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Water World
Seattle opens LMN Architects' Museum of History and Industry.
The museum is built into a former naval reserve.
Courtesy MOHAI

In Seattle, there is a deep bond between water and land. It is a city defined by the Puget Sound to the west, Lake Washington to the east, Lake Union at the center, and Green Lake to the north.

In choosing a site for its more than 4 million artifacts, the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) did not take this symbolic relationship lightly. The institution selected a decommissioned naval reserve at the southern tip of Lake Union built between 1941 and 1942 under the Works Progress Administration. The move was necessitated by the demolition of the museum’s original facility in Montlake, in order to make way for the rebuilding of the floating 520 bridge that connects Seattle to the eastside.

Spike Mafford

MOHAI hired Seattle-based LMN Architects to transform the reserve into its new home. The firm wove references to water throughout its design. The surrounding South Lake Union Park, for example, is dotted with planter beds shaped like the hulls of ships-—part of a landscape designed by Mithun and Hargreaves Associates.

LMN’s renovation of the reserve respects the nautical influences of the Art Moderne building, which was designed by Benjamin Marcus Priteca—an architect famous for his West Coast theaters—and William R. Grant. The exterior, which features white pilasters and navy trim, was restored to its original appearance. The majority of the updates target the interior. The architects removed a tile ceiling from the 1980s and added glass and steel stairs and an elevator. Significant infrastructural upgrades were also required, and in order to preserve the expansive space of the main atrium, electrical and mechanical systems were relegated to the roof.

Courtesy MOHAI; Garrett Mukai

The building sits above the water—resting on wood pilings driven into the bottom of Lake Union. The expansive exhibit hall—a 56-foot-high, 12,000-square-foot atrium—boasts a Douglas fir end grain wood floor, refinished to a warm orange glow. The flooring is original, and provided a durable, strong surface for naval exercises in the one-time drill hall. Perhaps the biggest challenge of the project was working with this floor, which is sloped, possibly due to settling—a 15-inch height difference between the southwest and northwest corners. To create the illusion of level ground, LMN installed the doors and windows parallel to the slope.

Aerial view of the museum at Lake Union Park.
Courtesy MOHAI

The museum’s diverse group of historical artifacts includes a 1919 Boeing U.S. mail plane, which hangs suspended in the expansive atrium. MOHAI commissioned the most prominent work specifically for the space—a 60-foot-high Douglas fir and steel sculpture called Wawona by John Grade. It resembles an old-growth tree with the unexpected addition of barnacle-like growths.

Wawona fills the entire height of the atrium and then some—extending through the roof above, gathering a beam of daylight into its hollow core, and reaching to the dark waters of Lake Union below. The wood was reclaimed from an eponymous Puget-based vessel. Its complex curves were modeled and shaped with a digital design and fabrication process. The sculpture easily dwarfs anyone who stands beside it—and is a testament to the maritime history of Seattle, while respecting the indelible cycle of nature with the promise that, with the right choices, what we use can be returned to the earth to be consumed.

Ariel Rosenstock