A Flying Bird that can't quite see where it's going.
January 6, 2015 12:28 PM   Subscribe

On January 22nd, the Art Deco ferry boat Kalakala, from the Chinook word for "Flying Bird, will be towed to the Blair Waterway where she will be dismantled for scrap. The vessel is renowned for her streamlined appearance and storied history. The 80-year old vessel was operated at times by the Black Ball Ferry Line and Washington State Ferries. In less glamorous times, the vessel was operated as a cannery in Alaska The vessel was towed from Alaska to Seattle in 1998 for restoration. Despite ambitious plans, the restoration was never completed, resulting in what now seems her inevitable demise. Amusingly, it was impossible for the bridge crew to see the bow of the vessel while it was in operation More Kalakala at UW Libraries Special Collections. Previously.
posted by stet (28 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I have only heard people refer to it as the "Twinkie"....
posted by miyabo at 12:36 PM on January 6, 2015

Things about the boat I couldn't find citations for but are based on my visit when she was moored in Seattle are that the engine didn't have any capacity to change directions. When the ferry wanted to reverse to return to the previous terminal, as ferries do, they'd shut the whole thing down, reset the timing, and restart the engine to run in the opposite direction. Also, researchers at the University of Washington apparently found bacteria living in the bilge that were feeding off oil.
posted by stet at 12:37 PM on January 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Streamlining a car ferry above the water line seems like a fool's errand. Even if you can improve the drag coefficient by 50% (which is generous), the drag below the water line is going to be a vastly bigger impact on the performance of the vessel. The density of seawater is a thousand times higher than the density of air, so assuming the draft of the boat is 1/3 the total height of the vessel (and we'll even be generous and assume a similar drag coefficient in the water) then you're looking at 330 times more drag from the water than the air.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:52 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Huge, huge failure of planning and engineering, but a great piece of design. Wish they'd shine 'er up and make a little waterfront cafe and museum, but that would probably cost millions on top of everything else.

If we're lucky, some of the coolest parts will be peppered around the NW in bars and restaurants by the water. Oh!! Maybe they can make a custom light rail car out of it!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:58 PM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

It was more of a fashion statement, and the need to replace a rotting wooden superstructure, than looking for performance gains. The new aluminum panels were lofted by Boeing engineers. The hull was very old riveted iron plate construction a la the Titanic.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 12:59 PM on January 6, 2015

Some libertarian billionaire needs to step in and renovate it and make it a floating tax-free Utopia. That thing is too beautiful to dismantle.
posted by jbickers at 1:01 PM on January 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

Let her die and rest in peace; as I've said before it's like digging up Grandma's bones and trying to put her back together.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 1:03 PM on January 6, 2015

The Kalakala was docked for a while in North Lake Union in Seattle a few blocks from where I grew up and where my mom still lives [Hi Mom]. I think it's beautiful. It might not be a spectacular feat of engineering but the design harkens back to Streamliner Trains which were so awesome when I was a kid.

I wouldn't tear down the Chrysler building to erect another glass box but money prevails.
posted by vapidave at 1:09 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Huge, huge failure of planning and engineering, but a great piece of design

It's a shame people think that design does not need to solve problems or conform to a plan to be considered 'great'.

Stylistically the ferry is interesting, and the story of the ferry is incredibly interesting. But as a *design*, it's a folly and a failure.
posted by stephencarr at 1:15 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

If the Chrysler Building was in the state the Kalakala is in you wouldn't have to tear it down.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 1:19 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Moderne/Loewy/Streamline style was equally silly on locomotives and pencil sharpeners (and Kitchenaid mixers), yet they're icons of beautiful industrial design. The Kalakala, even in her battered and stripped condition after serving as a floating fish cannery, really is beautiful on the outside.

I was a member of the non-profit attempting to restore her, and went to many events hosted on her car deck. She was available for rental as a party space, but of course had no heat and iffy electricity from shore power. We could barely even afford the berth fees, but there was even a thought to remove the superstructure off the hull and use it as a land building. That was even more expensive than minimal restoration. The hull and most of the structural support under the skin was failing.

It's very sad to lose this one-of-a-kind design, one of the largest non-architectural Moderne objects ever created.
posted by Dreidl at 1:26 PM on January 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

Streamlining a car ferry above the water line seems like a fool's errand. Even if you can improve the drag coefficient by 50% ...
The speed a car ferry travels at, aerodynamics have pretty much no impact at all anyway. It wasn't about drag, it was about style.

It's a shame that so much of this sort of history is beyond saving, even if it had to be relocated to land (if the hull was failing, it was never going to work as a ship anyway), which would have significantly reduced the restoration costs, I imagine.
posted by dg at 1:42 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's a children's book about the recovery effort. I think I'll put off telling my kids that, actually, the dream was just a touch too big this time. :-(
posted by rouftop at 1:43 PM on January 6, 2015

The bridge and wheelhouse were entirely built out of copper. It was feared that the steel used in the rest of the vessel would interfere with the ship's compass.

I wonder how much copper that amounts to. Nowadays if you tried to operate it as a ferry you'd get metal thieves booking tickets and spending the duration of the journey trying to surreptitiously hacksaw chunks out of the bridge.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:16 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's very sad to lose this one-of-a-kind design, one of the largest non-architectural Moderne objects ever created.

More room for more bad design now!
posted by hal_c_on at 2:35 PM on January 6, 2015

My great-grandfather was a ferry boat captain on the Kalakala. My mother speaks fondly of visiting him at work and riding around the sound as his special guest. We have always hoped that the boat would be restored in some capacity, so this is a sad day.
posted by butternsugar at 2:49 PM on January 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

But as a *design*, it's a folly and a failure.

Thirty-three years in revenue service being, I suppose, a mere footnote.

Look, I'll concede you that the streamlining is mere style, but it was a popular style of the era. The operational compromises are also demerits, obviously. But it did not fail due to the design, and I don't think one can say it failed at all. No lives were lost or fortunes destroyed because of this vessel. To call it either folly or failure, I think, betrays a misconstruction of the meanings of either of those words. It was a success, and the design is practically the only reason it might have been resurrected in any event.

Anyhow, I fully understand what it's like to invest a lot of energy in a project that you ultimately lose -- I've just been through something like that. My view on historic preservation is that adaptive reuse is key, and that means that a structure does need to have an economic purpose and needs to be convertible to something useful within an affordable budget. You can't save everything, and certainly not after forty years of retirement and really malign neglect of the type associated with using up an old horse in cartage until the glue factory. It was being consumed in its later life, and nobody realized it was already too late, alas.
posted by dhartung at 4:02 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

posted by Annika Cicada at 4:33 PM on January 6, 2015

It's an anomalous object, that's what it is. Boat superstructure is rarely if ever decorative. If it's not strictly functional, it's in High Rich Macho. Apart from bowsprits and swan pedalos, was ever thus.

It's a shame. I'd love to see a cruise liner in Gothic Revival, or a neo-Brutalist battleship.

It is a shame it's being scrapped. But anomalies have to be dealt with.
posted by Devonian at 4:47 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, cool! I grew up in the St. Louis area, and I'm pretty sure that anyone else from that vicinity will be reminded of The SS Admiral on the Mississippi river - I believe the Admiral was somewhat larger in length and beam, although I'm not certain about displacement.
posted by doctor tough love at 4:49 PM on January 6, 2015

Neo-Brutalist battleship, you say?

(And tangentially related, there's also the current stealth genre. Though this one appears more deconstructivist, if you ask me.)
posted by dhartung at 5:10 PM on January 6, 2015

No lives were lost or fortunes destroyed because of this vessel.

That's not quite true:
A 1928 miscalculation caused her bow to dip as the ferry was landing in Oakland, which led to the drowning of five passengers.
But I agree with your point all the same.
posted by funkiwan at 5:38 PM on January 6, 2015

Kalakala would have been a sweet match with the restored US Naval Reserve/ MOHAI building, itself a period piece at the south end of Lake Union. It's next to The Center for Wooden Boats (where you can take a free sail or boat ride on weekends during the summer), with their floating collection of lightships, a famous movie tug, and other small craft.
posted by Dreidl at 5:38 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I personally like the design. However, every historic preservation project has a tipping point where it's no longer feasible to save it. Buildings may last decades, or lifetimes, and still be worth saving. Unfortunately for the Kalakala, its tipping point passed a long time ago.
posted by Liiint at 5:38 PM on January 6, 2015

In the late 90s I dated someone who lived in the Fremont Fine Arts Foundry, owned by Peter Bevis, the man responsible for towing the Kalakala to Seattle in 1998. The Foundry was a pretty magical place in and of itself. My girflfriend's apartment shared a wall/door with the pouring room and one of the rules of the space was that it was an art space first, living space second. Residents were permitted and encouraged to do their work at all hours and it wasn't uncommon to get woken up at 3am by the sounds of the metallurgical arts. We were on the 2nd floor and could open a side door and look right down into the pour space, a bird's eye view into huge cauldrons filled with molten metal.

Peter was passionate about the Kalakala and I attended a couple of events on-ship. I will never forget watching Tron from the deck. I remember attending a dimly lit dance party and there were jagged edges, rust holes of various sizes, the larger ones cordoned off with orange cones. The boat felt solid but a little dangerous. If you wanted to play on the Kalakala you had to respect that the space was barely adult-proofed let alone child-proofed.

I'm glad there are people like Peter Bevis in this world who take chances and pursue dreams like The Foundry and The Kalakala. They both added a ton of magic in my life and by any measure that matters to me were both unmitigated successes. I'm sorry to see the Kalakala go and feel lucky to have known her when I did.

posted by funkiwan at 6:21 PM on January 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

I recognize the utter impracticality of the project, but I do wish it had worked at least to preserve it as a floating cafe or place to serve artisanal toast, because it was a cool looking boat.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:08 AM on January 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

posted by Sublimity at 5:54 AM on January 8, 2015

The Kalakala went to the scrap dock today. They had it all planned so that she would tip over on her side when she ran aground -- but she didn't. She stayed upright. They had to shove to get her over and even then she didn't tip all the way. Good girl.

Tacoma News Tribune story.
posted by librarina at 9:58 PM on January 22, 2015

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