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I know who sank the Wawona

For 45 years, preservationists have tried to save Seattle's historic Pacific schooner, but this week, their efforts finally failed. And one man deserves to be singled out for giving up the ship.
The schooner <i>Wawona</i> was on the endangered list, but was demolished.

The schooner Wawona was on the endangered list, but was demolished. Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons

It's not nice in Seattle to point fingers. When failure happens, we hang our heads and say, well, there's plenty of blame to go around. That attitude lets people dodge accountability for their behavior.

When it comes to the schooner Wawona, which was towed to her last berth on Wed., March 4, it's fair to lay the biggest blame for her impending death at the feet of the man who could've saved her: Mayor Greg Nickels. His hostility toward the ship, and the hostility of those who work for him, are the primary cause of her destruction.

No one doubts Wawona's historical significance. In 1970, she was the first ship listed on the National Register of Historic Places. She's a designated city landmark, protected by Seattle’s strict historic preservation rules. In 1999, the Virginia-based Historic Naval Ships Association added Wawona to its prestigious list of the country's 175 most important vessels for her service to the country in World War II.

But even before a group of Seattle civic leaders, led by City Councilman Wing Luke, rescued the ship in 1964 from a Montana rancher for $28,500, city government sneered. Luke dreamed of a maritime museum on Lake Union with Wawona as its centerpiece. In 1963, he went before the Parks Board and proposed constructing the museum on the site that's now Gas Works Park. But after Luke estimated the cost at $100,000, discussion on the Parks Board ended.

After Luke died in a plane crash in 1965, the city established a policy of benign neglect, offering little more than free moorage as Wawona deteriorated, her wooden hull slowly worn away by every homeowner's worst fear, dry rot, as the winter rains of 40 years took their toll. But the city's attitude grew dark, especially after the election of Greg Nickels in 2001. It's rare for the city — or any city — to cajole and then threaten a volunteer-run not-for-profit with destruction of its most important assets. But that's what Greg Nickels and his surrogates did. The motivation was his dream for South Lake Union.

City leaders had long wanted to convert the neighborhoods between Lake Union and downtown from an industrial backwater to a hub for hip urbanites. A keystone was a park on property owned by the U.S. Navy. The city acquired the land in 2000, and the owner of the Wawona, Northwest Seaport, joined other maritime heritage groups to form a foundation to finance construction of a maritime heritage-themed facility. But an early effort at a tall ships festival failed financially, and then-Parks Superintendent Ken Bounds (since retired) lost faith in the group. In 2003, he effectively killed it by casting doubt on a long-term working arrangement between the city and the foundation. Without the city's moral and contractual backing, funders would pay little attention to the foundation's pleas for money.

Instead, Bounds forged ahead with his own plans for the facility, now called Lake Union Park, and they did not include Wawona. The maritime heritage groups wanted something like the Center for Wooden Boats, but for big ships, a place where visitors could work on large vessels and learn maritime history hands-on. But Bounds told Wawona supporters that a park was no place for "industrial work" and in August 2003 he told them Wawona must be gone by the following summer.

That was Wawona's first eviction notice.

Things went from bad to worse for Wawona. In 2005, Bounds ordered her closed after preservation experts recommended removal of her masts for fear of them falling down in a windstorm. Bounds again told Northwest Seaport to move the ship, in effect a second eviction notice. That year, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation placed the ship on its list of most endangered historic properties. On June 8, 2006, Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis composed a third eviction notice.

Ceis gave Northwest Seaport 30 days to move the ship or find millions of dollars in support. If the city wasn't satisfied with fundraising, Ceis said, it would "contract for [the] demolition and disposal" of Wawona. He noted that over the years, "the larger philanthropic community" had not supported the ship's restoration. But he had signed the ship's death warrant; no major donor would give money to the ship now while the mayor's office held a gun to its head.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Mar 5, 7:14 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks, Joe, for telling this story. My readers and I really appreciate getting this in-depth analysis of the context and political realities that brought us to this point.

Tim Flanagan
PugetSoundMaritime.com

Posted Thu, Mar 5, 8:04 a.m. Inappropriate

And so it goes, as it did with the Kalakala. Same tyrant mayor, same bully staff, same issues. "The Kalakala is rusty. It doesn't fit in with our vision..." of hoity-toity gentrification aimed at outsiders. And because the mayor held a gun to the head of the Kalakala Foundation, they couldn't raise money.

If we want to preserve ANY remains of Seattle, we have to get a new mayor.

Posted Thu, Mar 5, 8:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Yes, the truth outs...Seattle, the so-called promising city on the Pacific Rim, by denying it past, cuts its own throat... Now a playground for the insufferable dot.com rich, and their retinue of hangers-on...No longer the resource-collecting, blue-collar town...That won't do...Just see how they treat the commerical fisherman...segregated off by themselves...Denied the Alaskan Way waterfront...

What afflicts Seattle is killing the nation as a whole...selfish middle-class professionals having sacrficed the working class and the poor...for a quick buck...for Short-term profit..for self-dulgence...for cheap entertainment;....The community...And future generations be damned...Hence the vainglorious new stadiums instead of the failed Big Green Initiative...

The vapid Greg Nickels, like Mayor Jimmy "Beau" Walker of 1920s New York City, is the perfect man for his time.

---SWL

Rep. Steven W Lindsey
Ches-3
Keene, NH

And, as Dylan said "the papers went along for the ride," one on the verge of its own demise...So much for afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

And more...

A compariable city: Buffalo, NY.

Breast-beating Mayor Bryon Brown called for the scrapping of the 1874 sidewheel ferry Lansdowne, oldest paddle-wheeler in the nation... The Buffalo News led the effort earlier to scrapped the historic excursion steamer Canadiana...Designed by famed navel designer Frank Kirby.

Posted Thu, Mar 5, 9:09 a.m. Inappropriate

So the Wawona has been "Historic" for thirty nine years, listed on the "National Register of Historic Places". Aside from the question of why a ship would be registered as an "Historic Place" I have to ask what happened to the Wawona in those thirty nine years? whatever it was it was Nickels' fault, right? was restoration proceeding apace during those thirty nine years? did Seattleites put up the money to maintain this heritage? did King County? the Federal government? you might as well blame Nickels for the chilly winter.

kieth

Posted Thu, Mar 5, 10:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Half a century of blown second chances would suggest there's plenty of blame to go around.

svwhim

Posted Thu, Mar 5, 10:32 a.m. Inappropriate

I don’t think Mayor Nickels and Deputy Mayor Ceis are completely against maritime activity. I have a feeling that if Vulcan wanted a place for Paul Allen to park his 416 foot long luxury yacht the “Octopus” they would both be down on the shores of South Lake Union in their rubber boots with shovels, digging away to provide an appropriately sized docking facility.

Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of Chardonnay.

jmrolls

Posted Thu, Mar 5, 10:45 a.m. Inappropriate

It not just Nickel's fault. In the early 70's, we knew that the issues to saving any historic vessels were multiple:

Insurance coverage required for moored vessels in public waterways to cover recovering ships that have sunk and bringing them back to the surface for restoration. (Very expensive for individual non-profits to provide)

Long term moorage for restoration and public display.

Waterfront Facilities to support restoration and public display and interpretation.

Adequete funding to maintain an active restoration and display program accessible to the maximum number of visitors.

We needed to create a Public Corporation, like Historic Seattle, to take this on. It would have the authority to:

Raise public and private funds including bond issues.

Own historic vessels.

Restore the ships under it's charge and/or provide assistance to other ship owners.

Own/lease facilities for the long term moorage of historic vessel and provide public display and interpretation.

As of now, some 35 years since the inception of the idea, it hasen't been done. Nor is it on anyones viewscreen. While it is not too late, one wonders if it isn't the fault of the general publics apathy and disregard for our history. Political leaders get their direction from the populus who put them in office. Until polititions fear the consequenses of losing historic ships, they will continue to ignore their importance, condemning them to ultimate loss.

So, we are all wrongheaded for NOT pursuing this formalization and getting an advocacy authority up and running. It could happen at the State or Local government. It could be created locally or regionlly. I challenge all to support this action and get it done. Or, just sit back and watch it ll go way. It's our choice.

Do the right thing!

Arthur M. Skolnik FAIA

Past: ED of the Kalakala Foundation, State Historic Preservation Officer, Seattle City Conservator, District Manager of the Pioneer Square Historic Disrict, co-founder of AKCHO and the Washington Trust.

Posted Thu, Mar 5, 11:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Total horsepucky, Joe. You can't possibly blame one man for 40 years of rot and inaction. If you love the damned boat so much, then get out your checkbook and buy it, otherwise, don't ask me to.

Posted Thu, Mar 5, 12:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Nickels is a doofus. He and Seattle were meant for each other.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Mar 5, 2:15 p.m. Inappropriate

We don't like to point fingers?? Please! We love to point fingers. After years of community neglect we now have one person to blame? Can you say denial and the failure to accept responsibility for actions (or inaction in this case). Besides, most old ships should be scrapped - that is their natural fate.

Posted Thu, Mar 5, 2:38 p.m. Inappropriate

dbreneman, Oh please... would you want to be equated with Chihuly? (My impression has been that you're from the Tacoma area.)

-an old native Seattlite (who never wanted to live in a "world class city")

Posted Thu, Mar 5, 3:39 p.m. Inappropriate

I think this blame-everything-on-Nickels sentiment has gone too far.

We let the Wawona rot for 30 years, what do you expect?

He had the guts to point out what it had become: a giant pile of rotting lumber.

What do you expect? A property tax increase to rebuild the thing? Obviously this article has nothing to do with a call for the kind of historical preservation that should have been performed on the Wawona and everything to do with dragging Nickel's name through the mud.

Cale

Posted Thu, Mar 5, 8:55 p.m. Inappropriate

S A Calvert, I'd love to be equated with Chihuly if it meant that the art I've produced in my life would garner 1/1000th the price that his does. Other than that, I'm not sure what you're getting at with your comment. Yes, those of us in Pierce County love to look down at Seattle. The feeling seems to be mutual. Seattle folks can say "Aroma of Tacoma" and Tacoma folks can say "Port of Seattle? Isn't it dead yet?!"

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Mar 5, 11:56 p.m. Inappropriate

So I agree that Greg Nickels doesn't play well with others. But honestly, was this "his dream for South Lake Union"? I'm thinking we should give credit to all the people at the Center for Wooden Boats and the parks who've worked hard for years to make Lake Union Park happen. It's sad that the Wawona never got the restoration that would have made her the crown jewel of the park, but at least the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) is going to incorporate parts of the ship in its renovation of the Naval Reserve Armory.

joshuadf

Posted Wed, May 6, 4:57 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm in South Florida now, but am from Maryland. Long way, and have never been there to Washington. I bought a book at an antiques shop about tall ships of the west, and your boat is in it.
I repair boats for a living, and believe it could very well been to far gone, to expensive to fix. Truly, I am sad about this, as they are almost all gone. But may I remind you of the Pride of Baltimore. It was restored to working condition by volunteers, only to be knocked down and sank while touring. Well, volunteers built another one, and she sails today as the Pride of Baltimore II.
If I owned the boatyard your ship is at, I would not be so quick to chop her up. Good luck.

Mad1Mike

Posted Thu, Dec 24, 12:32 a.m. Inappropriate

i am sure Gregis not the only one who sank her. I remember the day she arrived in Kirkland, and from that day on she had been a permanant partof my life. You see, I was in Sea Scouts there in Kirkland and our post was less than 300 feet away. Our scout leader Frank Rosin had agreed to be a part of caring for her. I was sixteen at the time, still young enough to imagine myself as a Captain of this vessel, rolling over the high seas, salt spray in my face as I gave orders about the deck. In reality, a bit of my spare time was spent exploring just about every inch of her. I have been atop of all three masts, Jumped off the center mast 28 rungs up into Lake Wash. I have crawled around and into places the general public had no access to and was the first of our troop to find the goods "lock up" below deck on the starboard side near the aft. I have slept in the Captains bunk many a nights and even made love there with my girlfreind. I remember our heat coming from the ol' Pot Belly Stove while us scouts talked about the "what if we were the crew way back when". I blame no one person for her demise, but am saddened deeply that I cannot show my grand children this wonderful ship. I am saddened that she is gone except for the memories of my youth and how she was a big part of my mid to late teens. I thank all who gave the effort to save her. lenny Johnson

Lenny

Posted Wed, Feb 12, 10:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattle should get out of the ship preservation business altogether.

Those that cannot be sold to other municipalities or to private parties should be taken to Lake Washington and scuttled as dive sites

There just isn't any interest in maritime preservation. Consider the fates of the Wawona and ferry San Mateo. There never was any interest in maritime matters, going back to when the battleship USS Washington was hauled to the breakers. Never will be.

Seattle likes its Rock and Roll museum and Space Needle.

Let's just leave it at that.

Time for Emerald City to accept its essential nature.

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