Work is slated to start next year on a $6.6 million building at Seattle’s Center for Wooden Boats that the organization says will greatly expand its ability to promote maritime heritage and provide programs to the public.
The 9,000-square foot Wagner Education Center will be built in Lake Union Park and include classroom space that can double as a sail loft, a new gallery and exhibit space, a bigger reception and information area for visitors, and a boatshop where shipwrights will restore classic boats and build new boats to historic designs. The boatshop will be more than twice the size of the existing one, allowing for work on boats too big to fit into the current facility.
The two-story wood, steel and glass building was designed by award-winning Seattle architect Tom Kundig and comprises the largest part of CWB’s $9.5 million capital campaign, which will also pay for improvements to its main facility and to a workshop and warehouse on the north end of the lake.
“The new education center is a dream come true,” said Dick Wagner, who founded CWB with his wife, Colleen, in 1977 as a way to preserve and promote maritime heritage in a hands-on setting.
The couple couldn’t have imagined how popular the center would become when its original boatshop was built in 1982. The adjacent two-story floating boathouse, with a gallery room and upstairs office space, followed five years later. The size and rustic style of the buildings reflected the Wagners’ desire to recreate the boat liveries and boat rental facilities that once proliferated along the shores of Lake Union.
“We wanted people to come and have a chance to learn about the heritage of small boats, but in an environment of heritage buildings,” Wagner said. “Even if we’d had the money and the space, we would not have built a concrete and glass building [back then].”
But by the 1990s, demand for the center’s programs was creating a space crunch.
“We were just busy, busy, busy with programs growing, especially for youth,” Wagner said. “We expected to enlarge, but I didn’t really know how successful we would be.”
The number of visitors to the center has doubled to more than 100,000 over the past decade and space constraints have forced staff to turn away adults and children who want to learn to sail or take workshops, and schools wanting to arrange field trips, Executive Director Betsy Davis said.
“There are situations where we want to run a program and we just don’t have space to do it,” she said. “The building really is a response to the community’s request for more services from the center.”
In the early 20th century, Lake Union was a popular spot for houseboats that served as summer homes for a new middle class created by the Alaska Gold Rush. After the Seattle ship canal opened in 1917, the lake became a hub for mills and boatbuilding and was known as a world center for wooden boatbuilding. Over the past few years, the South Lake Union neighborhood has seen rapid growth as a life sciences center and the home to Amazon’s rapidly expanding headquarters.
Davis said as the area continues to change, The Center for Wooden Boats provides a vital connection to nature.
“I see so many people working on really wonderful, innovative projects in this community, but so many are working in a virtual environment,” she said. “I think it’s important to have a place in South Lake Union where people can come and spend time in the natural world and they can find an oasis and an adventure in the middle of the city.”
The Museum of History & Industry relocated next to The Center of Wooden Boats last year, moving from its former location in the city’s Montlake neighborhood to the old Naval Reserve Armory on the lake. MOHAI Executive Director Leonard Garfield said the center has been “quietly redefining and expanding the definition of what it means to be a maritime museum” and is an important cultural institution in the city.
“Seattle needs to understand what a treasure CWB is and how much it deserves our support as it raises the funds needed for this campaign,” he said in a statement. “CWB is unique to Seattle, and helps people understand how the water we see in every direction has defined how the city came to be what it is today.”
The CWB’s capital campaign has received about $6.7 million from public and private donations, leaving about $2.7 million to reach its goal. The remainder of the funding will pay for improvements already made to CWB’s docks and utilities, and the addition of plumbing and bathrooms at the center’s site on the north end of the lake, which opened last spring on a former marine fuel facility site.
Construction on the education center is expected to start in early 2014, depending on permitting, and take about a year. The center will be located on city-owned land leased by CWB on a long-term basis.
For Wagner, 81, the center will be an exciting evolution of the grassroots organization he launched almost four decades ago.
“A lot of my friends say, ‘Why don’t you retire?'” he said. “I would be missing The Center for Wooden Boats if I retired. It’s so much fun, watching people come here and learn.”