It’s a vision that’s 300 feet long, 100 feet wide and 116 years deep. The Foss Waterway Seaport has gone from old boats in a decrepit building to a jewel in Tacoma’s museum array — and Sunday it celebrates a major milestone. It now has heating and insulation, and can stay open year-round for the first time. With new art and history exhibits, education programs and events like Sunday’s reopening party (including music, cake and free clam chowder), the Foss Seaport is opening up its history to a reimagined future.
“This allows us to double or triple our impact on people’s lives as we celebrate Puget sound’s maritime history — past, present and future,” says Seaport director Wesley Wenhardt.
This renovation allows us to double or triple our impact on people’s lives.
Wesley Wenhardt, Seaport director
As he says this, Wenhardt is standing on a hydraulic lift with possibly the best view of the Seaport’s vast length and breadth. Thirty feet up, he’s level with a platform that’s home to something not particularly sexy but definitely life-changing for the maritime museum: a giant heating, ventilating and air conditioning system. Up here, it’s a visible metaphor for how old and new meet at the Seaport: 116-year-old Douglas fir rafters, worn white like ships’ hulls, stretch away down the expanse of the building, supported by a V-structure of inverted Howe trusses that look, themselves, like the underside of a giant boat. And nestled into them at the far end are the enormous silver ducts of the newly-installed heating system that runs around the perimeter of the ceiling like a play structure in a children’s museum.
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Until now, winter nights inside the Seaport meant thermal underwear and fleece. The museum closed every December. But thanks to this $1.8 million renovation, things have changed.
Visitors at Sunday’s opening celebration will notice even more space, partly thanks to how the dividing wall between front and back sections has been mostly removed to create a 300-foot-long view down the building. Exhibits have been moved around, allowing for performances like Sunday’s Puget Sound Revels singers and actors in period costume. New exhibits have been created that merge art, history and marine science in imaginative ways.
First, there’s the art. Framing the big glass entry and filling the northeastern corner is “Böts,” a temporary exhibit by Seattle artist Steve Jensen, who carves and sculpts reliquary boats out of wood and found materials. Set atop teardrop black pedestals carved by the artist from driftwood, the 2-foot-long boats speak of ancient Viking traditions and contemporary cultures. Several were in the Seaport’s 2015 show “Wunderkammer.”
Norwegian-born Jensen has made boats like these for actual sea funerals of friends and family, and they’re just big enough to hold human ashes. The ones in the Seaport — carved out of driftwood, cedar or madrona, sculpted from rusty steel or woven from old railroad spikes — are filled instead with symbols: a sea-green substance of glass and boat resin, artifacts inscribed with Chinese poetry and covered in a net of Chinese coins, a fish skeleton half-embedded in Serengeti mud. The contrast of these spiritual, sculptural vessels with the Seaport’s real, historic ones is powerful.
“It’s my way of dealing with (losing loved ones),” Jensen says.
Larger carvings dot the museum: a 6-foot carved boat hanging by chains from the rafters, a fiercely grinning seahorse that visitors are encouraged to climb on for selfies. (Post to the Seaport’s Facebook page.)
Then there’s the history. Sunday, visitors can see a new version of the Balfour Dock exhibit, with a video wall and timeline of the dock’s shipping history. The railroad exhibit is still there, as are the museum’s historic boats. Opening at Maritime Fest in July will be new exhibits in the back part of the building: a survey of Capt. George Vancouver and his expeditions and a toddler-friendly look back at 10 years of the Foss Waterway Superfund cleanup (complete with life-size drain hole).
There’s also the marine science. The Seaport has lately been incorporating more and more education programs, but, with a year-round building, it hopes to build something even bigger to teach Tacoma kids and adults about marine biology and ecology. New this summer is the enormous skull of a fin whale, donated by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, with a creamy, 18-foot elliptical jawbone. December will bring the complete skeleton of a humpback whale — found on a Puget Sound beach, decomposed under manure and this fall reassembled as part of an after-school course by Stadium High biology students. Two new marine science camps this summer will teach kids about marine life and ocean health.
Finally, there are events. Heating and insulation now turn the Seaport into a practical venue for parties, weddings and concerts — not to mention the raft of museum events being held this summer, from Maritime Fest to Paddle Days, Tall Ships, a Steam Weekend and a rare Willits Canoe Rendezvous. (See box for details.)
“We’ve morphed from being just a museum to education and events being an important part,” says long-term board member Luke Curtis, who has seen the Seaport go from condemned building in 2001 to a glass-fronted building that recently won an Outstanding Achievement for commercial renovation from the Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The Foss Seaport roof is held up by an inverted Howe railway truss system, built in 1900 by the Northern Pacific Railroad. The horizontal and diagonal beams are made of 150-year-old Douglas fir; the verticals are metal for greater strength. Many beams are 100 feet long. The wood-metal system is stronger than all-wood, and was the forerunner of iron bridges.
But for many visitors, and the artists now filling the Seaport with new and curious things, it’s the building itself that’s the attraction.
“It’s a fantastic space,” says Lisa Kinoshita, who curated “Böts” and is set to curate another in October. “The 45-foot ceilings, the light, the possibilities for performance art.”
“I love this space,” Jensen says. “For me, the smell and feel — it reminds me of my grandfather’s boat (in Norway). The transition between old and new is seamless. It’s not your typical museum experience, but for me that’s what’s really exciting. That’s what I love about it.”
Foss Waterway Seaport
When: Reopening party noon-4 p.m. Sunday. Regular hours 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, noon-4 p.m. Sundays year-round. “Böts” exhibit open through Oct. 9.
Where: 705 Dock St., Tacoma.
Admission: $25 families; $10 adults; $6 senior, student, military and children; free for 4 and younger. Free for fathers at Father’s Day reopening event.
Upcoming events: Standup paddleboard and kayak Paddle Days July 2, 9 and 30; Maritime Fest July 16-17; summer science camps July 25-28 and Aug. 1-5; Tall Ships (Hawaiian Chieftain and Lady Washington) Aug. 18-23; All About Steam Weekend Sept. 10-11; Willits Canoe Rendezvous Oct. 7-8.
Information: 253-272-2750, fosswaterwayseaport.org.