Block by Block

A new donor wall in the Tacoma Paper & Stationery building honors those who made UW Tacoma possible.

UW Tacoma is unique among institutions of higher education: many of its classrooms and offices on campus are housed in historic warehouses. These buildings have gradually been transformed since the university’s inception in 1990. Work on the last unrestored warehouse—Tacoma Paper & Stationery (TPS)—was finished over the summer.

Thirty years ago UW Tacoma was just an idea. A handful of civic leaders worked to make it a reality. Over the years they were joined by different individuals, businesses and organizations. Their generous contributions helped launch new programs, construct new facilities, expand services and increase access to college through scholarships and other forms of aid.

Now seemed a fitting time to honor the university’s history and those who shaped it. “We're at this confluence of past, present and future,” said Vice Chancellor for Advancement Joshua Knudson. “We wanted to create something that would showcase where we are and where we’re going.”

Knudson tasked the creative services staff in the Office of Advancement, led by senior designer Megan Kitagawa, with creating a piece that would honor the individual donors and endowments that have helped build UW Tacoma. A handful of designs were tried, but ultimately staff decided on a wall made from beams reclaimed from the refurbished TPS building. “The display is made up of almost 220 different pieces,” said Knudson. “They come together to make something truly remarkable and timeless.”

The finished donor wall measures 24' by 6' and weighs more than 1,500 pounds.

Collin Culdice: Wall Builder

Five years ago, Collin Culdice surveyed his life at the time and decided he wanted something different. The Navy veteran held various jobs after leaving the service. Culdice, a Montana native, worked as a welder, electrical engineer and a fabricator. ”What do you call a Montanan with two jobs? Lazy,” quipped Culdice. “Good jobs are hard to find, so most people have to work at more than one place.”

In 2012 Culdice sold everything he owned and moved to Seattle. He had a passion for woodworking and wanted to make that his profession. His decision to relocate stems from a desire to expand his reach and create new opportunities. “I started out with a couple grand in my pocket and not much else,” he said. “I slept in my car for a bit to save money.”

Culdice opened Blue Snow Montana in downtown Seattle. The gallery serves as a showcase for the different projects created by his team. The operation has grown since its launch to include teams in both Seattle and Montana.

Culdice won the bid to craft the furniture for TPS based on a plan to use reclaimed beams from the building to make new tables and chairs. He first heard about the donor wall from colleagues at Mortensen Construction—the company hired to overhaul TPS. “The University of Washington is very dedicated to helping disabled vets like myself,” said Culdice. “I decided to put in a lower bid as a way of saying thanks to an institution that gives back.”

Collin Culdice sanding one of the 220 blocks that make up the UW Tacoma donor wall.

Work on the donor wall began in early May. Culdice and his staff had to be methodical in their approach. There was a limited number of beams and any mistake in the process could jeopardize the entire project. Making matters worse, a lot of the wood was cracked. “Some were so cracked that they’d break within a year,” said Culdice. “It took a while to find the best pieces.”

The first step involved milling a large 24" by 24" by 20" beam that would later be sandblasted to include a recognition statement. The beam needed to be smoothed and cleaned up without losing its character. “We wanted to maintain that organic quality,” said Culdice. “It couldn’t be something you’d find at a home improvement store. It couldn’t be perfect.”

Next, Culdice and his team chopped two more beams into different sized blocks. The sizes and shapes of the wood blocks correspond to different levels and types of giving. These pieces were then milled before being sandblasted with the names of donors. Historic images from Tacoma were also printed on a handful of blocks and are placed throughout the larger piece, amidst the donor name blocks.

Finally, Culdice installed the donor wall piece-by-piece. Every block has a specific location. “You had to place that first block just right. Otherwise, by the time you got all the way around, you’d be several inches off,” he said. Culdice spent the better part of two weeks—including weekends—setting the blocks into place with a mallet.

The finished project is set to be unveiled on Sunday, September 17 at the TPS building. Culdice plans to attend the ceremony. “I’m excited to see the response from other people,” he said. Culdice, who has a seven year-old son, is thinking about the future. “It would be a hoot if he went to school here,” he said. “He’d walk by that and know his papa made it.”

The refurbished TPS building will be home to new classrooms, labs, and meeting spaces. None of this, nor the rest of the campus, would be possible without the assistance of the names on the donor wall. This message isn’t lost on Knudson. “I hope when students walk past this they see a community of support,” he said. “A lot of people are invested in their futures and truly want them to succeed.”

Section: 
Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / September 13, 2017
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu