EVERETT — Eight feet tall and showing a century’s worth of wear, the imposing captain’s wheel looks adrift in the basement entrance to Snohomish County’s Carnegie Building.
Count this artifact from the Everett’s storied steamer Black Prince among the relics, oddities and antique appliances now searching for a home.
Not so long ago, the Snohomish County Museum of History appeared to have found a semi-permanent place for its tens of thousands of objects at the old Carnegie library. The historic setting at Oakes Avenue and Wall Street seemed ideal for the private, nonprofit museum — until lease negotiations with the county fell apart this spring.
More recently, the county told the museum that it had until mid-August to move its collection from storage in the Carnegie Building’s basement to make way for renovations. That has sent the museum packing — literally — in a quest for new digs.
“We decided it was best for us to look around, and we found a couple of buildings downtown that would put us right in the cultural district,” said Barbara George, the museum’s executive director. “Of course, I’m disappointed. The Carnegie Building is just a perfect place to have a museum. It’s history all by itself.”
The museum’s travails come during the 150th anniversary of Snohomish County’s founding in 1861.
The move is the latest in a string of setbacks. The museum hasn’t had a place to display its collection since 2007, when it closed its space at 1913 Hewitt Ave. because of financial problems.
In April 2007, a Baker Street warehouse where the museum was storing its collection caught fire. Flames didn’t scorch anything, but water used to douse the fire drenched thousands of items, including old newspapers, insurance maps and antique clothing.
Most of the objects were salvaged, but the mishap created a mountain of work requiring drying and even freezing some objects to prevent further damage.
It looked like a turn of good fortune when the museum moved to the Carnegie Building in late 2008, expecting to use the space for 50 years. The original plan was for storage, with the hope of someday forging a separate agreement for exhibits.
Like many others across the country, the scaled-down version of the 19th-century Boston Public Library building was built in 1905 with a grant from industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Over the years, it became a funeral home, county offices and offices for the county jail’s work-release program. Converting it into a museum seemed like a logical use.
The problem was the estimated $5 million to $6 million price tag for renovations.
“It’s basically going to take gutting it to put it back together again, and the county doesn’t have the money for that,” George said. “And I’m not sure we’d ever have the money for that either.”
The Carnegie Building’s future use remains undecided, county facilities director Mark Thunberg said. A law library is one option under discussion.
The museum collection needs to move soon so that the county can start work on $665,000 in retrofits to make the building more earthquake resistant. A grant from the Washington State Historical Society is paying for those upgrades.
The bidding process is likely to start in a few months and actual construction to last up to a half a year, Thunberg said.
The museum has a temporary arrangement for keeping its collection at Everett’s Culmback Building on Colby Avenue.
One of the people rooting for the museum’s success is Peter Jackson, a Northwest writer and son of the late Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, the U.S. senator from Everett. Peter Jackson helped secure a small grant for the museum after the fire and assisted its directors on a long-term strategy. He said the collection includes gems and junk alike. Eventually, he wants to see some of those objects displayed in a way that avoids stale dioramas or other yawn-inducing approaches to the past.
“The hope was to create a place that really breathes life into the history of Everett and really makes it relevant,” Jackson said. “It’s not just a place for relics, but for revealed history.”
Items that could figure into displays include a gun from the 1916 Everett Massacre, the bloody labor battle on a city dock that left deputies and union members dead.
There’s also a wood and glass phone booth with a bullet hole through it. George is researching whether anybody was inside when the projectile passed through.
Old projectors, sewing machines and stoves account for other pieces. There’s also jewelry made of human hair — popular in the Victorian age if somewhat gruesome by today’s standards.
George wants to find new lodgings for the museum quickly to minimize the amount of moving and risks that come with it. She’s uncertain they can meet the county’s mid-August move-out date, though.
“Every time you move your artifacts, things happen. Things get broken,” she said. “The less we can move it, the better off the collection is. We’re hoping to find a place soon.”
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.