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I know who sank the Wawona

Schooner <i>Wawona</i>.

The schooner Wawona was on the endangered list, but was demolished. Credit: 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.

On June 14, Mayor Nickels showed his cards. During an interview on the Seattle Channel, he said the ship was “not beautiful,” adding: “We’re not looking for [Wawona] to be a permanent part of [Lake Union Park] unless it’s restored, and given the last 20 years of experience, we don’t think [supporters] are going to have the capacity to restore it.” No one at the city believed in Wawona.

Ironically, Wawona‘s future is clearer today than it’s been for almost a decade. She is being broken up, with perhaps a few bits of her saved for display. Her story as an intact artifact of Seattle’s maritime history is over. The mayor’s office thinks it’s for the best, given Wawona‘s terrible physical condition. “Everyone agreed it was time to do what they could to salvage what they can,” says Alex Fryer, the mayor’s spokesman.

As in success, people cooperate in failure, thus the adage on shared blame. But Mayor Nickels, as the landlord and ultimate decision-maker, was by far the most powerful player in Wawona‘s demise. Instead of calling the ship ugly, a hazard, and unsuitable for a public park, what if he had recognized her value as a teaching tool, a potential emblem for a growing neighborhood, and a chance to seal his legacy as a protector of the city’s historic fabric? Her story’s ending would’ve been much different. Instead of a safe harbor, Nickels and his administration made city government a reef upon which Wawona foundered.

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