Seattle Now & Then: The Naval Reserve Armory (aka MOHAI), a 1949 Aerial

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN1: On March 2, 1949, the Naval Reserve Armory anchors Lake Union. The USS Puffer, a legendary submarine, peeks out from its slip. Further north, the Seattle Gas Company’s gas plant puffs out smoke. Interstate 5 is a mere gleam in a planner’s eye. (courtesy Ron Edge)
NOW1: On the morning of Feb. 27, MOHAI holds pride of place in B. Marcus Priteca’s reinforced concrete masterpiece. Next door, the Center for Wooden Boats stands where destroyers once berthed. On Lake Union’s north side, Gas Works has become one of Seattle’s favorite parks. (Jean Sherrard)
THEN2: On its Sept. 29, 2012, opening day in the remodeled Armory, MOHAI sparkles. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW2: Recently re-opened as pandemic prohibitions ease, the museum welcomes cautious but eager visitors. The Grand Atrium features Boeing’s original B-1 float plane, the Lincoln Toe Truck and the original neon Rainier Beer “R” that once shone at Exit 163 of Interstate 5. (Jean Sherrard)
NOW3: Jasper Stewart impatiently waits his turn at the MOHAI periscope while brother Tristan scans for enemy vessels. At right, sister Kathryn absorbs waterborne history in the McCurdy Family Maritime Gallery. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on May 13, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on May 16, 2021 )

To salute childhood memories of MOHAI, we go high
By Jean Sherrard

French novelist Marcel Proust famously described dunking madeleines — scallop-shaped cookies — in lime blossom tea, opening a sensory gateway to the lost world of childhood.

Our 69-year-old regional treasure, the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI, pronounced by locals as if inversely greeting one of the Three Stooges) also evokes such transport.

To jog my memory, I recently posted a question on social media: “What do you recall from school field trips to MOHAI?”

The result: hundreds of citations from adults once bused as students to MOHAI’s original Montlake building. The top 10:

  • The fully furnished Victorian dollhouse.
  • The 10-by-24-foot painted mural of the Great Seattle Fire.
  • The actual glue pot that sparked the fire.
  • The hydroplanes (specifically Slo-Mo-Shun IV).
  • The diorama depicting the Denny Party’s arrival and Duwamish welcome at Alki.
  • The stuffed gorilla Bobo, formerly of Woodland Park Zoo (and an Anacortes home).
  • The 43-foot-long working periscope.
  • Suspended by wires, Boeing’s unique B-1 wooden float plane, built in 1919.
  • The original Rainier Beer neon “R.”
  • Carved figureheads from wooden ships.

Honorable mentions included a 5-inch deck gun from the USS Colorado, a J.P. Patches exhibit and ex-President Warren G. Harding’s pajamas.

Pulling back from the intimacy of memory to vertiginous spectacle, our twin aerial photographs —separated by 72 years — afford us a north-facing, bird’s-eye view of present-day MOHAI and its surroundings.

Our 1949 “Then” image, from photo historian Ron Edge, features MOHAI’s current home, the Naval Reserve Armory on Lake Union’s south shore. Designed by Seattle architects William R. Grant and B. Marcus Priteca (best known for his majestic Art Deco movie palaces),* the Armory was dedicated on July 4, 1942, during the uncertain months following the U.S. entry into World War II.

Post-war, its campus aided recruiting, training and mustering. Sometimes it served as a community dance hall. Docked in its slips might be decommissioned minesweepers, destroyers and the occasional submarine — significantly the USS Puffer, survivor of a record 38 hours of depth-charging and a perennial tour magnet until 1960, when it was sold for scrap.

MOHAI moved to the former Armory in 2012 after its original Montlake building, which opened in 1952, was shuttered to accommodate the expanding State Route 520 floating bridge.

In our aerial repeat, snapped from 1,200 feet, the museum is blooming in morning light just north of booming South Lake Union. Amid MOHAI’s imaginative redesign and relocation, many of its beloved treasures remain in rotation, fostering continued recollections for Seattleites young and old.

To revisit (and maybe add) your own MOHAI memories, join us at


To see our spectacular 360 degree video of this week’s column, click here. It includes the now and then photos as well as video of our extraordinary aerial adventure (shot by Clay). Jean narrates.

*A gentle correction from friend of the column historian Larry Kreisman: “I have to correct your mention of Priteca’s movie palace architecture because, apart from the Hollywood Pantages, his theater designs are primarily Greco-Roman classical (Coliseum and most of his work for Pantages) or Renaissance Revival (Orpheum). The Admiral and others he did in the 30s and 40s we’re streamline moderne and we’re neighborhood movie houses, not palaces.”

We blush and offer thanks, Larry!

2 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The Naval Reserve Armory (aka MOHAI), a 1949 Aerial”

  1. Loved MOHAI when I was a kid. I remember being so surprised to see a very large photo of an old fire engine, and the fireman in the photo was my Grandpa Robinson, who passed away before I was born. And who can forget the Slow-Mo’s.

  2. As a child growing up next to MOHAI I frequented the museum frequently. I loved the international Christmas programs, in part because they were ethnic delicacies to taste afterwards. My favorite memory is when a Seattle Times article stated juvenile delinquents damaged the floor of an unfinshed, open air addition. My father countered with a statement that the delinquents were my sister and other neighborhood children rollerskating on the surface. In effect the museum project was a public nuisance and if MOHAI didn’t take responsibility for the problem my father would be happy to sue the museum. End of story.

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