Phyllis Lamphere Oral History, Part 5: MOHAI, Lake Union, and Horizon House

  • Posted 10/18/2013
  • Essay 10636

Phyllis Lamphere (1922-2018), a native Seattleite, was deeply involved in the city's civic life for more than 50 years. She served on the city council from 1967 to 1978, where she was instrumental in pushing through multiple reforms and worked on many of the most contentious issues of a contentious era. After an unsuccessful run for mayor in 1977, Lamphere went on to work for the federal government, and she later formed her own public-affairs consulting firm. Among many other achievements, she was a driving force behind the creation of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center and served on its board for more than 20 years. In July and August 2013, Lamphere was interviewed at her apartment in Seattle's Horizon House by intern Callan Carow. In these People's Histories, organized by topic, Lamphere recounts some of the important events of her career in politics and public service and provides an inside look at the workings of government and the life of an extraordinary woman. In this last segment, Lamphere tells of her role in the relocation of the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) to a new home in South Lake Union Park, her lifelong connection to the lake, efforts to preserve the most recent 50 years of Seattle's history, and her work to enrich the lives of her fellow residents at Horizon House.

A Great Home for a Great Museum

As we developed the park, we were constantly confronted with the notion, "What are we going to do about that big building there?", which was the armory building. And there were several suggestions for it. The city had been using it as a community center, and it housed a number of little offices of small entities, nonprofits, and then the main floor was used as a basketball court and was leased out by the city for parties. It certainly was not improved, but the building was solid as a rock, and the maritime community thought it should be a maritime museum.

As we pondered it, and as I was on the MOHAI board then, I realized that MOHAI was going to have to move from its Montlake location because the state Department of Transportation was condemning it in order to use it as a work area for 520, a set-up area for 520. They had already issued the notice that they were going to take over, so I led the campaign to have the MOHAI board consider the armory location as a possibility.

We had already bought property at 800 Pike, across the street from the convention center, we had already purchased that, so it was a turnaround for the board to quickly determine the feasibility and the viability and the attractiveness of the museum at South Lake Union versus downtown Seattle. The feasibility study showed without a doubt that the better location was the South Lake Union location because the museum is so much related to children, education, lots of school groups, and much better that that be in an environmental-type site rather than an urban site. That was passed.

So I served on the MOHAI board from '03 to 2012, when we dedicated the new museum. I have served as vice president for outreach, I served as campaign co-chair to raise the money to convert that building, and it is absolutely gorgeous. Even in spite of tearing up Mercer and all the mess down there, people are coming in droves -- they love it. And the combination with the park right next there and all the activity on the lake, it's just like a fairyland. So I'm really thrilled and proud to have been a part of that.

Preserving the Past 50 Years

Even though the museum is dedicated and open, I'm still working very hard on one project for the museum. I had served as chair of a campaign that we called HistoryMakers. We gathered together leaders in the community who had been prominent in the second half of the 20th century, after the World's Fair and up to the dotcom age, because Seattle really blossomed in that period in every way.

I left here and went back east to school, and Seattle was a small town. The world's fair awakened us a bit, and we became known through people who came through either during the wartime or coming out here to work for Boeing or associated with the fair. But it was essentially as it had been long before, but there was wide recognition that things had to change.

With the city growing the way it did, a lot of things happened. So that period that was sort of a Renaissance period, following the fair and up to the dotcoms, had to be registered, had to be captured, and it was not captured in the then-current exhibits in the museum. It was just not there. We had a hydroplane and we had some assorted things, but nothing about how the business climate had changed, how the leadership in both the public and private had changed, what happened in the arts, all of these fields.

So I gathered together 80 people, down to about 60 hardcore, who had made that history, and the idea was to have them tell their story and get it recorded in some way. We did research, and then in the last two years, we filmed eight panel discussions on different subjects that were to say "what happened in the arts?" "what happened in industry?" over that 50-year period. They were on civic leadership, leadership public and private, the environment, industry, retail, philanthropy, arts, health, and there was one other. And we had outstanding people in those fields, and a panel discussion with a moderator who was knowledgeable in the field. And we videotaped them. So we had all that track with them telling their stories, which were fantastic.

An example: Upon being egged on, Bruce Nordstrom told the story of a gentleman who brought a tire into the downtown store and wanted his money back. He had bought the tire in a building that Nordstrom had subsequently inhabited in Alaska, and of course he got his money back, which was such a great illustration. And there were other similar stories from other leaders in retail, that these sorts of things are what developed what's known as the "Seattle way" of retailing, treat the customer no matter what. Which is a wonderful story. And we had that from him, and from George Bartell, and from Tomio Moriguchi, and from John Buller, with Kate Joncas, the head of the Downtown Seattle Association, chairing it. Fantastic quotes! And we had that in all of those fields, and it's all on video.

We also recorded 15, maybe 20 individual leaders who we wanted to get personal stories from. So I'm now going through those tapes and trying to compile them in a way we can use them, probably electronically, in a section of the museum to show that part of our development in those critical years. So that's going on, won't be finished for a while, but it's all available in the archives and in the library of MOHAI, so we've got it, it hasn't got away from us.

The Lady and the Lake

It's interesting my connection with Lake Union, which has been all my life. I grew up in the Wallingford neighborhood and I would take the streetcar downtown to my dancing lessons, and the streetcar went right past Lake Union, back and forth. So I watched that from a very early age, and was always sort of intrigued.

When I went on the city council, I was named planning chairman and had quite a connection with Lake Union again, because we were trying to figure out the roles and responsibilities and regulations for floating homes. The planning committee was responsible for the zoning everywhere, obviously around a lake was very serious stuff. Also, it was an era when the Shoreline Management Act was passed and we were thinking about preservation of lakes. The thorny issue of getting all those floating homes on sewers was quite a discussion, so I was involved in that.

Then when I was appointed to the Economic Development Administration, my office was on the fifth floor of the Lake Union building, which was right on the lake, and my office overlooked Lake Union and South Lake Union. And I constantly looked at that space, saying what a pity, it had old, old stuff there -- buildings and rip rap -- and the only thing solid there was really the armory. There was poor development all around. So that was my third insight, and no wonder that I was interested in improving that, because the lake is so beautiful and it had pretty much been abused in a lot of ways. And now it's beautiful again, and the armory and that park certainly add to that sensation.

Horizon House

My last effort that's current is here at Horizon House, where I live. I'm very active here -- I've been the president of the Residents Council, I have also been a board member of the institution's board, and I've been active in their art program. We have an outstanding exhibit, some of which dates back quite a ways, because we've been operating for over 50 years and we've periodically received art from families and residents and have some very valuable art collections. We have an art committee that continually works to improve that, so we've made major additions to it.

We have one corridor that's called the Northwest Masters gallery, and it's only works of the founders of the Northwest school, which is a very famous art school typical of this region. It has Tobey, Callahan, Guy Anderson, Morris Graves, and their colleagues. It's a wonderful section of our collection. We have another section, recently, dedicated early this year and we commissioned three pieces because in the revamping of the original campus in 2011 and 2012, the designers gave us a curved wall -- one section is about 40 feet, one is about 12 feet -- an architectural feature that they put in.

So what do you do with a curved wall? Well we decided that we needed to commission some three- dimensional art, which we did. I chaired that vetting committee and we interviewed about 12 different Northwest artists. And we wanted different media because most of our stuff had been two-dimensional, and with a curved wall you need something three-dimensional. To make a long story short, we commissioned a work by John Grade, who is now getting more and more famous. He recently received a prize for the sculpture he did for the new MOHAI. It's made out of wood from the Wawona, which is why we have a photograph of that and also a plank from the ship, so it's a little exhibit in itself.

We also commissioned a glass piece by Ann Gardner. She's very well known, nationally and internationally. And a third piece by a young woman who is a metalworking instructor at Pratt Institute. So we have metal, glass, and wood. And we called that series the Elements of Nature. So that was exciting to work on.

And the last thing I do in Horizon House is I try to arrange tours for our residents to special sites in Seattle. Seattle has so much to offer, and we have a bus so we can take people around. I've taken them to the Ferris wheel, I've taken many people to MOHAI, and we've gone out to a number of other locations. I want people to know the city and love it as much as I do.

To return to Part 4, click "Previous Feature." 


Callan Carow interviews with Phyllis Lamphere, July and August 2013.

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