Many threads wove together to bring us to Seattle for a Valentine’s Day weekend trip, starting with a happy accident. Back in December, we were in Seattle to assess a prospective Broadway investment, Come From Away, then playing at Seattle Repertory Theater. Hanging out with our friend Dave, we spent an idyllic, chilly but glorious sunny afternoon walking Olympic Sculpture Park.
Before meeting Dave’s wife Rasa and their son Gedi for dinner before the theater, we went up the Space Needle for sunset, and toured Dale Chihuly’s Gardens and Glass Museum at the base of the Space Needle.
As the light faded, the brilliant colors of the glass installations were beautifully illuminated.
Exiting through the gift shop, I walked straight into a stunningly beautiful Pendleton blanket, which turned out to be a Chihuly design for Pendleton, a limited edition offering of 250. I had to have blanket number 8. This came with a copy of Chihuly’s coffee table book on his collection of Pendleton and other trade blankets and his work inspired by them.
As arrangements were being made to ship it, I learned to my delight that this purchase also entitled us to two tickets to Chihuly’s Boathouse for a brunch in February, for which the date was not yet set. I had wanted to see the Boathouse ever since I first saw it in design magazines years ago. Knowing the first weekend in February was already reserved for our Sedona weekend/ Socorros dive trip combo, and that the last two weekends in February were already spoken for by the annual Sedona International Film Festival, I could only hope that the brunch would be scheduled for the only weekend still free in February.
It seemed a sign from the universe (or maybe a Sedona moment) when the brunch was scheduled for our only free February weekend, which also coincided with Valentine’s Day, and was a three day weekend, thanks to Presidents’ Day holiday on Monday.
As it happened, we already owned a copy of Chihuly’s Pendleton coffee table book. Steve had bought a copy in the friends of the library sale in Sedona, and it seemed the perfect union of our interests in the Southwest, as well as contemporary design. We have a tiny, nascent but growing, Pendleton blanket collection ourselves. Our first Pendleton blanket purchase was from the famous Hubell trading post, in northern Arizona, coming back from Canyon de Chelly. While in Montana in Glacier National Park in last August, we fingered longingly Pendleton blankets in a national park lodge gift store, but resisted. Later that fall, our friends Rob and Janice sent us a Pendleton blanket as a thank you gift after staying in Sedona.
Another thread that came together this weekend was reconnecting with our deceased, but fondly remembered, artist friend, Italo Scanga. Italo and Chihuly were very close friends, virtually “brothers”. We knew Italo spent time regularly in Chihuly’s Seattle studio. In some sculptural works, he fused found metal objects into sculptures incorporating glass vases wrought at the studio. Both Italo and Chihuly are represented by small glass pieces in our art collection. Cypress trees were a recurring motif in Italo’s work, recalling his native Italy. They appear in a painting of Italo’s in our collection, as well as in a small glass cypress tree, undoubtedly made up in Seattle. A small Chihuly basket, purchased from Italo, is featured in a niche in our kitchen. Another small painting we purchased from Italo incorporates cut up scraps from a Dale discard. I had heard that Italo had a permanent guest room at the Boathouse.
We have also been fortunate to have seen a number of memorable Chihuly installations, notably at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix in 2009 and the Salk Institute in La Jolla in 2010.
Both of these installations were terrific matches in terms of pairing Chihuly’s brilliantly colored and fantastically shaped creations with spectacular settings, one a man-made natural preserve and the other a rigorous minimalist Louis Kahn architectural landmark.
We were able to meet Chihuly once years ago, again connected with Italo, at a gala for the La Jolla Music Society’s Summerfest. My recollection is that they were artists in residence that year. Bringing the event full circle, it was held at one of our favorite houses by Wally Cunningham (who designed our house), the Saltman residence (Brushstroke Against the Sky) in La Jolla Farms. I also recall it as our first meeting with fellow art and architecture lovers Bob (an architect himself) and Catherine, who were to become good friends.
So, combining our interests in history, design, art, and architecture, it did seem destiny to finally have an opportunity to see the Chihuly’s Boathouse. And all through falling in love with yet another Pendleton blanket!
The weekend did not launch with the most illustrious start. We were flying up to Seattle after work on Friday. The plan was for Steve to drive to work, me to bike, and for us to leave from work, without returning home for luggage. This meant having to pack and be ready to leave by the time of departure for work on Friday morning. I gathered my camera backpack, a less than completely full small rolling suitcase and a large handbag together for Steve to bring with him to work.
Opening the back of the car after work, I was surprised to only see one suitcase. Steve, seeing my suitcase was not completely filled, had elected to double up and not bring a separate suitcase. I don’t like my clothes squashed, but could deal with this. I was floored to find out that, distracted by making coffee, packing, transferring luggage into the car, etc., he had not brought the large handbag, in which I plan to stash extra lenses during the Boathouse visit. My initial reaction was that we had to go home to retrieve it, thinking I had essentials in it. There were printed out itineraries, tickets for the theater on Sunday, and a few other desirable items, but heading north on Torrey Pines Road and immediately hitting traffic, I began to realize that this return home might just cause us to miss the plane. So, we turned around, left the car at work, and caught an Uber to the airport. Luckily, I had my wallet with my drivers license with me riding to work, which in the end, was the only truly essential item.
In Seattle later that evening, we rode the train into town, landing us a block from our hotel downtown. We had scoped out the hotel Andra while in Seattle in December, having lunch at Lola with our friend Dave.
The next morning, we set out early for the 9 am brunch at the boathouse. Summoning an Uber, Steve put in our location as the restaurant Lola, although we were actually standing on the opposite side of the street, having ducked into another Tom Douglas establishment, Dahlia Bakery. This confused our Prius driver, who swerved across three lanes of traffic in order to meet us on our side of the street, cutting off at least one other car in the process. This inauspicious start was our driver’s very first drive for Uber.
The boathouse is on the shores of Lake Union. The building itself is a large warehouse, utilitarian in appearance from the exterior. The interior is functional and attractive. The hot shop itself is furnished with wonderful vintage neon signs, from the No Tell Motel hotel and other illustrious hotspots. A crew was working there, shaping pieces for later assembly into a chandelier.
The adjacent space is lined with floor-to-ceiling bins of raw material, organized in a colorful tableaux.
Like Italo, Chihuly is an inveterate collector. As in the Collections Café at the Gardens and Glass museum, which showcases collections of anything you can imagine collecting withing glass topped tables, the Boathouse displays the breadth and variety of Chihuly’s collecting interests. Native American basketry is juxtaposed with glass Basket series works of Chihuly’s inspired by the woven baskets, while first edition classic children’s books line the restroom walls. A large room anchored by a gorgeous wood table surrounded by cushy leather club chairs has walls lined with Pendleton blankets, facing a wall of Edward Curtis portraits of Native Americans.
The pièce de résistance must be the impossibly long dining table, made from a single Douglas fir tree, 85 feet long! This was the room in which the brunch was served. Overhead was the sleek silhouette of the last racing shell built by master boat builder George Pocock. This was no coincidence. While at the Boathouse, I learned that the site is significant historically as the Lake Union former site of the George Pocock racing shell company.
We had learned about George Pocock listening a couple of years ago to a 2013 book we both loved: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown. It tells the story of the University of Washington rowing team, composed of working-class young men, whose success challenged Eastern and Ivy League domination of this sport, which was then wildly popular and followed by millions on the radio. The eight oar rowing team went on to win a gold medal at Hitler’s 1936 Olympics in Berlin. English boatbuilder George Pocock, the preeminent designer and builder of the fastest racing shells in the world of crew, is a central figure in the book. His career was based at the University of Washington. Crews racing Pocock shells won Olympic gold medals in 1936, 1948, 1952, 1956, 1960 and 1964. Pocock’s father and grandfather were boat builders on the Thames, with his father a boat builder at Eton. The original George Pocock racing shell company in Seattle was established on the University of Washington campus, but in 1962, the University administration decided that the private shell building enterprise being located on a public school campus was a violation of university policy, and so the operation was moved to the Lake Union site at which we now found ourselves.
One of the elements I was most intrigued by in publications about the Boathouse was the swimming pool. It inverts the glass bottom boat idea, featuring a glass bottom under which is a shimmering coral reef of glass. Chihuly reportedly swims for exercise there-having such a beautiful pool in which to swim must lower the barrier for exercising!
Several rooms of Chihuly’s former home were off-limits, marked by small “staff only” signs. One of them I had to inquire about. Over the door, in large raised letters, was the name ITALO. I trailed a nice, soft-spoken man who was walking a few people around and asked if this was for Italo Scanga, our artist friend, which, of course, it was. Wyn, architect of the Museum of Glass in Tacoma and now working in business development with Chihuly, willingly took us in.
Inside, there were watercolors of Italo in his studio, which brought back great memories for us. Examples of his artwork were prominently displayed in the suite. The walls were pressed tin and the ceiling wood planking.
Back in the Boathouse, there was so much to look at, I barely glanced at the food, which is almost a first for me. We finally collapsed in the leather club chairs in the room with the Edward Curtis prints, Pendleton blankets, native American baskets and pieces from Chihuly’s Baskets series, chatting happily with Wyn about art, travel, and architecture. By the end of the morning, we were fast friends.
It was a great morning, visually stunning, reconnecting with an old friend, and introducing us to a wonderful new friend!
A few weeks later, at lunch at Saffron with our Seattle friend Dave, now down in San Diego for a meeting, we chatted with Su-Mei, Italo’s long-time companion at the time of his death. Telling her excitedly about seeing the Boathouse, she said:
“Next time, you should lie down on the bed! It’s designed to put you at eye-level with the water!”
I had to laugh at this: “I don’t want to be greedy!”
It was already a dream realized just to see the Boathouse, and a bonus to spend a few minutes communing with our departed friend in Italo’s room, thanks to Wyn. But I filed away the idea, just in case there is a next time…