Center for Wooden Boats

Dick Wagner, 1933-2017:  Champion of Lake Union

Eastlake and Lake Union lost a dear friend and great champion with the April 20 death of Dick Wagner.  The Seattle Times obituary by Claudia Rowe tells how it all started:  Wagner grew up in New Jersey and was trained as an architect.  “But during the mid-1950s, en route to a summer job in San Francisco, he stopped in Seattle.  That sudden change of plans would alter the trajectory of his life and affect thousands of others.  He fell in love with the city, found a floating home to live in on the shores of Lake Union and eventually married one of his neighbors, the former Colleen Luebke.”

Dick and Colleen came to the lake when wooden boats were no longer dominant, and as the skills and commitment to build, maintain, and operate them were waning.  With genius and unstoppable verve, they threw themselves into preservation and promotion, founding the Center for Wooden Boats as a living museum where people of all levels of skill or income level could experience another era’s legacy aboard handmade wooden craft.   As Caren Crandell, first assistant director at the Center recalls in a tribute on its web site, “The goal was always to get a tool, an oar, a tiller, or a mainsheet in someone’s hand, so they could feel the wood, the water, or the wind as they discovered with amazement what they could do.”

Although Wagner was not an Eastlake resident (the family’s houseboat, the Old Boathouse, is in the shadow of the Aurora Bridge), he was important to Eastlake’s survival as a human-scaled neighborhood.  In the 1960s for the Floating Homes Association, Dick did drawings for parks at Eastlake’s shoreline street-ends—many of which became reality in the ensuing decades (a few still remain to be accomplished).   He also did drawings for traffic calming and greening of Fairview Avenue East, the earliest step toward the City’s 1998 designation of part of Fairview as a “neighborhood green street,” and the street design concept plan that the City is now reviewing.

Dick Wagner was a popular speaker at Eastlake Community Council meetings, as with a 2012 talk on “Mysteries of Lake Union,” based in part on his 2008 book, Legends of the Lake.  As ECC wrote in endorsement of grant funding for the Center for Wooden Boats, “No organization is better suited…to uncover Lake Union’s history and tell [its] story.  We regard CWB as the best organization of its kind anywhere.  The construction, restoration, and operation of a wooden boat require great care and an ability to tell its story.  In just that way, everything else that the Center for Wooden Boats does is equally well-planned, professionally produced, historically grounded, and effective at reaching a broader audience.”

ECC offers condolences to Dick Wagner’s wife, sister, two sons and grandchild. At his request, no public service was held.  But surely he would have been pleased that on May 21 a flotilla of historic wooden boats including the Virginia V, M/V Lotus, Tordenskjold, and hundreds of other smaller vessels sailed in tribute, between the Center for Wooden Boats and the Wagners’ Old Boathouse.

Donations in memory to Dick Wagner may be made to The Center for Wooden Boats (1010 Valley St, Seattle, WA, 98109), online at, or by phone at 206-382-2628.  Please include “Dick Wagner Memorial” in the memo or notes line.  ECC has made such a donation and encourages others to do so.


Article written by Chris Leman, reprinted with permission from the Eastlake News

CWB copy

sketch by Karen Berry

Memorial for Visionary Architect Philip Thiel at the Center for Wooden Boats

The caption under his picture says it all, “Citizen Thiel fights for a plaza above Brooklyn Station with his weapon of choice: an architectural model.”

And that’s what he had the first and only time I saw him; two years ago he came to speak in front of the Sound Transit Board (where I work) pulling that architectural model out from under his arm and good-naturedly made his case for a public plaza that would be like the great ones in Venice, Paris, and Rome.

It was, he told the Sound Transit board, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Photo by John Stamets

Photo by John Stamets

But the Professor Emeritus of Architecture and Urban Planning at the UW didn’t get to see his battle through, let alone won.  Philip Thiel died peacefully May 10, 2014 surrounded by family and friends. The fight for a public space above the Sound Transit University District Station is still undecided. The question is will it be the expected development, likely office space, over the underground light rail stop that opens in 2021, or will it be what Thiel envisioned, a public space along the lines of a European plaza.

The cause has been taken up by many others since being launched by Citizen Thiel.

One of those others helping to carry the torch is Cory Crocker who came across one of Thiel’s type written flyers promoting the plaza idea lying on a table at Café Allegro in the U District. Thiel had left the flyers around the café where he enjoyed free life-time coffee (thanks to another public space battle he led, that one, on the café’s behalf).

After seeing the flyer Crocker called Thiel. He helped take the cause high tech by setting up a website for U District Square – the heart shaped logo design was Thiel’s, and Thiel’s early passionate, type written flyers are posted on the site’s blog.

Thiel was insistent that community action could change the course of development, says Crocker, that government agencies and public institutions worked in silos without always seeing the big picture or understanding what was in the public good. Neighbors, Thiel felt, had to rise up and give direction, says Crocker. “Public streets really are owned by us.”

Crocker says Thiel put the idea of a public square out there showing that it could catch hold, become contagious.

Thiel was giving directions and providing inspiration for the square even from his deathbed.  Says Crocker, “his mind was sharp to the end.”

A memorial celebration for Phil Thiel will take place at the Center for Wooden Boats on August 17. Naval architecture was a first passion for Thiel, so it’s appropriate that the arc of his life would be celebrated there. He had a special affinity for designing pedal boats and tiny houseboats that as one commenter replied put everything wonderful together, tiny houses, boating, and bicycling.

The memorial is open to the public. Family and friends welcome those wanting to help support the cause of a public square in the U District and just ask that folks RSVP through the U District website for planning purposes at

Joining other visionary Seattle architects who have left their mark on the city, perhaps sipping a coffee at a small table, Thiel will likely be watching it all, as his family has said, from that great plaza in the sky.