90 years young

90 years young

This December, the WAC officially turns 90!

By Mae Jacobson | Photos by John Bang, Ryan Castoldi, Alex Crook, John Granen, Emilio Huertas, Yosef Chaim Kalinko, Luke Rutan, Walter Zamojski, WAC archives

With roots deep in the soul of Seattle, the Club stands with as much strength and pride today as it did when the doors first opened. In times good and challenging, the WAC and its membership have persevered and prospered. Through it all, members have found a community unlike any other.

In honor of our 90th anniversary, we’re celebrating the friends, families, athletes, business people, community partners, and so many others who have defined this Club for generations. We invite you to reflect on our nine decades of history with a few of the photos that show it best. Here’s to 90!

1930s & 1940s

Our early years

Steam shovels broke ground on the corner of Sixth and Union on December 16, 1929. Exactly one year later, the art-deco Washington Athletic Club designed by Seattle architect Sherwood D. Ford opened its doors. In its earliest days, the WAC navigated the Great Depression and became one of the country’s first private clubs to welcome women members.

High-level athletics flourished. Legendary swimmer Helene Madison trained in the 6th Floor pool and went on to win three gold medals at the 1932 Olympics. Other WAC Olympians followed. So did high-level Club support. Early WAC members Royal Brougham, a legendary Seattle journalist, and booster Torchy Torrance, for whom Torchy’s Restaurant is named, helped raise funds for the University of Washington eight-man crew that famously took gold at the 1936 Berlin Games.

Five years later, WAC member support for American servicemen in World War II and their families began in earnest. A WAC Victory Work Center was established, and members sewed surgical dressings, sold war bonds, and organized entertainment events with proceeds donated to the Red Cross. By the end of the war, the WAC was estimated to have contributed nine years’ worth of hours in support of the troops.

1950s, 1960s & 1970s

Growth in the Golden Age

In the post-war days of the 1950s, social activities flourished at the WAC. Buffets, summer picnics, holiday celebrations, and performances of all kinds brought families together at the Club like never before. Bursting at the seams, the WAC was in desperate need of more space to accommodate growing membership.

In 1953, the Club began renovations and construction that involved major remodeling on the first four floors as well as the addition of a four-story south Clubhouse. The wildly colorful Rio Room opened on the 2nd Floor in 1961. The 1970s added eight more stories atop the south Clubhouse. This growth spurt included the 8th Floor gym and running track, sports courts, new space for women’s fitness, expansion of the Inn at the WAC, and three Czechoslovakian chandeliers in the Crystal Ballroom.

The goals and spirit of the Club remained, with a robust membership and outstanding Olympic-level athletes. Sibling pairs figure skaters Karol and Peter Kennedy won silver at the 1952 Oslo Games. Nancy Ramey swam to silver in the 1956 Melbourne Games. And runner Doris Brown placed fifth in the 1968 Mexico City Games. Another Club milestone came in 1978, when women moved beyond “associate membership” and received full membership rights.

1980s & 1990s

Modernization and a millennium

The 1980s and ’90s brought a new wave of firsts for the WAC. In 1984, Elaine Harfst became the first woman elected to the Board of Governors. The first issue of WAC Magazine hit homes in 1985. Torchy’s and Hagerty’s restaurants served their first guests in 1988.

The WAC Garage opened in 1989—a far cry from the original two dozen spots located below the lobby level of the Clubhouse. The 1980s also brought computerization to the Club. A June 1985 article touts a new Hewlett-Packard system for ordering foodstuffs. 

Member leadership roles also changed with the times. The establishment of the Program Board broadened the scope of social event planning and involved more men, a boon for women who were busy participating in the workforce like never before. Boxers and spectators flocked to the inaugural Main Event in 1996. And in 1997, the Blue Angels began their annual stopover at the WAC during Seafair.

In 1999, Marilyn Dunn became the first female Chairman of the WAC Board of Governors. That same year, Seattle drew international media coverage during the WTO Ministerial Conference, during which United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke at the WAC.

Like much of the nation, the WAC experienced economic expansion and welcomed new technology in the years preceding the turn of millennium. To usher in the 2000s, a time capsule was unveiled at the 1999 Jubilee and sealed at that year’s aptly named “Zero Hour” New Year’s Eve party. Containing historic messages and mementos, the time capsule is slated for opening on the WAC’s 100th anniversary!

2000s & 2010s

A new era begins

The first two decades of the new millennium kicked off with the Nisqually Earthquake in early 2001 and ended with the COVID-19 pandemic. Those historic moments bookended an era of expanded community involvement. The WAC hosted its first Morris Trophy presentation in January 2005 and launched a partnership with the Boeing Classic golf tournament that summer. In 2009, the Club forged a relationship with Special Olympics Washington. In 2016, the WAC founded the Sorensen & Scholz collegiate rugby awards. Two years later, the WAC became the official athletic club of the Seattle Seawolves pro rugby team.

Members also continued to show excellence in athletics and leadership. Member Sally Jewell served as U.S. Secretary of the Interior from 2013–2017. Rowers Hans Struzyna and Ursula Grobler competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics. Mountaineer Garrett Madison emerged as America’s top Everest guide.

Clubhouse improvements continued, as well. A major energy-efficiency upgrade completed in 2012 drastically reduced the WAC’s carbon footprint, and a 2013 lobby remodel included new terrazzo flooring and uncovered original crown molding. In 2018, the original Clubhouse, built with steam shovels on the precipice of the Great Depression, joined the National Register of Historic Places. It was a fitting honor for our downtown landmark. Greater, though, are the members past and current who beat at the heart of Seattle and have turned a building into a home.

Happy 90th anniversary!

See more photos on Instagram and Facebook!

As published in the November/December 2020 issue of WAC Magazine.

—Posted November 6, 2020

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