As an art-deco vessel, a beached fish cannery or a rusted-out carcass, the ferry Kalakala has always captured artists’ imaginations. Now Kirkland, where it was built, has plans to turn it into giant public art.

Share story

They do look forlorn, these pieces of steel that once belonged to the ferryboat that captured our imagination with its futuristic design.

You know, the Kalakala. The shiny boat with its sleek, rounded exterior variously described as art deco or Flash Gordon-like, the comic strip popular in the 1930s and ’40s. The boat represented a vision of the future from 80 years ago.

Now the pieces are made up of peeling paint, rust and ripped-apart metal. They’re the remnants of when the Kalakala was demolished in February 2015, and parts were saved for collectors.

Kalakala’s long and winding road

1927: Launched as San Francisco-based ferry Peralta.

May 1933: Peralta burns to its waterline.

1935: Rebuilt in futuristic design and launched from Lake Washington Shipyards in Kirkland as the Kalakala.

1935-1967: Travels Puget Sound as a state ferry.

1967-1972: Auctioned off, used in Alaska to process fish, then grounded for use as a cannery.

1988: Kalakala arrives in Seattle after purchase by foundation started by Seattle sculptor Peter Bevis.

2003: Kalakala Foundation goes bankrupt and entrepreneur Steve Rodrigues buys the boat at auction for $135,560.

2003-2004: Kalakala moves from Seattle waterfront to Lake Union, but evicted and towed to Neah Bay. Makah tribe sues to have it removed. State and the feds also order it out.

2004: Towed to Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma, thanks to Tacoma businessman Karl Anderson, who in 2004 took pity on the boat and allowed the rusting vessel to moor at a family-owned industrial site.

2015: Kalakala spent a decade at the Hylebos Waterway. Anderson estimated he spent $500,000 constructing mooring pylons, buying security cameras, installing electricity and pumps, removing hazardous material including asbestos, petroleum and PCBs, and hiring two men to monitor the boat 24 hours a day.

2015: Anderson forecloses on the boat and in February it is demolished.

Sources: The Seattle Times archives,

“It’s been decimated. That’s what attracted us,” says Ean Eldred, one of the partners of the Portland architecture firm of rhiza A + D, as he makes his way around the metal chunks. “It’s been neglected, and recovered, and neglected, and it just keeps coming back.”

These particular pieces, about 30 in all — the wheelhouse, two doors that opened for cars to drive in, a strip of portholes and some other items — sit in a corner of the NessCampbell Crane + Rigging yard in Bothell.

In the three years that have passed, weeds and moss have grown inside, and branches from evergreens are reaching in.

Eldred is at the yard because the firm and three artists all have submitted proposals at the city of Kirkland’s request on what to do with the salvaged material. The four proposals for the public art are for structures that could be 20- to 40-feet long.

This is going to be big, big noticeable art, like the boat once was. The citizens of Kirkland certainly will have something to talk about. Presumably there will be some sort of placard showing what the boat looked like to connect it to the art.

Otherwise, a casual visitor might only see shaped metal, and not realize the emotions it brings out in some.

“Flying bird”

In the architectural firm’s vision, the metal chunks would be part of a … giant bird.

Here is the logic for a bird that would be 80 feet wide and 15- to 25-feet high:

“Kalakala’ is ‘flying bird’ in Chinook jargon,” says Eldred. “So we thought, let’s take the ferry back to its origin, like a heron estuary.”

And so maybe the giant metal bird could be thought of “as the phoenix myth, rising from the ashes,” says Peter Nylen, another of the partners in the firm.

Kirkland bought its Kalakala pieces for $60,000 and had them trucked to the rigging yard. The city feels a kinship with the boat as it was built in 1934 at the Lake Washington Shipyards in Kirkland, on top of the hull of a burned-up, San Francisco ferry, the Peralta.

In its new, futuristic incarnation, it was a classy ferry, with 500 velvet-upholstered chairs, and at times its own eight-piece orchestra.

From 1935 to 1967 it served as a ferryboat in Puget Sound.

Then it was auctioned off, spending the next three decades with fish and shrimp smells permeating it. It was used in Alaska as a processor and eventually grounded and used as a cannery.

Seattle sculptor Peter Bevis saw its sorry state, formed the Kalakala Foundation, and in 1998 the aged beauty arrived in Seattle.

But the $5 million to $12 million to restore the ferry just wasn’t there.

In 2003, entrepreneur Steve Rodrigues, of Tumwater, bought the boat at auction for $135,560. His dreams, too, went by the wayside.

The Kalakala ended up at the Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma, thanks to Tacoma businessman Karl Anderson, who in 2004 took pity on the boat and allowed the rusting vessel to moor at a family-owned industrial site.

The Kalakala spent a decade there, and then Anderson foreclosed. In 2015, the Kalakala was no more.

Wes Wenhardt, head of Foss Waterways Seaport, the Tacoma nonprofit that with exhibits shows the Puget Sound maritime history, says he understands the emotions the boat still brings out.

“It’s a love affair that people have with this thing. You can’t define it or justify it. You just have to feel the passion for it,” he says. His group also got a couple of Kalakala pieces to exhibit.

Even if you are sick and tired of another Kalakala story, watching the video of its demolition can’t help but tug at you.

Rhine Demolition, of Tacoma, put together a 2 1/2-minute, time-lapse video that compressed about three weeks.

It begins at night, with the boat being towed in under spotlights to a “graving dock,” from which water is then pumped out. The Kalakala looks worn and old, but it’s still the majestic old boat.

The water out, the boat then is tilted to its side, and heavy equipment moves in. Long-reach excavators begin the dismantling; trucks move in; a big cavity forms at one end of the Kalakala.

It begins to look like a carcass, with a pile of bones to the side. Then, it’s gone.

Rusty chunk of Kirkland history

Numerous individuals arrived to buy a memento after the demolition, paying $1,500 or $50 for some part.

We do that, save chunks of structures that’ve met their fate. At least then we have some memories.

We buy the captain’s chairs from now-gone 13 Coins Restaurant just north of Denny Way to remember nights there. We buy the tiki statue and bowling lanes from the defunct Leilani Lanes in Greenwood to remember its kitschy times.

For $26,000, Reuben Forsland, a Vancouver Island custom guitar-maker, will even sell you “one of only 10” guitars made from “high-grade reclaimed wood, salvaged from the first Seattle home purchased by the Hendrix family that Jimi Hendrix lived in as a child.” You’ll still have to learn how to play the instrument, though.

Kirkland has an online survey for the public to help decide which of the four proposals will be chosen. The city might go with more than one, says Ellen Miller-Wolfe, the city’s economic development manager.

Plus, the city still has to figure out funding, and whether to seek private donations, or what, she says. Maybe the Microsofties driving through could chip in.

As for the three other proposals, here they are (and this is why they’re artists and you’re not):

Rik Allen, of north Skagit County: a spaceship-like structure that’s 40 feet high and resembles the Kalakala. Except that it would point up in the air, “now fitted for a future ferrying toward space.”

Brent Bukowski, of the Kootenai Lakes area in British Columbia: four decks ranging from 38 feet to 42 feet long, depicting the passenger, promenade and car decks of the Kalakala, as well as the “flying bridge” top part. “I wanted to create a public space in which people could go in and actually experience what some of those areas were like.”

Paul Reimer, of Cranbrook, B.C.: a structure you’d reach via a staircase, and be 18 feet long and 12 feet wide, and that you could walk around in. “It closely resembles the front of the ship. I wanted to pare down the feeling of the ship to its simplest form.” He also says that working with the salvaged pieces “would be a challenge.” Says Reimer, “They’re in awful shape. They look like crumpled pieces of paper. They were cut out of the ship with an acetylene torch that leaves a very jagged edge.”

Miniature replica

For those looking for a more realistic depiction of the old ferry, you can see a 6-foot model at Foss Waterways Seaport.

It’s made of cardboard, painted silver by Robert McCune, 75, of University Place.

For a couple of years in the 1960s, he worked as a deck hand on the state ferries. He retired as a load operator for the St. Regis Paper Co.

But he never forgot the ferries, including a few times when the Kalakala, then an extra boat in the system, was called into service.

“It was cold and it rattled all the way down to the hull. But we knew it was an oddball thing. Nothing like it in the world,” he says.

As a tribute to those he worked with, McCune decided to use photos and spend a month cutting and shaping and gluing cardboard to make it just like a miniature Kalakala.

At just 6 feet, it’s no match for the 276-foot Kalakala, which was nearly the length of a football field.

“It was challenging, getting the superstructure to where it was. Nothing was flat square, but all round,” says McCune.

He gave the model to the museum after his wife told him it was too big and to get rid of it, says McCune.

Kind of fitting, orphaned once again.