MyView: Anniversary a chance to reflect on project's place in our culture

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Timberline Lodge's place in Northwest culture is still being celebrated 75 years after it was dedicated by President Roosevelt. The lodge was a massive WPA project that involved local artists and craftspeople during the Great Depression.Sept. 28 marks 75 years to the day since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s motorcade wound its way up Mount Hood to deliver the president and first lady to a magnificent and nearly finished Timberline Lodge.

Earlier that morning, the president had presided at dedication ceremonies of Bonneville Dam.

It was a big day for Oregon. Following a federal Works Progress Administration music and dance presentation in Timberline’s outdoor amphitheater, the president stood at a podium on the lodge’s front terrace and looked out at an impressive view of the forest below and the beautiful sweep of the Cascade Mountains. He dedicated Timberline Lodge “as a monument to the skill and faithful performance of workers on the rolls of the Works Progress Administration.”

Roosevelt stressed that Timberline was “a place to play for generations of Americans in the days to come.”

Until that time 75 years ago, the U.S. Forest Service had trails, roads, picnic sites and campgrounds planned for our federal lands, but they remained on the proverbial shelf. It took the ambitious New Deal to fund and implement them.

For the most part, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration provided jobs to an idled economy, and recreational infrastructure for a young nation.

At a time when people were questioning the American Dream, Timberline Lodge, Bonneville Dam and other public works projects became examples of what could be done in a land that had seemed to have lost its promise.

Social usefulness

Unlike most WPA projects, however, Timberline was not a big utility project. Instead, it was, of all things, a ski lodge; a place for recreation, contemplation, health and enjoyment. It was to be a place that celebrated the region and its natural environment with an indigenous and organic style of architecture.

As WPA administrator Harry Hopkins wrote, it was to be “an investment in social usefulness.”

Funded as a Federal Arts Project, Timberline Lodge was to focus on architecture, old-world quality, fine art and craftsmanship. It was to be a work of art itself, and it became the Northwest’s crown jewel of the WPA.

Timberline Lodge marshaled a proud and productive on-site workforce of 450 men. Many hundreds more men and women made its furnishings and textiles in Portland workshops.

Consistent with the objectives of the New Deal, the Timberline project took a decidedly resourceful track. It was built mostly by hand with local, recycled or repurposed materials. With this project, the government was addressing one of the era’s concerns that American society was rapidly losing the skills of traditional trades.

Remarkably, the road, the site, the furnishings and the lodge itself were all completed in slightly more than 22 months, for a total cost of roughly $1.2 million.

Cultural DNA

Timberline stood as a symbol of hope and purpose and became representative of the notion that when government works with the people, it can provide solutions to some of society’s biggest problems.

So when Roosevelt took his place at the podium on that September day in 1937, there was excitement, pride and a strong sense of accomplishment among those assembled.

The Timberline Lodge project had been good for Oregon, and good for Oregonians. I think they knew that the lodge would go on to become both a cultural and economic asset for the entire region. Indeed, it continues to provide value to this day.

Today, the lodge, in its inspired alpine setting, stands as an icon on both the physical and the metaphysical landscapes of Oregon. There is a strong sense of place here, and also a power of place. It is as if the lodge has become a part of Oregon’s cultural DNA.

The lodge has seen a renaissance of both purpose and place that began in 1955 when Richard L. Kohnstamm took over operations. A new spirit of teamwork, preservation and public service developed from these early efforts, and Oregonians by the score rolled up their sleeves to help.

The nonprofit Friends of Timberline was formed in 1975 and the lodge became cared for through a public/private/nonprofit partnership.

Timberline Lodge is that rare national historic landmark that is still being used for its original purpose.

Preservation here is a work in progress. We still employ a variety of artisans and top-notch local craftspeople to do the hands-on restoration and preservation work. Honoring the Lodge’s original rustic charm, providing a sense of permanence is at the heart of our operation.

Our future lies in preserving our history. Lately, what I have really come to appreciate is the meaningfulness of history here at the lodge, and how it provides us with a strong sense of purpose today.

On that day 75 years ago, in the face of difficult times, President Roosevelt dedicated Timberline Lodge as a bold gesture to the future. Today, we are all still fulfilling that grand vision.

Jon Tullis is the director of public affairs for RLK and Co. He is also vice chairman of the Oregon Heritage Commission and serves on the board of the Friends of Timberline.

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