A Ballard Warehouse Dies So That Nordic Culture May Thrive | KUOW News and Information

A Ballard Warehouse Dies So That Nordic Culture May Thrive

Dec 15, 2015

An old metal lathe thunders in the massive warehouse on Ballard’s main street. It sounds like freedom to Denny Jensen, one of those toiling in the maze of workshops there.

“We’re so independent; we really like to be our own boss,” said Jensen, a metal fabricator. “That’s what this place gave me for 11 years.”

The 1950s-era Fenpro building is being torn down, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who has watched Ballard’s growth in the last few years.

But this change has a trade-off: The death of this warehouse means another Ballard institution will survive.

Next spring, a shiny new Nordic Heritage Museum is scheduled to rise in its stead.

Once upon a time, 120 employees worked at the Fenpro building, making windows for skyscrapers. Seattle lost a lot of businesses like that in the 1980s and 1990s, and Fenpro eventually left, too.

'Misbehaving' Employees
Denny Jensen with a metal lathe, one of the many old machines he restored and uses at the old Fenpro building in Ballard.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

The warehouse left behind a blank canvas for independent workers like Jensen.

“We had freedom to come in here, put holes in the floor, knock down walls, put up walls, do whatever it takes to make this place comfy and make it work for us,” he said.

Now the building is full of metalworkers, painters and artists. They make parts for fishing boats, custom bagpipes and treehouses.

When Jensen remodeled his corner of the building, he found a foreman’s notebook hidden in an old desk. It dated back to the 1990s and the days of Fenpro.

Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Jensen quoted the notebook from memory: “‘I had to tell Larry and Fred to quit standing around and talking. I told Gary to go do his work, and he told me to shut up.’”

“Things like that,” Jensen said. “It’s kind of petty, but it’s funny.”

Jensen says he likes all those “misbehaving” employees. “They were like my heroes,” he said.

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He kept the notebook to remind him of what he escaped by working for himself.

“When I’m in the shop, this dirty place,” he said, “I’m at home.”

It bothers him that next spring, the building will be torn down to build a shiny new Nordic Heritage Museum. That is, a museum dedicated to honoring history and culture.

“The museum, I guess they want to preserve and respect things, but they’re destroying this place,” Jensen said.

'If You Don't Change, You Die'

A rendering for the proposed Nordic Heritage Museum at the Fenpro site in Seattle's Ballard district. The building design draws inspiration from fjords.
Credit Mithun

Jan Woldseth Colbrese can relate.

“We can totally understand the situation that they’re in,” said Woldseth Colbrese, who works for the museum. “We’re in the exact same situation with the Seattle schools.”

The existing Nordic Heritage Museum lives in an old public school a few blocks from the Fenpro building. But Seattle Public Schools wants its building back by summer of 2017.

The museum is using the opportunity to reinvent itself.

“If you don’t change, you die,” Woldseth Colbrese said.

She noted a wooden trunk in her office. It’s tiny, big enough for some clothes and a pair of boots.

It’s the only piece of luggage her great grandfather carried with him on his journey to America from Norway. It raises important questions for her.

“What is it that you want to hold on to, that you know it will give you courage to start a new life?” Woldseth Colbrese said.

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Jan Woldseth Colbrese at the Nordic Heritage Museum with her great grandfather's trunk
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

The museum must raise $6.5 million more to pay for a new building at the Fenpro site. The clock on the museum’s current lease is ticking, and its oldest financial supporters won’t be around forever.

“If the building is never built, we would be a museum without a home,” said Woldseth Colbrese.

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Back at the Fenpro building, Jensen is cutting his losses. He’s looking for a new space now.

“I certainly don’t want to be the last rat off the ship,” he said.

He’ll take his tools with him. He’ll also take the foreman’s notebook he found, the one with the back-talking employees – in case he needs to remember where his journey started.

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Parts of the old Fenpro building date back to the 1950s.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols