Six years ago this month, Daniel James Brown’s book, The Boys in the Boat, which
reached No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, was published. The book tells the story of the legendary 1936 University of Washington crew that represented the U.S. in the Berlin Olympics, shocking the world (and Adolf Hitler) by winning the gold medal.
Two projects came about as a result of the book. Similar to an eight-oared shell, both continue to move forward, seeking the magic that occurs when everyone is rowing at the same pace and in the same direction.
Led by capital campaign manager Nicole Klein, the university is actively searching for a lead donor for comprehensive, $13 million capital campaign to restore, re-imagine and rebuild the ASUW Shell House that was the campus home for the ’36 crew and the builder of their sleek racing shells, George Pocock.
Between Husky Stadium and the Montlake Cut, the building had become
nothing more than a storage shed for paddle craft. Brown’s tome ignited a passion
for the history of crew at UW and a desire among leaders at the school to find a way to bring the 1920s-era building, built by Boeing for use by World War I float planes, back to life.
The genesis of the restoration into a proposed multi-purpose events center was detailed here in a Sportspress Northwest story in May 2018. Since then, Klein has been balancing her time among pursuit of permits, understanding building-code regulations and raising private money needed to pay for the project.
“We’ve spent a lot of time defining the scope of the project in real terms,” said Klein, who provided an example of changed requirements. “Originally, we weren’t planning on heating the building. We thought that was optional. But we found out that if we’re going to have people in the building, we had to have heat.”
Klein said there are three major gift asks in the community: “They were received well, but we’re still waiting to hear the final word.” The project was boosted recently when UW Foundation board member Mark Torrance made a $500,000 gift.
As with most who have read The Boys in the Boat, Torrance, a Seattle native, UW grad and philanthropist, was moved by the story and saw the benefit of saving a building that played such a prominent role in Seattle history. But his interest was piqued for other reasons, including the aspect of the book that reflects the idealism and optimism of youth during college.
“That book speaks to the University of Washington in many ways, not just crew,”
Torrance said. “The whole youth culture . . . they don’t know what they don’t know,
but they proceed ahead, and a lot gets accomplished. That place (The ASUW Shell
House) symbolizes that.”
Torrance also likes the idea of creating a building that will provide students with
communal space, while drawing visitors to a little-used, seldom-visited,
picturesque place on campus.
“I think it’s important for architectural reasons to get more people down in that
part of the campus,” he said. “It’s an area that’s not prominently featured. There’s not enough spaces for people right now. The HUB is really crowded. So it could become a great place for students to be.”
University funding usually goes to projects directly related to learning, but Torrance pointed out that the privately funded renovation says “the physical experience where you are learning is important, too. It can create a better student experience.”
Klein said Torrance’s gift allowed the project to move through the pre-design stage of
the project to seek a final estimate on overall cost.
The second project inspired by the book actually emerged before it was published. Brown reached an agreement in 2012 to sell the movie rights to the story to the Weinstein Company. But when co-founder Harvey Weinstein was arrested in 2017 after allegations of sexual abuse from more than 80 women, the company was shuttered and its assets, including the Brown book rights, auctioned off in 2018 to Lantern Entertainment, which recently merged with Spyglass Media, a part of MGM.
“Last fall, MGM agreed to co-finance, produce, and distribute The Boys in the
Boat,” Brown wrote in an e-mail last week. “My understanding is that MGM is
now working with a screenwriter to come up with a script and is negotiating with
some potential big-name directors.”
In the e-mail, Brown said he’s not at liberty to divulge names until a deal is made, but that despite the “long, tortuous road,” he is more optimistic that the story will eventually reach the big screen.
Klein and Torrance are also optimistic that, despite the fundraising and logistical
challenges, a revived ASUW Shell House eventually will celebrate the history of the crew program while making the lake waterfront a bigger part of campus life.
“These kind of opportunities don’t come along often,” Torrance said. “You couldn’t build that building now and have the character it does. You can’t re-create time.”
If the fundraising and rebuilding effort is successful, the project leaders will have come close.