A place for the Kalakala's scorned steel hide

The 'jinx ship' Kalakala approaches the junk yard. Where she could be going instead.
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The Kalakala in all her Deco glory.

The 'jinx ship' Kalakala approaches the junk yard. Where she could be going instead.

The San Francisco Bay Area ferry boat Peralta was built in 1927 and embarked on an ill-fated career — a “jinx ship” she was called. She was involved in a number of accidents, including a fatal one, and finally burned in 1933. As it goes with such vessels, she was dubbed “unburnable” when she was launched. Her charred hulk was purchased by the Puget Sound Navigation Company, brought to the Lake Washington Shipyard in Kirkland and converted into the unique, streamlined ferry Kalakala.

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The Kalakala in the 1940s. Photo: Washington State Archives

The misery of the Peralta during her active duty days seemed to follow the Kalakala in retirement. While the ferry served well taking passengers on rattling rides between Seattle and Bremerton and on special excursions from 1935 to 1967, her retirement fate was somewhat ignominious. She was auctioned off by the ferry system and wound up beached and serving as a fish processing plant in Alaska. Salvaged and returned to Seattle by Peter Bevis in 1998, it seemed like she would be restored and renewed as an icon of Seattle quirkiness. The “Flying Bird,” aka the “Silver Slug” would find her place at home in the city that once loved her.

But that didn’t work out. The Kalakala turned out to be the maritime preservation project no one could afford. A series of owners and dreamers tried to discover some purpose for her — a dinner theater, a performance space, a conference center — and she wandered from port to port. She lived on the Seattle waterfront for awhile, then Lake Union, Neah Bay and finally Tacoma. She was a floating money pit, leaving debts, lawsuits and disgruntled Good Samaritans in her wake, and deteriorating all the while. Restoring ships and keeping them ship shape is notoriously expensive, and other worthies who were longtime cause celebs for preservationists (like the Wawona) have wound up being scrapped.

The Kalakala is docked in the City of Destiny, listing, rusting, deemed a navigational hazard by the Coast Guard and a potential threat, if she sank, to the Port of Tacoma, not to mention an environmental disaster waiting to happen (she has issues with asbestos and PCB’s).

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 The deteriorating hulk of the Kalakala at her mooring in Tacoma. Photo: Benjamin Helle

A man who took her in for safe haven, Karl Anderson, wound up owning her and spending a small fortune keeping her afloat. But that act of charity is about to run out. He says she’ll be scrapped in a couple of weeks. Short of a last-minute savior in the form of a very generous millionaire or billionaire with an estimated $25 million in preservation money, the Kalakala is doomed. Is there a Paul Allen out there willing to turn the Kalakala into his “Cinerama?” Doubtful.

There are still conceptual possibilities, the most obvious, promoted by preservationists like Art Skolnik, is to incorporate the boat into the Seattle waterfront makeover, which needs a stronger dose of heritage. Another: Save the Silver Slug’s distinctive steel, streamlined superstructure and work it into the redevelopment of Colman Dock. How about it, Frank Chopp? How about turning it into a restaurant, Ivar’s?

One question is: Why is something, once as beloved as the Kalakala, so hard to save? Cost, of course. But I think it’s also a matter of style. The Kalakala was a showcase for Art Deco style of the 1930s — the aesthetic showcased in events such as the 1939-40 New York World’s fair, where a model of the Kalakala was on display as part of a diorama of the Seattle waterfront. It was birthed in the era of streamlined locomotives and airships. For Seattle in the 1930s, it was a dash of futurism in a community emerging from the frontier. A bit like the Space Needle, which capitalized on the flying saucer craze, the Kalakala’s design brought Buck Rogers to Puget Sound, and contemporary cultural style. It took passengers on big band evening cruises.

But, architecturally, that era was not huge in Seattle — we have comparatively few Deco-era landmarks (The Armory at Seattle Center is one). We regard our own, mid-century modern Northwest architecture as something special, but Deco became dated like Disco. When it was sold off in 1967, the ferry had as much relevance as would an old mirrored ball of the Saturday Night Fever era. It still carries that flavor for some people.

The Kalakala, for all its charms, felt awkward in Seattle. It lacked practical elements — the pilothouse was situated so the captain couldn’t actually see the bow — and there was the ceaseless rattling and vibration of the superstructure. Its version of the future was outdated. Its appearance felt out of place. Perhaps that tension has kept it from getting the respect it deserves — $25 million is a lot to spend for something quirky.

The Kalakala is much more than that, of course. It speaks to the aspirations of the city, it was the first ferry to carry radar, it is historically significant and, in my opinion, the design is stunning. It’s no more “quirky” than the Smith Tower is. Architectural outliers needn’t be orphans. The Kalakala embodies real history, and it ought to have a place on Seattle’s waterfront.

But it’s hard to turn a “jinx ship” around.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.