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Oldest Working Finnish Sauna in Seattle

Oldest Working Finnish Sauna in Seattle
Kurt Manchester and Sauna prepare for move Finished sauna in East Garden

January 28, 2018 dawned cold and overcast at the old Nordic Heritage Museum, with rain and temperatures dipping into the low 40s. The day marked the final transportation of the museum’s sauna structure to its new location in the east garden of the new Nordic Museum on NW Market Street.

Over the preceding eight months, museum staff and volunteers had worked to prepare the sauna–originally built between 1914 and 1918–for its future display. On October 31, 2017, it was temporarily moved to the old museum’s parking lot with the help of a forklift from Ballard Transfer Company, and lifted onto wood blocks on loan from Pacific Fishermen Shipyard for elevated support at its corners. The following two weeks in November saw repairs made to the sauna’s foundation, with several new fir timbers and steel corner braces added to bolt the wood into place.

Much of the direction for this stage of work was provided by Nordic Museum Board member and ship engineer, Kurt Manchester. His expertise ensured the sauna’s framework was strapped securely into place for the transport process, and he led the team of volunteers from the local shipyards to cut and fit the new timber additions. (The team even included a member who had previously moved the sauna in 1999.)

On the morning of January 28, a lift crane provided by Cascade Concrete Industries was used to remove the cedar shaker roof from the sauna, so that height restrictions would not pose a safety concern during loading and transport of both the roof and main structure. A lift chain was attached to the center beam inside the roof, allowing it to be lifted off and placed onto one truck flatbed. A second flatbed trailer was used to load the 8,200-pound main body of the sauna.

The two-mile trek down to NW Market Street took place in a downpour: months of planning and schedule-coordination weren’t going to be undone by Seattle’s winter weather. Once the trucks arrived safely in the south parking lot behind the new Nordic Museum, a five-person rigging team, overseen by Collections Manager Fred Poyner IV, worked to hoist first the sauna body and then the roof into the air and over into the garden. A large, portable crane provided by NessCampbell Crane + Rigging lowered the sauna onto a concrete pad in the northwest corner of the garden. After 45 minutes, the roof was lowered into place as well, and secured on at the front and back joists.

By the time of the Nordic Museum’s grand opening on May 5, 2018, new landscaping including several birch trees had been added around the sauna. An interpretive kiosk station inside the Nordic Orientation Gallery offered visitors information about the piece as a collection item (NHM no. 1998.074.001) along with details about the Finnish word “asuna” and its cultural significance as a leisure pastime.

The history of the Museum’s sauna is directly tied to the immigrant history of the Pacific Northwest and Finnish culture. It was originally constructed by Johann Wierlo, an immigrant from Estonia who first came to the United States in 1908. He settled in the Finn Hill community near Bothell, Washington in 1910, where he started an egg and chicken ranch and built both a house and sauna from cedar logs. His son, Ed Wierlo, described the process of the sauna’s construction in a 2017 interview: “He basically took a big, round cedar log, and then shaved it-cut the sides, so that he had basically a slab about six inches wide . . . you can see that it’s got the box end construction.”

Originally designed as a “savu sauna,” Wierlo’s sauna used a corner heater–“kiuas”–with a wood fire to supply heat. Steam, or “loyly,” was generated when water was thrown on the heated rocks. Two raised benches provided seating and ran the ten-foot interior length of the sauna’s main room. A small dressing chamber measuring three feet by eight feet led from the main door to the interior sauna, while two horizontal vents cut into the logs high up allowed for ventilation via hand-slides on the sides.

Ed Wierlo recalled that both Estonians and Finns shared the sauna his father built over many years and generations. According to him, weekends were a traditional time in the community for its use: “Saturday was the big occasion of the week. You’d have to start a fire probably at 10, 11 a.m., and let it burn all afternoon. By 5, 6 p.m., the rocks were hot, and then people would come to go to the sauna. The first person in would have to throw a small pan of water on the rocks. There typically would be three or four families that would come to our place to take a sauna. “

Saunas were important to Finnish-American communities developing in the Pacific Northwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this time public saunas prospered. They provided the rare luxury of relaxation for families, as well as a way to spend time together. Saunas also provided a centralized place within communities for immigrants to meet other Finns (and in Wierlo’s case, Estonians) to speak in their native languages.

As people began to move into larger towns and cities, they would visit their family members or friends in rural communities who still had space for a sauna. Then with the invention of the electric sauna, units could be installed anywhere. Urban homes could now have a sauna and spas and gyms began to add them across the country as well. Public saunas fell by the wayside.

When the Wierlo homestead land was being developed for condominiums in the late 1990s, members of the community there –including Ed Wierlo–arranged to have the Finn Hill sauna donated to the permanent collection of the Museum in 1998. An assessment of its condition at that time by Jan Kiaer of A.I.A. & Associates remarked on the sturdy construction and how well it had stood up over time, calling the workmanship “excellent” and that “the sauna is exquisite in its simplicity and a fine example of indigenous Finnish architecture.”

 In June 1999, the sauna was successfully transported in one piece to the former Nordic Heritage Museum’s south lawn.

While its use as a static display as an interpretive model proved to be valuable for the museum for many years, it was not something that visitors could fully appreciate: access was limited to looking through the sauna’s single original window on the side of the structure, and visitors were not allowed inside. In 2018, as part of its mission to both preserve and enhance access to museum collections, the museum began planning a remodel of the sauna’s interior spaces.

The purpose behind the sauna remodel project was two-fold. The first goal was to return the sauna to its original state, exposing the original cedar log surfaces inside the sauna, as it was first designed and utilized by the Wierlo family and others at Finn Hill.

The second goal was to make the sauna functional once more, so it can serve as a working model for people to enjoy as a living part of Finnish and Finnish-American culture. To this end, the removal of the lead-coated paint inside was necessary to ensure the safety of future users, while the addition of a new electric-powered kiuas (heater) eliminated potential damage from open flames, while still providing heated steam and an authentic sauna experience. Original two-tier bench seating running the length of the second room was reconstructed. New lighting was added, along with new, heat-resistant glass to the existing window pane. Cedar slat flooring covered the concrete pad and allow for water drainage.

The potential impact of a working sauna at the Museum is great. Timo Lahdekorpi, one of the project’s supporters and an experienced sauna advocate of 66 years and counting, relates the power of the experience for visitors: “Historically steam was considered the “spirit" which connected sauna takers to the dead. Going back 3,000 years ago, the sauna was much more a spiritual thing such as sweat lodges still are with Native Americans. If you go back far enough in time, they both likely originated somewhere in Siberia. The Finns just embraced the concept and kept it alive and developed the sauna into what it is today.”

As a community project, the sauna represents an ongoing tie to Finnish and Estonian cultures and means by which Nordic and non-Nordics alike can share this cultural experience. Manchester advised on the engineering of the structure; Lahdekorpi secured a donation from Finlandia Sauna of Portland of a new sauna heater and wall controller, as well as assisted with other design details and material sources. Additional volunteers helped with carpentry, bench installation, and stonework for the heater box.

With the support of the Nordic Museum Finland Committee and other heritage groups, the Museum’s sauna provides an important link to the shared past of immigration history of the Pacific Northwest for generations to come.


This article by Fred Poyner IV originally appeared in a slightly longer form in the 2019 edition of Nordic Kultur. Since publication, all the reconstruction has been done and the sauna is now fully working. Those interested in using the sauna should contact the National Nordic Museum's Operations and Facilities at 206-789-5707.

Photos of the sauna and Kurt Manchester from the move in October 2017 and the sauna in the East Garden.


Sauna in East Garden