I. Long before the University was established and the Montlake Cut was formed, the Duwamish people used the lake as a source of transport and food. The land where the Shell House sits today wasn’t accessible until the Montlake cut first connected Lake Union and Lake Washington in 1917, dropping Lake Washington’s water level by nearly nine feet.

The Shell House also played a central role in the UW men’s rowing team featured in the New York Times bestseller “The Boys in the Boat,” who headed to the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936 to beat Adolf Hitler’s elite German rowers and take home gold. But it took years for the University to get to that point.

Before the war, the UW was “basically a farm” and didn’t have much national acclaim, said Lisa Oberg, associate director of Special Collections at UW Libraries. That began to change when UW President Henry Suzzallo began his term with a different a vision for what he thought the UW could be. The Navy training center at UW, which included the ASUW Shell House, helped to raise the profile of the UW.

“Suzzallo volunteered the campus for everything,” Oberg said. “There’s a map over there of all of the military training that was happening on campus. We were one of the few schools in the United States that had then all branches of military training. Army, Navy and Marines.”

The ASUW Shell House is also the subject of a $10 million UW Recreation capital campaign and restoration project. The Restoration Project is the beginning of what is envisioned by UW Recreation as next 100 years for the ASUW Shell House.


First and foremost, the restored Shell House will be a student space on the water. In addition to structural upgrades, a classroom is planned within the walls of the old locker room. It will also be a heritage center for students and the public to enjoy and reflect upon, with timelines and UW master racing-shell builder George Pocock’s workshop restored (with Port Townsend boat builder Steve Chapin working inside it). UW Recreation’s vision is that the waterfront location will also one day be open for meetings, conferences, alumni events, weddings, football and regatta events, and more, for everyone: UW students, faculty, staff and the public alike. Newman also stated that he would like to see the Shell House incorporated into UWild’s programs.

“We can make this building a regular part of campus life,” Newman said. “Bring campus back to the water. Give students a reason to interact with the water. This is a pretty amazing asset that we have.”

There has even been talk of putting up a café inside the Shell House.

“We’ve had a great 100 years. And we need to get this thing ready for at least 100 more,” Newman said.


To learn more about the University of Washington’s involvement in World War I, click here.

For more information about the ASUW Shell House restoration project, visit this link.