Seattle Now & Then: The ASUW Shell House, 1936

UPDATE: Click here or on the screen grab above to see a 33-minute live interview of “The Boys in the Boat” author Daniel James Brown, along with Nicole Klein, ASUW Shell House capital campaign manager, on Jan. 29, 2021, as part of the all-online 2021 Seattle Boat Show!

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(click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN: Posing in front of the Shell House doors are “The Boys in the Boat” (from left): Don Hume, Joe Rantz, George “Shorty” Hunt, Jim “Stub” McMillin, John White, Gordy Adam, Chuck Day and Roger Morris, with (front) coxswain Bobby Moch. This image may become more iconic if, as forecast by MGM, a Hollywood film directed by George Clooney commemorates the “Boys” story. (University of Washington Libraries Special Collections, UW2234)
NOW: (Also see identifier photo below.) Family of “The Boys in the Boat” and of famed shell-maker George Pocock and coach Al Ulbrickson pose Feb. 25, 2020, outside the ASUW Shell House. The ramp from the Shell House to Lake Washington extends only a handful of yards, so with the hardiness of an oarsman, Jean Sherrard shed his socks and shoes, rolled his pants to his knees and waded into near-freezing water to secure this wide shot depicting the full girth of the building. Descendants posing between the oars, approximating the positions of their ancestors in the “Then” photo, are (from left) Jennifer Huffman, Judy Willman and Fred Rantz, granddaughter, daughter and son, respectively, of rower Joe Rantz; Nicci Burrell, granddaughter of rower George Hunt; Colby White, John White, Loren White and Colby White Jr., son, great-grandson, great-grandson and grandson, respectively, of rower John White; Jeff Day, Kris Day, John Day, children of rower Chuck Day; Joseph and Susan Hanshaw, son-in-law and daughter of rower Roger Morris; (front, from left) Marilynn Moch, Maya Sackett and BJ Cummings, daughter, great-grandchild and granddaughter, respectively, of coxswain Bobby Moch. Other descendants are (far left) Lindsay and A.K. Ulbrickson, great-grandchildren of coach Al Ulbrickson; (right rear, from left) Alvin Ulbrickson III and Rinda Ulbrickson, grandchildren of coach Al Ulbrickson; Ray Willman, son-in-law of rower Joe Rantz; (right front, from left) Nathan Pocock, Jim and Beth Pocock, Sue Pocock-Saul, Dave and Katie Kusske, great-grand nephew, grand nephew and grand niece-in-law, granddaughter, grandson-in-law and granddaughter, respectively, of famed shell-builder George Pocock; and Chris Eckmann, grandson of athletic director Ray Eckmann. (Jean Sherrard)


(Published in the Seattle Times online on March 26, 2020
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on March 29, 2020)

The rowing ‘home’ that launched a repudiation of pre-war Hitler

By Clay Eals

Imposing outside, cavernous inside, yet somehow out of sight – that’s the ASUW Shell House.

Tucked behind tall trees near Husky Stadium at the end of a secluded hairpin lane, it anchors a bucolic scene that faces Lake Washington’s shore. Bordering State Route 520, pell-mell traffic and frequent construction near the intersection of Montlake and Pacific, the Shell House is mainly hidden. The most likely way to notice it has been from the water.

That’s changing, given the publishing phenomenon of “The Boys in the Boat.” Since Daniel James Brown’s bestselling book burst on the national scene in 2013, the now-102-year-old barn-shaped structure, named for the University of Washington student government, has garnered acclaim for having launched a breathtakingly implausible feat.

From this ex-World War I naval seaplane hangar, an unassuming nine-member UW men’s crew from then-backwoods Seattle trained in 1936 on Montlake Cut, won a berth in the Summer Olympics in Berlin, overcame illness and intimidation and snared a gold medal, embarrassing an overconfident Adolf Hitler and uplifting a Depression-saddled, pre-war America.

In an era when speedy, synchronized rowers roused wide fascination, this true-life David and Goliath story became a race against the concept of a master race, providing potent symbolism for the ages.

Today, the Shell House is redolent with a legacy as intense as the swelter of its famous “Boys.” They’re all gone, but the senses of their descendants swell as they enter this local and national landmark.

Jeff Day, son of oarsman Chuck Day (in position #2 on the 1936 team), gets wide-eyed as he surveys the rafters: “I imagine these guys yelling and shouting and carrying the boats out with all the energy that they had. This building was hearing all of that energy. This is the building.”

Likewise, the Shell House makes the hair on Judy Willman’s neck stand on end. For her father, Joe Rantz (#7 in 1936), “this was a home, a place to come to, a place he could be, a place to be safe and a place where he could trust again.” Abandoned as a child in Sequim, her father found crew at the UW “and got the trust back.”

UW rowers now toil from newer headquarters to the north, so the Shell House is largely empty. But the university, represented by buoyant Nicole Klein, is mounting a drive to preserve and restore it as an inspiring waterfront venue to last, as the slogan goes, “the next 100 years.” The campaign is $2 million toward its $13 million goal.

Because of the descendants’ passion, not to mention Seattle’s affection for all things connected to the water, the Shell House soon may, so to speak, come out of its shell.


To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!

Below are several clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) that, among others, were helpful in the preparation of this column.

Also below is an identifier photo for our “Now” image plus other “Then” images, some with “Now” counterparts. There also is a trio of bonuses at the bottom — a photo of barefoot Jean Sherrard taking the “Now” photo, a 2002 Paul Dorpat column featuring the Shell House, and a link to a recent story indicating that George Clooney will direct a film version of “The Boys in the Boat” for MGM.

(10:30 p.m. Thursday, March 26, 2020: I’ve added one more “extra,” a photo collage courtesy of a good friend from my Mercer Island High School class of 1969, Bob Ewing, plus a related clipping mentioning Bob’s dad’s name. They’re at the very bottom. Enjoy! –Clay)

April 5, 1936, Seattle Times, page 20
July 26, 1936, Seattle Times, page 12
Aug. 13, 1936, Seattle Times, page 8
Aug. 14, 1936, Seattle Times, page 1
Aug. 14, 1936, Seattle Times, page 14
Identifier photo for the “Now” image at the top of the column. (Jean Sherrard)
Early planes are parked in late 1918 or early 1919 in the Shell House during the short time it served as a hangar. (Courtesy University of Washington)
Female rowers at the University of Washington pose with oars in the 1920s. (Courtesy of University of Washington)
Legendary shell maker George Pocock works in 1922 or 1923 in his upstairs shop in the Shell House. (Courtesy of University of Washington)
An unfinished shell rests in upstairs shop at the Shell House in 1924. (Courtesy University of Washington)
Shell maker George Pocock works on May 15, 1938, in his upstairs shop at the Shell House. (Seattle Times archives, courtesy of University of Washington)
Family of George Pocock pose Feb. 25, 2020, inside the Shell House (from left): Katie Kusske, grandaughter; Dave Kusske, grandson-in-law; Sue Pocock-Saul, granddaughter; Nathan Pocock, great-grandnephew; Beth Pocock, grandniece-in-law; and Jim Pocock, grandnephew. (Jean Sherrard)
Family of George Pocock pose Feb. 25, 2020, in Pocock’s upstairs shop at the Shell House (from left): Dave Kusske, grandson-in-law; Katie Kusske, grandaughter; Nathan Pocock, great-grandnephew; Beth Pocock, grandniece-in-law; and Jim Pocock, grandnephew. (Jean Sherrard)
Children of rower Chuck Day — (from left) Jeff Day, Kris Day and John Day — pose before a standee that shows 1936 rowers Chuck Day (left) and Roger Morris. (Jean Sherrard)
Sportswriter George Varnell walks the ribbed apron of the Shell House in the 1920s. (Courtesy University of Washington)
Katherine Varnell Dunn, great-granddaughter of George Varnell, approximates the pose and position of her sportswriter ancestor. (Jean Sherrard)
Aug. 20, 1936, Seattle Times, page 22
The Montlake Cut in 1936, the year the University of Washington crew won a gold medal at the Summer Olympic Games. (Seattle Municipal Archives, courtesy University of Washington)
Future coach Al Ulbrickson as a University of Washington student rower, 1924. Notice his name, “Al,” on the oar handle.(Courtesy University of Washington)
A.K. Ulbrickson, great-grandson of coach Al Ulbrickson, repeats his ancestor’s pose on Feb. 25, 2020. (Jean Sherrard)
A.K. Ulbrickson adds a smile to his pose. (Jean Sherrard)
Coach Al Ulbrickson on Feb. 19, 1941. (Courtesy University of Washington)
Lindsay Ulbrickson, great-granddaughter of coach Al Ulbrickson approximates the pose of her ancestor outside the Shell House on Montlake Cut on Feb. 25, 2020. (Jean Sherrard)
Lindsay Ulbrickson speaks into the megaphone toward Montlake Cut on Feb. 25, 2020. (Jean Sherrard)
Card commemorating the football career of Ray Eckmann, later University of Washington athletic director. (Courtesy University of Washington)
Plaque at ASUW Shell House (Clay Eals)
Shell House campaign poster. For more info, contact Nicole Klein. (Courtesy University of Washington)
Standing in near-freezing water on the ramp of the Shell House, barefoot Jean Sherrard photographs family of rowers and associates on Feb. 25, 2020. (Clay Eals)
July 7, 2002, “Now & Then” column by Paul Dorpat features the Shell House.
Click the photo of George Clooney to read about his plan to direct a film version of “The Boys in the Boat” for MGM.

Oct. 6, 1935, Seattle Times, page 25


8 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The ASUW Shell House, 1936”

  1. Hey, just another GREAT story. Having read the book many years ago and passing it on to my grandson, I really understood the significance of the “Boat House.” It’s a great story. How on earth did you assemble all the relatives of the original eight. That must be another story. Looking forward to Sunday’s Magazine. E.Linnemann, Issaquah

    1. Thanks for the kind words! The person responsible for assembling the relatives is Nicole Klein, who handles the capital campaign for the Shell House. –Clay

  2. The article in the March 29, 2020, issue of the Seattle Times, PacificNW, “Now & Then,” was a fascinating story about the Seattle, Lake Washington Montlake Cut, University of Washington rowing crew that set a world mark in Berlin in 1936. In an ironic coincidence, that same portion of the Lake Washington Montlake Cut in front of the UW Shell House was traveled many times by a soon-to-be, very fast boat pulled by a slow tow boat from Portage Bay to Lake Washington for testing. Then on June 26, 1950, that very fast boat set a new world water speed record on Lake Washington. It was Slo-Mo-Shun IV, an Unlimited Hydroplane that set the world speed record of 160.3235 miles per hour, breaking the record of 141.74 mph set by Britain’s Sir Malcolm Campbell on Lake Coniston, England, in 1939. I was on the hydroplane crew as the youngest member. It was a flashback for me to read the above mentioned article and see the photo of the Shell House that we would pass many times after leaving the hydroplane’s boat builder, Jensen Motor Boat Co. in Portage Bay, a very short distance from the Shell House.
    Don G. Ibsen, Anacortes

  3. What a wonderful addition to the Shell House story. Thank you Don for sharing. Most of us have never traveled over 100 MPH on the ground and I can’t imagine what it was like in a speedboat on the water. That’s hydroplaning to the extreme. Great story.

  4. A few years ago, I read the subject book after my now nearly 94-year-old father recommended it. So the article in last Sunday’s “Now and Then” column caught my eye. I so enjoyed the article that I read it twice and am now sending it to my dad in Ohio. He will enjoy reading it, too, I am sure, and it’ll be extra special, not only because he was a youngster in the 1930s and enjoys history, but also I bet it’ll perk him up as he hunkers down in isolation during this COVID time. Just wanted to share that the article was a sweet, nostalgic read, and it will be appreciated beyond Seattle. :).

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