After nearly forty years, the Nordic Heritage Museum closed its doors after the Yulefest last November. The museum first opened in the old Daniel Webster School on 30th Ave and NW 67th in Ballard in 1980, which 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 almost 109 years ago today — January 1908 as was also called Bay View School. Two months later, though, it was named after Daniel Webster, the great American statesman. The school had a steady enrollment of 400-500 students through the 1920s, and included some immigrant children who could not yet speak English.
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 peak 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 they call the meeting room/auditorium…but it’s always been the lunchroom for me and had a performance stage like many elementary and middle schools have today. I rented the auditorium for the UW 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 over 21 — made gløgg in the kitchen, I learned how to fold woven heart baskets for the tree. That Christmas was the first time I ever danced around a Christmas tree too, which also made it special.
Through the ensuing years, I’ve enjoyed concerts, plays, many travelling exhibitions, Viking days, and crowded julefests. I went to my first julefest in the lunchroom with my Norwegian language classmate, Kari. I mention this because here I am on the Scandinavian Hour, hosted for many years by Svein Gilje….from whom Doug and Ron eventually took 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.
I’m going to miss the immigrant’s journey — the Dream of America exhibit with old farm houses, a ship deck which even had a creaking soundtrack that made you feel you were really aboard. The old storefronts and the inner city cobblestone alley where Scandinavian immigrants gathered. I loved how the vendors at the julefests 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 slum 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 2nd and 3rd floor classrooms of the school, where the lessons were immigrant history instead of the 3 Rs.
Now the museum is moving out — but is far from gone – oh my no. It’s moving into a beautiful new building on Market Street, set to open May 5th, 2018, with dignitaries from Norway for the opening ceremonies. And the museum continues to host 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, and have 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 school, opening fall 2020. I hear they’ll even preserve the exterior brickwork, the meeting room/auditorium, and the halls and stairs of the 2nd and 3rd floors – the best parts. Now I just have to figure out a legitimate reason to visit.