Seattle's Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), formerly located in the Montlake area, will hold the grand opening of its new location on South Lake Union on Dec. 29.

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“What’s a MOE-high?’

Leonard Garfield has heard versions of that question often, even from people who’ve lived in the Seattle area for years.

But starting Dec. 29, a lot more people may know the answer.

That’s when the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) officially opens its new $90 million museum on South Lake Union in the former Naval Reserve Armory.

Years in the planning, the new museum shifts MOHAI from its longtime, relatively hidden home in a Montlake park to center stage in one of the city’s most dynamic, fast-changing neighborhoods.

“It’s a perfect location for us,” said Garfield, the museum’s executive director. “I call this the Seattle Center of heritage.”

On Friday, MOHAI staffers gave local news crews a sneak preview of the museum, still a work in progress.

Exhibits, grouped into major themes such as community and creativity, rise in four towers on the perimeter of a “Grand Atrium” open to the ceiling and 65 feet high at its peak.

Familiar MOHAI pieces are on display, such as the red neon Rainier Beer “R” and the 1919 Boeing B-1 floatplane that carried airmail between Seattle and Victoria. But so are items that have been in storage for decades, such as an ornate, life-size ceremonial dance figure donated to the museum in the 1950s by the people of Kyoto, Japan. The largest artifact is the 200-foot-long building itself, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Opened in the first year of World War II, the armory was a tangible, working part of the war effort.

It has hosted a drill hall, a simulated ship’s bridge, an indoor rifle range (with steel shutters to keep bullets from going astray) and other military training activities — all on a pier over the lake’s southern shore.

In 2000, the Navy transferred ownership to the city of Seattle, which made the building available to various community groups until the city reached an agreement with MOHAI in 2009.

No longer hidden

Established by a nonprofit historic association, MOHAI has existed since 1952, tracking and portraying the region’s history with displays, programs and artifacts.

But tucked into McCurdy Park south of the Montlake Cut, it was easy to miss.

“In our old location, if you didn’t have it front of mind, you weren’t going to happen onto it,” Garfield said.

The lakeside location puts MOHAI in an area undergoing a boom of office towers, restaurants and shops.

It’s in Lake Union Park, one of the city’s newest, and has grassy, open areas alongside it, the Center for Wooden Boats to the east and vintage vessels moored to the north.

Even the “Mercer Mess” congestion between Seattle Center and Interstate 5, less than pleasant for drivers, puts the museum in front of a lot of eyeballs.

Leonard expects annual attendance to increase from 60,000 at the old site to 100,000 at the new one, which has about twice the amount of display space.

Each area of the museum includes hands-on activities to engage visitors of varied age groups, said Ann Farrington, the museum’s creative director.

The youngest patrons, for example, may enjoy moving building blocks on a fabric map of the Lake Union area, creating different versions of the neighborhood.

Slightly older students might wield rubber mallets to hammer railroad spikes in a team effort in which their hammer strokes help “build” railroad trestles to connect Seattle with the rest of the country.

A more complex exhibit will explore how digital computer games are created.

In another area, adults and children alike may explore oral histories of past and present area residents, getting a richer sense of their community.

One end of the museum’s upper levels will house rotating exhibits.

The first, “Celluloid Seattle: A City At the Movies” will explore the city’s role in films and on TV, and will include a recreation of the living room from TV’s “Frasier.”

Financing the move

The new Highway 520 bridge project prompted the need to move, and the compensation the museum received from the state covered about half the cost of creating the new museum.

Most of the rest of the funding is coming from a $40 million capital campaign still about $3.5 million short of its goal.

Before the Lake Union site became available, the museum had been exploring a move to a downtown site near the Washington State Convention Center.

Of the museum project’s overall price tag, $30 million went into renovating the armory building, $15 million for exhibits, $17 million to ancillary facilities, such as a Georgetown building being used for workshops, storage and some offices. Other amounts have gone to endowment, reserves and institutional development.

Among key players in the project are LMN Architects, Sellen Construction, Pacific Studio and Weatherhead Experience Design Group.

Connecting the museum to its new neighborhood is a priority, Garfield said. Case in point: in a display about the area’s maritime history, windows look out onto a half-dozen vintage vessels moored outside.

The neighborhood feel of the museum extends even to its cafe, which opens to the outside, not requiring museum admission.

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or