The Works Progress Administration put Depression-era people to work and built a legacy of rustic-style fieldhouses in King County that still serve the public.
Some people think that early-20th-century rustic Arts & Crafts-style housing and lodges disappeared as America entered the Great Depression and that, by the time we got into World War II, “modern” was on the drawing boards everywhere. But a visit to five fieldhouses in King County parks built between 1937 and 1940 will convince you otherwise.
The earlier vocabulary is here to see: true log construction, river-rock and stone foundations and walls, and wood-paneled interiors with mammoth stone fireplaces. This month, King County celebrates these vestiges of President Roosevelt’s ambitious New Deal and the formation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) by presenting these buildings and sites to the State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation for recognition in the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
The WPA coordinated programs of various federal agencies that provided work to the unemployed during the Depression. WPA merged with the Public Works Administration in 1940 to become the Federal Works Agency. By 1941, the agency had employed more than 8 million people — a fifth of all workers in the country. In about nine years, it completed more than a quarter of a million projects encompassing nearly every field of economic and social activity. In King County, these programs left a valuable legacy of artistic, literary and historical accomplishments, as well as a wide range of public works — roads, bridges, docks, sidewalks, flood-control projects, parks, schools and public buildings included.
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This public-private partnership with communities led to the acquisition and improvement of at least 15 park sites and the construction of eight major recreational facilities or fieldhouses between 1937 and 1940. Five of these fieldhouses (today called activity centers) and their associated structures at White Center, Des Moines, Preston, Enumclaw and North Bend remain in use as parks.
Their rustic style carried on a long-held tradition — the emphasis on harmonious design with a low impact on nature — that had its roots in the public park movement of the mid-19th century, the ideals of the Arts & Crafts Movement, and development of national parks at the turn of the 20th century. Old Faithful Inn, completed in 1902, is often credited with having influenced early parks buildings with a shared vocabulary of regional stone foundations and chimneys, and rafters, posts and beams made of exposed local logs and timbers.
It was a perfect fit. The Arts & Crafts Movement favored the beauty and honesty of traditional hand craftsmanship, the use of natural materials, and emphasis on simplicity.
Perhaps the first resort in Western Washington to espouse the virtues of the Arts & Crafts and the rustic style was Mineral Lake Lodge, built in 1906 by Scandinavians for the Tacoma vacation trade. But the peak of Arts & Crafts ideals was reached a decade later with Paradise Inn on Mount Rainier. Various buildings were developed in the rustic-style log and shingle treatments that became associated with the National Park Service, and the style continued to be used throughout the 1920s and ’30s. The Civilian Conservation Corps also encouraged rustic buildings in its projects.
Our fieldhouses are the best examples of Depression-era public works in King County, and continue to serve as important homes for recreation here.
Lawrence Kreisman is program director of Historic Seattle and author of “The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest.”Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.