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Originally published Thursday, May 5, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Blaine Newnham

New boathouse is home to all Huskies

No amount of public or private giving could change the name, or the real spirit of the place. It is still the Hiram Conibear Shellhouse...

Special to The Seattle Times

No amount of public or private giving could change the name, or the real spirit of the place.

It is still the Hiram Conibear Shellhouse. It is still foremost about Washington's rowing program, still sitting on some of the most gorgeous waterfront on Lake Washington.

But the renovated, $18 million building will undoubtedly do as much for football and basketball at Washington as it will for rowing.

"By far this is the best boathouse I have ever seen," said Bryan Volpenhein, the stroke on the eight-oared team that won the gold medal for the U.S. last summer in Athens.

"Can you imagine a football recruit standing here and thinking this is where he can meet his tutor, have lunch, just hang out in such a wonderful atmosphere?"

This is, in many ways, the last testament to the reign of Barbara Hedges as athletic director, her vision of a renovated crew house as a center for the athletic campus east of Montlake Boulevard.

"She was one tough sister," said Bob Ernst, the men's crew coach. "If this building hadn't have been started on her watch, it wouldn't have been started."

Those loyal to the storied UW crew program worried that the building would become a waterfront dining room for football players. Those who saw the decline of football wondered: Why spend the money on a sport as passé as crew?

Rowing can't do better at Washington or anywhere, with the five bays on the lower floor for 75 shells, the new locker rooms, the huge training room that actually looks through to the water.

"I have never seen it, a building like this," said Premysl Panuska, the coach of the Czech Republic national team here for this weekend's Windermere Cup.

"I wouldn't trade the kind of facility we have for anything I've seen in the world," said Ernst, who coached the U.S. women to a gold medal in 1984.

"I don't believe there can be any doubters that this is wonderful for the rowing program."

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The main feature of the 47,000-square-foot building — making it 75 percent larger than before — is the dining area overlooking Lake Washington through 18-foot-high glass panels.

The dining room and deck are open to all UW athletes and seat 250.

In the entrance to the dining hall, there are bronze plaques commemorating the careers of Conibear, the Huskies coach who invented the modern rowing stroke, as well as legendary boat builder George Pocock and former UW rowing coaches Al Ulbrickson and Dick Erickson.

There is a list of former UW letter-winners on the wall, as there was in the old boathouse.

And from the ceiling hangs the shell that carried UW rowers to the gold medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

"Rowing is evident everywhere," said Ernst, "but this is not just a rowing facility. We wanted other players and coaches to feel comfortable here, too."

The building has three components: the rowing quarters underneath; the dining room; and the academic services area, replete with a large computer room and tutorial and study centers.

"Genius," said Ernst, "to combine those three."


TOM REESE / THE SEATTLE TIMES

The renovated Hiram Conibear Shellhouse features a dining room with 18-foot glass windows, rowing quarters and an academic services area. "Genius to combine those three," said Bob Ernst, Huskies men's rowing coach.

The structure, designed by Miller/Hull Architects of Seattle and built by Sellen Construction, stresses the views of the lake. It is light — even down below — and for the most part ventilated by open doors and windows. It is modern, light, almost Starbucks-like, and a serious building at the same time.

"The vision of Todd Turner and Tyrone Willingham and Lorenzo Romar, and certainly my vision," said Ernst, "was of a building that was a place to train, to study, to eat and to relax while being a focused student-athlete."

Unlike the new football locker room at Oregon, for example, there are no video games or even old-fashioned billiard tables.

"We believed this was right for Washington," said Chip Lydum, the assistant athletic director in charge of facilities. "Frankly, we didn't want to distract from the surroundings."

The hope is that while athletes might be drawn to Xboxes at Oregon, their parents will see the value of quiet study areas in a serene setting at Washington.

Washington, of course, has always had the advantage of having its rowing facility on campus. The Huskies have won 12 men's and 11 women's national rowing titles; the men finished second to Harvard the past two years.

"Princeton, Harvard and Washington do their rowing on campus," said Ernst. "The advantage is huge.

"Across the country, there are many new off-campus rowing facilities. But there is nothing like this."

Outside, the shore has been rid of all but native plants. A rustic road sign tells you it is 803 miles to Berkeley, the home of archrival California; 2,828 miles to Camden, N.J., the site of the national championships; and 4,763 miles to Henley in England, where the Huskies have rowed on the Thames.

"I like that the new shellhouse was built over the stones of the old one," said Eleanor McElvaine, the women's crew coach.

There were times when the old crew house was a jock dorm for not only rowers, but football players.

"Dick Erickson used to tell stories of the guys sleeping on the deck in cots and shooting rats with pellet guns," said Ernst.

"I like this. We've brought some recruits and their parents over to see the building, and I don't think we've lost one. It will be fun to see what Tyrone Willingham can do with the building, too."

Just like it was planned.

Blaine Newnham: 206-464-2364 or bnewnham@seattletimes.com

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