MOHAI’s future begins at the Armory

With a new fundraising campaign kicking off tonight, the history museum hopes to be in its new Lake Union digs in 2012.
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The former Naval Reserve Armory, the planned new home of MOHAI, reflected in the waters of South Lake Union.

With a new fundraising campaign kicking off tonight, the history museum hopes to be in its new Lake Union digs in 2012.

Seattle'ꀙs venerable Museum of History & Industry celebrates the city'ꀙs past, and the museum'ꀙs future, tonight at the old Naval Reserve Armory at Lake Union Park. MOHAI has relocated the annual History Makers dinner to the Armory (from the gala'ꀙs previous locations at the Olympic Hotel and the Rainier Club) and will use the occasion to officially launch its capital campaign for a new home.

The Armory, built in 1940 for training sailors and Marines, has been significant in the city'ꀙs history. Now it'ꀙs about to play a significant part in MOHAI'ꀙs future. In a little-noticed vote, the Seattle City Council on Oct. 19 unanimously approved a deal for MOHAI to take over the historic building as its eventual home.

Co-chairs for the $40 million MOHAI capital campaign are former Seattle City Councilmember Phyllis Lamphere and community members Linda Johnson and Glen Milliman. Work is scheduled to begin in January 2011 to convert the structure from its most recent use as a community center to a 21st-century history museum. MOHAI plans to open the remodeled facility in autumn 2012.

While holding a dinner at the Armory is one thing, designing and building permanent exhibits and accompanying programs for the space presents challenges of another magnitude. According to museum spokeswoman Mercedes Lawry, MOHAI has so far raised $17 million toward a total campaign of $60 million — which includes only the Armory construction project. Not included in the $60 million, Lawry says, are moving costs and costs associated with establishing off-site administrative offices, artifact storage, and MOHAI'ꀙs research library (none of which will fit into footprint of the Armory). Those costs have not yet been estimated.

Fortunately for MOHAI, there'ꀙs another number — this time in the 'ꀜincome'ꀝ column — that also has not yet been estimated: a large cash infusion from the Washington State Department of Transportation, whose SR 520 expansion project necessitates demolition of MOHAI'ꀙs current home. Lawry reports that negotiations are underway between MOHAI and the state, with agreement on a mitigation payment possible as early as next month. 'ꀜCritical to this project's success is our receiving fair use compensation from the state of Washington for displacement of the Montlake facility,'ꀝ Lawry said.

MOHAI has been working on a move from Montlake for more than a decade, and for a time owned a site at 800 Pike St., within what is now the Washington State Convention and Trade Center. The 800 Pike site proved to be a profitable purchase; MOHAI realized capital improvements and cash income when the Seattle Public Library leased the space for its temporary location while the new Rem Koolhaas Central Library was built. MOHAI also made a profit when the convention center essentially bought the space back from MOHAI last year — profit that will support the Armory project (and which is included in the $17 million raised so far).

With support from the city, county, and state already in hand (all of which supported MOHAI'ꀙs acquisition of 800 Pike, and thus have contributed to MOHAI'ꀙs Armory efforts), the big challenge now facing MOHAI is securing $23 million in private-sector support. Given the weak economy and MOHAI'ꀙs previous fundraising challenges, prospects for raising the remaining amount are difficult to predict. Like any successful capital campaign leadership, Lamphere, Johnson and Milliman will likely have to call in a sizable number of sizable chits to meet campaign goals.

Meanwhile, exhibits and programs continue at the museum'ꀙs Montlake home, a building originally designed by noted architect Paul Thiry. MOHAI'ꀙs Lawry says, 'ꀜWe don't yet have a schedule for when Montlake will close. We're working on that plan, hoping to keep our dark time to a minimum.'ꀝ

Originally slated to open on Nov. 13, 1951 — the 100th anniversary of the Denny Part's landing at Alki — the original MOHAI structure, dubbed 'ꀜThe Spirit of Seattle Building,'ꀝ wasn'ꀙt ready in time for the planned autumn celebration. But Seattle history is nothing if not flexible, and another significant date lay just over the horizon, allowing the original MOHAI facility to officially debut on Feb. 15, 1952. Fortunately, this was the 100th anniversary of the day that members of the Denny Party first packed up their Alki belongings and paddled across what'ꀙs now Elliott Bay to select the site for what would become downtown Seattle.

With an eye to 'ꀜThe Spirit of Seattle'ꀝ and to 'ꀜAlki'ꀝ (which, after all, translates roughly as 'ꀜsomeday'ꀝ), the exact date has not yet been set for celebration of MOHAI'ꀙs equally momentous move.

Editor's note: Feliks Banel was deputy director and spokesman for MOHAI from 1999-2006.


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