UW News

November 9, 2022

Fundraising effort to restore, reimagine historic ASUW Shell House is in full swing

UW News

The large sliding doors no longer open. The roof has degraded. The paint is peeling.

But its history runs deep. Its bones are strong. And its legacy is worth preserving.

Perched on the southeast corner of the University of Washington campus, where the Montlake Cut meets Union Bay, the ASUW Shell House looks as vulnerable as it does majestic. Over the course of a century, the structure built as a critical wartime post later was the home to a group of rowers who captured the nation’s imagination before becoming an all-but-forgotten artifact of the past.

The UW rowing team on the water in 1937.

The UW rowing team on the water in 1937.University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections

Now, propelled by a wave of renewed interest, the 12,000-square-foot wooden structure is the focus of an $18.5 million campaign that will restore and renovate the space, with the goal of once again opening its doors as a learning and gathering space for UW students and the broader community.

The fundraising effort received a significant early boost from Microsoft President Brad Smith and Kathy Surace-Smith, Vice President at NanoString, who personally committed $5 million. Microsoft Philanthropies dedicated an additional $2 million, while contributions from other lead donors, including Challenge Seattle, Theresa Gillespie & John Stanton, Bruce & Jeannie Nordstrom, Charles & Lisa Simonyi and Mark Torrance — as well as a $500,000 “Save America’s Treasures” grant from the National Park Service — have helped bring the fundraising total to $12 million to date.

“When you walk into the Shell House, you are immediately struck by the historic nature of it, by the stories that have happened here,” Surace-Smith said. “We hope others see what we see, which is the tremendous potential and value of opening and restoring this iconic space for the community.”

"The Boys in the Boat": The 1936 Olympic gold medal rowing team.

“The Boys in the Boat”: The 1936 Olympic gold medal rowing team.University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW2234

Built by the U.S. Navy as a seaplane hangar in 1918 during World War I, the Shell House is one of only two wood hangars from the war remaining in the country — and the only one to house seaplanes. The building was adapted following the war to serve as the home for UW’s rowing program for several decades. In a loft upstairs, George Pocock built UW and the world’s winning shells, including the “Husky Clipper,” which struck gold in at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The UW rowing team’s journey, representing the U.S., is described in the book “The Boys in the Boat,” which has sold more than 3.3 million copies and is being adapted into a film directed by George Clooney.

“This could be a special place where visitors from other states and countries can visit, learn, and be moved by what happened here,” Brad Smith said. “But perhaps most importantly, it’s a place for the people who live here to meet and accomplish great things the way the ‘Boys in the Boat’ did, and that is what inspired us to step forward.”

The sun shines into the ASUW Shell House.

The sun shines into the ASUW Shell House.

Plans for the space include interactive exhibits about its history, an expanded waterfront event space for students and the community, and a re-activated Pocock workshop where the sounds and smells of the building will be brought to life. Wooden Pocock shells will be on display in various stages of construction and a boat builder will make repairs and share knowledge about the process. The landscape design will also reflect the area’s waterlines before the Montlake Cut connected Lake Washington and Lake Union. The Duwamish people would come together at the Shell House’s location to portage across the narrow isthmus that spanned the water. The spot’s Lushootseed name — stəx̌ʷugʷił (stukh-ug-weelth) — means “carry a canoe.” Canoe culture will be taught and celebrated at the Shell House.

“Microsoft can only be as strong as the community around it. And our 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,” said Jane Broom, Senior Director for Microsoft Philanthropies in Washington state. “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.”

The UW's rowing team on the water in 1947.

The UW’s rowing team on the water in 1947.University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections

After a century of wear, the goal of raising enough funds to preserve and bring to life this iconic building, preparing it for the next 100 years, is within reach. But more help is needed.

“We are so grateful to Brad and Kathy, to Microsoft Philanthropies and to the many others who have already supported this effort, for their generous contributions that will help restore this iconic piece of the UW’s history and prepare it for the next century as a gathering space for our students and broader community,” said Denzil Suite, the UW’s Vice President for Student Life. “These incredible gifts are propelling our fundraising effort, but there is plenty of space left in this boat and our hope is that they inspire other leaders within our region’s business community to grab an oar and help us reach our goal.”

You can learn more about the ASUW Shell House and its history at asuwshellhouse.uw.edu.