An OCH-Style Community Boathouse by Dick Wagner

February 24, 2016

Avatar Dick Wagner

A Note from OCH: One of our mantras at OCH is to “learn from those who have the experience”. No one has had more experience in setting up a community boathouse than Dick Wagner, Founding Director of The Center for Wooden Boats (CWB) and OCH Guide. After reading this Post, you can watch OCH’s video that explores CWB and how it has brought people to the waterfront for decades. In his own words below, Dick shares the story of the original Boatshop and how they turned it from an old floating building into CWB’s first permanent structure.

This Houseboat Design Contest on looks to the future, and the submission guidelines ask: “HOW will the Community Boathouse be used, WHERE it will be located and, most importantly, WHY you want it to do these things?”

My submission below looks to the past, to more than three decades ago, when The Center for Wooden Boats (CWB) set in place our Boatshop, the first floating structure on our permanent site at the south end of Seattle’s Lake Union. I think we got it right in design and construction because, after 33 years of use, it still floats on its original logs and is still in daily use for boat building, maintenance and repair.

In 1978, we had received our IRS non-profit status, and our founding members were looking for a permanent site. We were readying the first issue of our newsletter, Shavings, when the editor issued a challenge to me: “Just turn on the genius and give us a Master Plan, something that will awe and inspire — or at least make somebody mad enough to come up with their own idea of what The Center for Wooden Boats should look like.”

I headed for my drawing table on the upper floor of our 1909 houseboat where CWB began as The Old Boathouse. As an architect I was pleased with the challenge. As I wrote in my notes at that time: “No site and no budget leaves everything to the imagination. . . Entrance experience: try to lessen the dreary impact of the parking lot, a necessary evil. Make the entrance, by land or sea, a surprise. By land you filter through two man-made hills (executive wine cellar under one and executive sauna under the other). Coming to the shoreline, a choice of which way to go. To the left leads to a covered boat exhibit with graphic displays and a library upstairs, walls lined with books and cabinets of boat plans.

IMAGE A_proposed site plan
“If you take the entry path to the right, you arrive at the Boatshop. Visitors’ Gallery and loft floor above. From the second floor view deck, take a bridge across to the Boathouse and visitors’ dock. Also, a boat ramp and parking lot for trailers are needed. Probably should have warehouse for general storage. Total land and water area: 300’ x 500’.”

A couple of years later we had identified our first choice for a permanent site: at the south end of Seattle’s Lake Union. We decided our whole operation would float and chose to style our floating buildings after Seattle’s turn-of-the-century liveries (boat rentals). By the time we actually started drawing out our buildings, reality set in. While we waited for our site use permit to be issued, my no-site, no-budget Master Plan shrunk to a single building, so I designed a multi-purpose structure that could grow as CWB grew. Docks on all four sides would accommodate our rental boats and allow access so we could repair and maintain them.

Judie Romeo - IMAGE B_east elevation

The building was 46’ x 20’; wrapping it with the docks made it 62’ x 32’. Using part of a $40,000 grant from the Oakmead Foundation, we obtained a floating building that had been on the lake since about 1906, most likely originating as a boat livery and later used for a variety of other purposes. Cedar logs—the very same ones that remain in place today—kept it afloat.

Judie Romeo - IMAGE C_boatshop transverse view

We rebuilt the structure from the floating base up, using Douglas fir and cedar shingles. We had to do this off-site because it would be 1983 before our site use permit finally was issued. By the time we completed the building, we still had $11,000 left from the original grant. With an OK from the Oakmead folks, we used it to buy tools and begin restoring boats. (By the way, the $29,000 cost of buying the floating building and rebuilding it in 1981 would be $83,528 today.)

Broad eaves sheltered the Boatshop docks and rail cleats for tie-ups ringed them. The sharp-peaked roof culminated in a cupola with clerestory windows that flooded the interior with light. Inside, the southeast corner became the reception area with a waist-high “fence” separating visitors from our work area. My dreamed-of second story view gallery gave way to an 8’ x 10’ space where visitors could safely watch us work. The loft room I envisioned was now rafter storage for lumber and other supplies, and the occasional boat or two.

The southwest corner housed a small office and plans files, with an adjacent enclosure for a marine toilet. (Soon after we moved the Boatshop to its current location, the adjacent marina gave us access to their restrooms ̶and showers! So we ripped out our marine toilet and installed a lockable tool closet.)

Judie Romeo - IMAGE D_boatshop interior view

The rest of the inside was the work area, with sliding barn doors on the north end and a sliding wall opening between work areas on the east side. Tool shelves, hooks and drawers lined the west side, with our “always on” coffeepot at the north end. Heat came from the wood-burning stove at the south end. City power service kept the coffeepot, lights and all our modern day power tools going. There was enough room for a boatbuilding workshop to exist side-by-side with repair activities (providing the boats were relatively small). When classes or speakers were scheduled, shop work was moved aside and the main area became classroom meeting space. We even had some special events there. Two of our volunteers, both professional carpenters, worked side-by-side long enough to fall in love and get married in the Boatshop. When the ceremony ended, they left in one of the lapstrake prams they had built.

Judie Romeo - IMAGE E_early Boatshop with ramp

On the outside, a ramp from shore and a modest landing dock provided access from the land side. Our rental fleet crowded up to the docks on the north end while boats awaiting work tied up on the south end. On shore, a bicycle rack stood adjacent to the ramp. Next came our open-sided Pavilion and a little bit of green lawn. A wood trellis welcomed visitors as they exited the small parking lot that filled the space between the uplands and Valley Street.

Judie Romeo - IMAGE F_1983 boatshop and rental fleet 1983
That pretty much takes care of the HOW and the WHERE of our version of a community boathouse, so it is time for the WHY.

In the years before CWB moved to its permanent home, the founding members and their friends and their friends’ friends were already building the community that would turn The Center for Wooden Boats into a bastion of experiential learning and a model for hands-on museums throughout the world.

To ensure that CWB would flourish, we set out to become an indispensable part of our local community. Once the Boatshop was in place and in use, we added the Pavilion on our uplands, for additional workshop space, and a second floating building, the two-story Boathouse, with a large room for exhibits, events and meetings, plus a library and staff offices on the second floor. This year we are constructing our first building on land, the Wagner Education Center. In it will be more classroom and more program space, particularly for youth programs, a Boatshop that can handle our larger boats and will give the public a better view. (Finally, here’s my viewing deck!) There’ll be enough work space for our growing staff. Our first Boatshop, where all of this began, still will be available for more workshops and skills training.

The coffeepot now is located in the Boathouse but the wood-burning stove (now, a newer, more efficient model than its 25-year-old predecessor) still glows through the winter damp and cold. The roof’s been re-shingled several times. The modest, manual haul-out has been replaced by an I-beam-mounted hoist that allows us to haul larger boats. The ramp that once deposited visitors right at the side door has been moved, and the Boatshop floats farther from the shoreline. The reception area now is in the Boathouse and visitors can try their hand at skills from knot-tying to using a block and tackle at interactive exhibits on the docks.

Judie Romeo - IMAGE G_Boatshop today

Boats awaiting repair or restoration still cluster round the Boatshop docks. Volunteers still learn new skills or employ old ones to keep our fleet ready for use. And the sense of common purpose and the excitement of passing along the skills necessary to keep traditional wooden boats afloat still pervade shop activities.

More than 20 years ago, the City of Seattle took notice of our contributions to the community and passed an ordinance that named our area a Maritime Heritage Center and declared that the public benefit we offered warranted a lower rent for our uplands. They recognized how well we are carrying out our mission, which is to provide a gathering place where maritime history comes alive through direct experience, and our small craft heritage is enjoyed, preserved and passed along to future generations.

That’s WHY we built the Boatshop, which led to the vital, successful entity The Center for Wooden Boats has become today. I hope everyone else who designs an OCH-style community boathouse enjoys the same achievement.


You can learn more about the Boatshop, Dick Wagner and The Center for Wooden Boats at their website. And remember to check out OCH’s video on the Wagners and The Center for Wooden Boats.

Lastly, we never shy away from giving a direct link to donate to The Center for Wooden Boats or become a member.


One Response to “An OCH-Style Community Boathouse by Dick Wagner”

  1. David Tew David Tew says:

    I remember the first time I visited in the seventies and how the whole place made me smile. What a vision and such admirable follow-through!

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.


Get Immediate Access,
Plus 10 of Our Best Videos

Your email is safe with us.
We'll NEVER share it, and we DON'T spam.