(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)