Saving Bertha: The Effort to Turn a Piece of Seattle History into Art

By D. Scully


April 20, 2017

UPDATE, 4/27: Since publishing this story, there is now a GoFundMe page to support “Re-imagining Bertha.” The Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) as offered to provide a site for Bertha at South Lake Union,” the site explains. 

“We have 1 week to purchase the 57-foot-diameter, 400-ton cutter head. If we can’t come up with the funds, this solid-steel marvel of engineering will be cut up, sold as scrap, and melted down.” For more information or to donate, visit: 

After Bertha’s dramatic emergence from the nearly 2-mile-long tunnel she diligently, if erratically, drilled in service of a new, underground stretch of SR 99 (and re-opened Seattle waterfront), a certain post-drill pallor has descended upon the city. After all the fanfare and ceremony—not to mention millions of tax dollars—Bertha is scheduled to be dissembled and sold off for scrap, and soon. For those who have followed Bertha’s journey closely, it’s a sorry, anti-climatic ending for such a magnificent machine. 

But a small group of civic leaders are laboring to preserve a piece of Bertha, ideally as a work of public art to be erected or exhibited somewhere in the city, and are looking for a patron to step in and support the idea.

Seattle magazine’s D. Scully spoke briefly with project organizer and Seattle Landscape Architect/Urban Designer Guy Michaelsen, principal at the Berger Partnership (who you may remember as creator of the proposed “pool barge” for the waterfront), who explains.  

Seattle magazine: Who’s involved on this project?  

Guy Michaelsen: John Fleming, Seattle based artist, and me! John and I have worked on several successful projects that we are insanely proud of, including public art “Grass Blades” at the Seattle Center and the “Western Tapestry” “mural” that will flank the wall on Western Avenue, opposite the new Pike Pike Market addition. We love to dream and scheme about opportunities, and the reimaging of Bertha is one of these opportunities. 

SM: Is there a timeline for your vision to preserve a piece of Bertha? Before the scraps get hauled away, I presume? 

GM: The time to get a patron on board is asap. The dismantling of Bertha begins next week, to be cut up and sold as salvaged steel to be recycled. It’s a sad ending for an amazing piece of machinery and engineering. 

Design by John Fleming and Guy Michaelsen
Parts of Bertha’s cutterhead reimagined as a Stonehenge-type installation

SM: What else do readers or prospective patrons need to know about the idea? 

 GM: Seattle has an amazing, bold and sometimes, absurd legacy of reshaping the landscape of our city. Think the locks and Lake Washington ship canal, or the Denny Regrade, among others.  The new tunnel is another in that chapter, and is of an equally monumental and city changing scale! As a city we like to look at the black and white pictures of  how our city was shaped with boldness and optimism, yet we have no real way to celebrate or share those bold initiatives. There have been ideas to do so, but they have not materialized. The reimagining of Bertha gives us an amazing opportunity to tell the story of the boldness and engineering awesomeness of the tunnel, but to honor the legacy and historian of our city-shaping projects of the past. 

Now let’s be clear, the project has not been without bumps, controversies and delay, but that is true with all big, bold and ambitious projects, and hey, let’s not blame Bertha for our own political challenges!  While the tunnel-viaduct-waterfront conversations have been a subject of consternation, we believe, with the drilling done, that consternation is melting away and will be short lived. Bertha has been like kryptonite for so long, but that’s meting away with her successful completion of the tunnel and she could ultimately be treasured as the “little engine that could” piece of Seattle lore, or my preferred reference, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

Everyone John and I talk with and share the ideas for Bertha is excited about the possibility. There seems to be a universal opinion that it’s a missed opportunity to simply sell the cutterhead for scrap, amongst the public and even amongst the very people, companies and agencies that have led Bertha to her finish line in South Lake Union. We [have been getting] lots of support and additional ideas for consideration: possible sites to store Bertha, where we might place a sculpture, how we might ultimately fund it, but what we are missing is someone to come forward with the resources to forward the idea in a significant way. What is missing is a person, agency, entity, or organization who has the resources to help us make this happen. [When and if that happens,] the whole city will be glad we did. 

SM: Where do things stand now? 

GM: As things stand now, the idea has advanced from simply saving some parts and pieces of Bertha, to the idea of trying to save the whole of the cutter head. The thing about Bertha that makes her amazing is her mammoth scale and the scale of what she has built, so to really appreciate that scale, we would like to reimagine Bertha in a way that allows a person to feel appropriately dwarfed and inspired by the pieces of her.  

The initial idea was acquiring the cutterhead and storing it for a future art process. However, many encouraged us to advance the idea to a more developed concept to inspire people to see “what could be” and hopefully, support it. We (predominately John) have advanced a proposal to reimagine Bertha, taking her parts and pieces as she is dismantled, and not merely reassembling them but reconfiguring them and repurposing them into a new interactive piece of and, we hope, a venue that could welcome planned or impromptu performance. 

Our lighthearted code name is StageHenge, but I suspect there are better names that can and will emerge if the idea is allowed to develop. We imagine a sculpture people can walk through and experience passively, as the scale and aesthetic of Bertha is straight out of a sci-fi movie, but also one that is a catalyst for performance, planned or [otherwise]. The salvaged steel becomes a framework for much more, incorporating other materials, perhaps glass and wood, with integrated lighting to bring added life into the evening and potentially even sound. 

Our most immediate needs are funding to acquire the raw materials (aka Bertha), and a place to store them (ideally close to a site where the sculpture would be built to reduce shipping and moving costs). 

Once saved and stored, we will need to finalize a location, develop the design, go through some inevitable hurdles of approval, and most importantly find funding for the ultimate piece!  It’s worth noting however, the cost of the eventual “piece” will be relatively small, as we will have acquired the vast majority of the materials at salvage prices, a funding model John and I have used on past projects to deliver large, city-shaping scale projects, for very small scape budgets. See “Signals” and “erratic” in Redmond.

For more information about “Reimagining Bertha,” or to contact Michaelson to sponsor the project, call Berger Partnership at 206-325-6877 or email [email protected].

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