Seattle’s history is alive and well in MOHAI’s dazzling new digs

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Staff Photo/Deborah Stone, MOHAI is now located in the former Naval Reserve Armory Bu1ilding at South Lake Union.
Being forced out of your home and compelled to find new quarters can be an arduous challenge for any organization.

Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), however, embraced the mission with zeal, seeing it as an opportunity for reinvention. After being housed for the past 60 years in an old building near Montlake, where space was always an issue for the museum’s extensive collection of regional artifacts, MOHAI is now comfortably situated in the former Naval Reserve Armory Building at South Lake Union.

The facility, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and a Seattle City Landmark, has been returned to its Art Deco glory and upgraded to current Platinum LEED standards.

Original historic features were restored and new elements were incorporated with a project price tag of $60 million.

The building includes 50,000 square feet of interior space and 5,000 square feet of outdoor patio space, giving the museum 50 percent more public and exhibit areas than at its previous location.

With a collection of nearly four million artifacts and historic photographs, the additional space is a boon.

Museum staff expects about 100,000 people to visit the museum in the first year, as the new facility is significantly more accessible by both freeway and transit than the previous Montlake locale. Visitors will be quickly wowed upon entering the building as they stand in the dramatic atrium, where one of Boeing’s first planes — the B-1 seaplane, which made its maiden voyage over Lake Union in 1919 — hangs from the ceiling.

Joining it is Seattle’s first hydroplane, noted for shattering the world speed record on water in 1950.

And it’s hard not to notice another Seattle icon — the giant red “R” from the Rainier Brewing Company nearby, which lights up at the touch of a button.

Local installation artist John Grade’s “Sea to Sky” is also an eye-catcher.

The 65-foot-tall spire is made from wood taken from the deconstructed turn-of-the-century boat, the Wawona.

Step inside for a view of the waters of Lake Union below and a sliver of the sky above.

The atrium has four towers, which illuminate how history has shaped the culture of the Pacific Northwest by tracing Seattle’s journey “from wilderness to world city.”

One tower offers oral histories; another delves into the evolution of Boeing planes, while a third compares Seattle at the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Expo to its reinvention for the 1962 World’s Fair.

The fourth tower provides a view of Microsoft, gaming and the history of the high-tech industry.

Upstairs, visitors can stroll through a set of spaces that provide a series of snapshots into Seattle’s past beginning with the vibrant cultures of the Native Americans who made their home in this region and continuing with the early settlers who came on the Oregon Trail in search of a new life.

The rise of industry, railroads and statehood are detailed along with wartime and its effects on the city.

Further along, visitors are treated to displays on the growth of Seattle’s businesses, the city’s infrastructure and engineering marvels, development of its suburbs, shopping malls, sports teams, music scene and more.

Along with artifacts and historic photos, there is a variety of interactive media that encourages deeper exploration into different issues of interest.

Seattle’s maritime history is showcased on the fourth floor in the exhibit, “Waterways to the World.”

Created as artifact-driven “case studies” about Puget Sound’s connection to water, the exhibit uses images, models and artifacts to juxtapose historic activities with the modern ones visible on Lake Union through the gallery’s north-facing picture windows.

The Walker Gallery, a special exhibitions gallery for traveling shows, will initially host, “Celluloid Seattle: A City at the Movies,” an examination of Seattle’s relationship with film.

Curated by noted Seattle film critic Robert Horton, this show explores both the image of Seattle captured in films and how the notion of “going to the movies” has changed in the city over the years.

There is a Now and Then pictorial history of neighborhood theaters, a recreated set from the T.V. show “Frasier,” and a number of interactive activities including a green screen that places visitors into some of Seattle’s most iconic settings.

In the Linda and Ted Johnson Family Community Gallery, a space designed for sharing experimental and collaborative community exhibition projects, the first show is a collaboration with Arts Corp, Seattle’s largest youth arts organization.

On hand are pieces produced by Seattle students at Cleveland and West Seattle high schools, who were asked to bring MOHAI’s photographic archives to life through poetry and spoken word.

Still to open is the Center for Innovation, an exciting addition (due to be unveiled next fall) funded by a $10 million personal donation by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

The center will explore Seattle’s role as a place where innovation and entrepreneurship flourish through a permanent exhibit, classes, lectures and youth programming.

Another new feature of the museum is an on-site café, where diners can enjoy freshly made seasonal fare, while taking in the stunning views out to Lake Union and across the park to the Space Needle.

And for shoppers, there’s a well-stocked store, just inside the Grand Atrium, with a wide variety of products, including art pieces, jewelry, toys, home décor, collectibles, photos and books for sale.

MOHAI’s move to its new home also allows the museum to expand its public programming and provide a range of experiences that help people explore Puget Sound history.

“Our goal is to share the past in order to make sense of the present, while striving to create a better future,” says Lauren Semet, marketing and communications associate for MOHAI. “We want people to get excited about history and to take ownership so that we can continue to preserve it. There’s so much we can learn from our history.”

For more information: (206) 324-1126 or

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