Saying farewell to a beloved building

Seattle’s Nordic Heritage Museum upgrades its space, but the old digs will be missed

Nordic Heritage Museum

Photo: Eric Stavney
The home of the Nordic Heritage Museum since 1980 will soon be back in use as an elementary school again.

Eric Stavney
Seattle

After nearly 40 years, the Nordic Heritage Museum closed one set of doors after Yulefest last November. The museum first opened in the old Daniel Webster School on 30th Avenue and N.W. 67th in Ballard in 1980, and it was a perfect setting for a history museum. Especially because I have a personal connection to it.

There were first some temporary buildings at that location in the early 1900s, comprising Bay View School. Then construction began on a more permanent structure, the beautiful old brick building we have today that opened 110 years ago—in January 1908. Two months later, the school was named after Daniel Webster, the great American statesman. The school had a steady enrollment of 400 to 500 students through the 1920s, and included some immigrant children who could not yet speak English.

Webster School staircase

Photo: Eric Stavney
New generations of Ballard residents will soon enjoying the school’s hardwood stairs—though presumably not the boiler room.

Among the students from around 1910-1920 were my grandfather Luthard and his brothers and sisters, Evelyn, Dagna, Valborg, Waldemar, and Gerhard Stavney. That’s why it’s always been special to me to walk the wood-floor halls of the Nordic Heritage Museum, up and down the old creaky staircases, and marvel at the steam radiators that elementary schools had even in my day. Just before they closed in November, I got a peek into the boiler room in Webster and saw what must have been the original Kewanee Type C boilers from when the school opened. Pipes and valves bristled from the two giant green loaves of bread with black doors.

Daniel Webster School closed in 1979 and suffered a roof fire but was repaired by the Pacific Nordic Council.

Soon after it opened in 1980, I brought in a 15-foot Christmas tree into what I guess the Nordic Heritage Museum called the meeting room or auditorium… but it’s always been the lunchroom for me, a room with a performance stage like many elementary and middle schools have today. I had rented the auditorium for the University of Washington Norwegian Club to host a traditional, classic Norwegian Christmas party, even though I never had one growing up. Some of the older students—the ones older than 21—made gløgg in the kitchen, and I learned how to fold woven heart baskets for the tree. That Christmas was the first time I ever danced around a Christmas tree.

Through the ensuing years, I’ve enjoyed concerts, plays, many traveling exhibitions, Viking days, and crowded Yulefests. I went to my first of these in the lunchroom with my Norwegian language classmate, Kari. And now here I am on the Scandinavian Hour, hosted for many years by Svein Gilje, from whom Doug and Ron eventually took over the program. Unless I’ve done my homework wrong, my friend Kari Gilje is Svein Gilje’s daughter. It’s a small world indeed, especially among us Scandinavians.

Nordic Heritage Museum old boiler room

Photo: Eric Stavney
Just before the museum closed in November, the author got a peek into the boiler room in Webster and saw what must have been the original Kewanee Type C boilers from when the school opened.

I’m going to miss the immigrant’s journey—the Dream of America exhibit with old farmhouses, shops, and a ship deck with a creaking soundtrack that made you feel you were really aboard. The old storefronts and the cobblestone alley where Scandinavian immigrants gathered. I loved how the vendors at the yulefests set up right in the doorways of those stores, as if they were street vendors in old Norway. For some reason, Santa pictures were always taken in the inner-city tenement exhibit, which I found amusing.

I’m going to miss the fishing exhibit, but especially the logging exhibit. A recording with a guy singing the classic, “Logger Lover” as you wandered among the sawblades and sharpening shack was nostalgic in the extreme. I’ll miss all the rooms devoted to Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden. These exhibits were in the second- and third-floor classrooms of the school, where the lessons became Immigrant History instead of the three Rs.

Now the museum has moved out—but is far from gone. It’s moving into a beautiful new building on Market Street, set to open May 5. And the museum continues to hold events in the Seattle community in the meantime, from Nordic Story hours to film festivals and other performances.

I’ve been afraid to ask about the future of Webster School, having feared the worst—the wrecking ball. But Eric Nelson, the museum’s director, told me Seattle Public Schools is taking it back again and will renovate it into a modern school to open fall 2020. I hear they’ll even preserve the exterior brickwork, the auditorium (lunchroom), and the halls and stairs of the second and third floors—the best parts. Now I just have to figure out a legitimate reason to visit.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 9, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

You may also like...