A large wooden building at the mouth of the Montlake Cut sits on a spot that for 8,000 years was a portage for Coast Salish people. It will soon be featured in an exhibit at the Museum of History and Industry which will open on November 24 and a major motion picture which will open on December 25. The building looks like an old airplane hangar, which it was. It is ideally positioned for storing rowing shells, which it has. It was built just before a Spanish Flu pandemic struck and will be refurbished shortly after another pandemic (Covid) subsides.
In 1918, that building, now known as the ASUW Shell House, was constructed on the campus of the University of Washington as a hangar for sea planes. It was part of a larger Naval training area built at UW to prepare young men to fight in World War I. Cadets arriving by train that summer from the eastern United States probably brought the Spanish Influenza with them. By fall the pandemic had spread from the Naval training area throughout Seattle.
In the 1920s, the building became part of an athletic complex at UW and was home to the both the men’s rowing team and the shell-building operations of George Pocock. In 1936, the UW crew, in the “Husky Clipper” built by Pocock, won Olympic gold for the United States in Hitler’s Berlin. That story is central to the book, “Boys in the Boat,” by Daniel James Brown, which has been adapted for film and produced by George Clooney.
By 1949, the UW rowing team had moved to the Conibear shell house nearby. But Husky rowers and Pocock shells remained dominant. In 1958, the UW crew was the first United States sports team to compete in the Soviet Union since World War II. They won the race by beating four Russian crews.
Paul Meyer was a member of that 1958 team. Husky rowing was in his blood. His father, also named Paul, and his older brother Roger also rowed at UW as have all Meyer men since. The elder Paul Meyer later coached rowing programs at both Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Puget Sound. Those teams have been competing each other in the Meyer cup for more than 50 years. The younger Paul Meyer died in 2020 during (but not of) the COVID-19 pandemic. History doesn’t repeat itself. But sometimes it rhymes and sometimes it offers alliteration. The life of this Husky rower included not only the pandemic, but also Pocock, partners, persistence, and place.
George Pocock was Meyer’s first-year rowing coach. He also built two cedar racing shells that Meyer owned at the time of his death. One of those was a single that was commissioned as a graduation present by Meyer’s parents. The other was a double that Meyer kept at his home in Lake Chelan where he often rowed with partners from the Ancient Mariners – a team of older rowers in Seattle that he helped to form in the 1990s.
When Meyer passed away, his life partner of 11 years, Jody Nyquist, wanted his boats and his rowing memorabilia to be preserved. One of Meyer’s Ancient Mariner friends introduced her to Nicole Klein who is heading up a campaign to raise the money needed to refurbish the shell house. Meyer’s rowing mementos have been cataloged by the UW library. One of Meyer’s Pocock boats graces the large open area inside the shell house and the other is likely to return to the place it was built – Pocock’s shop on the mezzanine level above.
Nyquist met Meyer through a mutual friend at church. While she never learned to row, they did enjoy many activities together including backpacking, hiking, and international travel. Their relationship bloomed slowly, but Nyquist said that Meyer pursued her with a passion. “Persistence was his middle name.”
At his memorial service, she told a story about his persistence and his rowing. While they were traveling in Florence, Italy, Meyer saw rowers on the Arno River and decided he wanted to row in that historic venue. It took sleuthing to find the crew house. Then, while wearing his UW rowing singlet, Meyer persuaded the coach to let him take a test row across the river. He won the opportunity for a longer row by demonstrating what fellow Ancient Mariner Art Wright described as his “perfect Pocock stroke: quick catch, smooth power, and quick hands away.”
After finding out about the shell house renovation project, Nyquist demonstrated persistence of her own in assisting Klein with fundraising. “She came to the shell house where I was working in the cold. We went through Paul’s box of rowing things,” Klein said. “Then Jody learned that the project was kind of stuck in this really precarious place during COVID.” The building had been saved from destruction in 1975 when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. But for years, it had been underutilized and poorly maintained. A campaign to raise money for renovation started in 2017.
Klein said, “In 2020, during the height of the COVID pandemic, we just didn’t know whether this [renovating the shell house] would ever become a priority to anyone with the world in a pandemic. But Jody said we just needed to get more help. And then sure enough she started rallying her troops and getting people fired up and excited about giving.”
Klein’s goal is to finish raising the $18.5 million required for the renovation before the “Boys in the Boat” movie premiers in December. The final phase of the “pull together” campaign was launched on Veteran’s Day – a fitting day for a place that was built for World War I operations and that watched over rowers who competed successfully in Hitler’s Germany and in Russia during the height of the Cold War.
Paul Meyer did not know about the campaign to renovate the ASUW Shell House before his death during a pandemic. But that building, which was born during a pandemic, seems likely to be revived and to create new alliterations and rhymes that celebrate Ancient Mariners, Pococks, partners, persistence, and place.