The Builders of Timberline Lodge
Federal Writer's Project
In Mount Hood Timberline Lodge the mystic strength that lives in the hills has been captured in wood and stone, and in the hands of laborer and craftsman, has been presented as man's effort at approximating an ideal in which society, through concern for the individual, surpasses the standard it has unconsciously set for itself.
This recreational project, the construction of which involved a larger variety of labor than any other in Oregon, cannot be matched in any other state. All classes, from the most elementary hand labor, through the various degrees of skill to the technically trained were employed. Pick and shovel wielders, stonecutters, plumbers, carpenters, steam-fitters, painters, wood-carvers, cabinet-makers, metal workers, leather-toolers, seamstresses, weavers, architects, authors, artists, actors, musicians, and landscape planners, each contributed to the project, and each, in his way, was conscious of the ideal toward which all bent their energies. Debating the possibility of environmental influence in this case would serve no purpose. It must be recognized that there was an element, a quality, a purposeful something, evident in all the work centered in Mount Hood Timberline Lodge.
Commonplace knowledge recognizes that the unskilled, the unfortunate, and the unadjusted must take their places in the lowest bracket of labor, making their muscles serve as the medium for earning bread. Among these it is not usual to discover a full appreciation of the sound significance of their endeavor. Even a partial understanding was considered so remarkable that one of the Portland newspapers commented editorially:
Recently cars seeking to ascend a new road to the 6000 foot elevation on the south slope of Mount Hood encountered trucks being loaded with heavy stones. Politely, one of the men explained why the way was not instantly cleared for official visitors. "We are," he said, "working every daylight hour, even Sundays, to get rock in place as abutments against winter for the new Timberline hotel."
It was an enthusiasm not commonly credited to the Works Progress Administration. Yet, Timberline Lodge is a WPA project, to be administered, upon completion, directly by the United States Forest Service. And the progress on the lodge also demonstrates a construction energy fit to silence critics.
The man who "politely" explained the work was one of several hundred who spent the spring and summer of 1936 toiling on the heights, often under conditions which would ordinarily have prohibited all outdoor activity. Wind of blizzard proportions buffeted them in early spring, and twice their sturdy camp was battered by shot-snow, which, after its assault, rolled down the slope and settled to rest, completely filling the newly cleared road.
"But with every discouragement the construction army has gone back to work with more energy than before," the Oregon Journal declared in reporting these incidents. The reason for this enthusiasm might have been found in the fact that many of the men who were employed were those who, a few months previously, opened listless and discouraged eyes each morning, to confront a cheerless and foodless day. Repeatedly the men showed a devotion to their job and a consideration of their fellow workers that transfigured them; but the actors themselves in these little dramas on a stormswept mountainside accepted such deeds of heroism as all in the day's work. As an example, in January of 1937, a sudden and violent blizzard hit Mount Hood. The landscape was blotted out in a driving snow with the wind blowing over 70 miles per hour and the temperature subzero. A gang of workers was caught on the road below the Lodge. Ice caked on their faces, and it was only by holding on to a rope and with the greatest difficulty that they found their way up to the Lodge. Then it was discovered that two of their number were missing. The foreman, himself half frozen, went back in search of them. He found one man nearly buried in drifts and, lifting him to his shoulder, carried him up the steep slope. Then he returned and assisted the second man to safety.
When the building of Timberline Lodge started, workmen were sent from Portland and other localities at some distance from the site of the work. To care for this large number of men, it was necessary to create a camp where they could be housed and fed, since no existing accommodation near the site of the work could be found. Walled and floored tents, a kitchen, mess hall, and quartermaster's store were erected, and showers with an ample supply of hot and cold water provided, as well as a complete infirmary with a male nurse in charge.
In return for physical security supplied by a powerful social agency they gave the best that was in them, cheerfully, with an eye to the finished project, realizing in the satisfaction of their work, though all unconsciously, that they were a part of something bigger than themselves.
Natural developments occur unobtrusively. they do not proclaim their awareness by obvious steps. Similarly, true advancement through the exercise of manual skill is a gradual process, one in which the laborer may scarcely recognize his increasing dexterity. At first he may be capable only of shifting stones from one place to another. Then he learns to shape them, to lay them in position, eventually to build a wall.
A striking example of this progression was found among the stone workers. At first the foreman selected each stone and personally directed its placing. The workmen began to be interested in selecting the colored stones, then to regard their placement with a practiced eye. They became careful of arrangement, critical of the color and texture; of the rock, then conscious of their own development as craftsmen; some of them, comparing their late with their earlier work, wanted to do it over again. Fully as important a consideration was the tact that the stonework they were doing was something new in masonry, and, incidentally, something originated and being perfected in the Cascade area.
Each workman on Timberline Lodge gained proficiency in manual arts. He was a better workman, a better citizen, progressing by infinitely slow steps to the degree above him. Perhaps he never reached it. Yet the unconscious but concerted effort of several hundred men to advance meant something, even it they tailed. Its social values could not be estimated in monetary return for toil, nor man-hours of labor completed.
Very definitely, among those who could be classed as helpers to skilled workmen, there was an inspiring increase in aptitude. Whether or not this was a purposeful development, or was the facility acquired by repetition, the helpers pressed closer and closer to the borderline of skill. Someday a confidence and capacity earned in working on Timberline Lodge may erase the line of demarcation between them and the journeymen of their guild, and they may become their masters' peers.
A blacksmith, accustomed to working at the forge, but with no knowledge of the technique and artistry required in making ornamental wrought iron, enrolled at the foundry on Boise street where the hardware and decorative iron for Timberline Lodge were made. Encouraged by the foreman over a period of months, this blacksmith developed into an accomplished worker. He discovered in himself an artistic inclination he had not known he possessed. Then he was entrusted with carrying out the design prepared for the dining room grille gates at the Lodge, painstaking and intricate work, for which he forged every piece.
Another matter of interest as relating to the unskilled workmen at Timberline Lodge was the fact that its construction provided a suitable outlet for many whose intelligence quotient restricted them to the lower order of manual work. Yet even among these were found examples which heartened social workers. An illiterate Italian, whose family had been a problem to Multnomah County, for the first time in years earned enough to support his children.
Among these naturals, however, was found an affinity for the earth and a deep respect for the awe-ful qualities of the glacier-flanked peak. They were as quick to pay homage to the spirit of the mountain as the highly sensitized and cultured oriental visitors who ascended to the timberline, and according to an editorial appearing in the Hood River News:
...kneeling in the forest duff--joined in prayer. Above them towered--our own Mount Hood--and from the solitude of their niche in the forest, broken only by the occasional roar of an avalanche, the three devout men had a magnificent prospect of the great white sentinel and the heavens above and beyond. "Almost unconsciously," declared the writer, "our own battered felt hat came off, and we stopped in our tracks to listen to the appeals of these three to O-Kami-sama to make them better men and worthy to live in a world in which there is so much beauty for those who are willing to see....
The necessity for revealing this beauty was evident in the beginning to those who planned the lodge and its decoration. That the finished building and the whole recreational project expresses natural beauty and provides accommodation for all the arts, including music and the theatre, is not an accident. Qualified research writers assembled a bibliography of pictorial material associated with the Mount Hood region. An outline, based on this material, was prepared for the use of architects and artists planning the lodge, and the bibliographies themselves were made available to them. Later the writers served in an entirely different manner, publicizing the project by writing booklets descriptive of it for public distribution.
Steam-fitters, carpenters, painters, wood carvers, and cabinet workers, identified with the skilled trades, many of whom were forced out of their craft through no responsibility of their own, discovered that government accepted this responsibility, and in accepting it was willing to prepare a place for them in the construction of Timberline Lodge.
Mechanized production with its emphasis on speed, which characterizes present-day industry, places a serious handicap on age. The middle-aged and elderly men, though masters of their crafts and skilled in proportion to their years of practice, find their muscles unequal to the tempo required. They lag behind. They are dismissed.
Rather than rewarding them for wisdom gained in years of work, our industrial scheme has penalized them. They have been left with but one asset-skill, and skill appears to be a drug on a mechanized market. Timberline Lodge, with its opportunity for the revival of dormant crafts and arts, offered employment to many men in this classification, and in their successful absorption suggested the possibility of a permanent program designed to perpetuate handicrafts and to make them serve a social need.
A seventy-six-year-old wood-carver found that age and speed had outmoded him. He had even found it necessary to close the little shop where for years he had carried on his chosen art. When he applied for work he was enrolled on the Timberline Lodge project and assigned to carving the arched panels to be placed over the doors. Curiously enough, there worked beside him, in happy coordination, a man whom he formerly employed.
Like others in the shop they found a use for trained hands. Mallets drove chisels into clean-grained wood. Chips flew and the Thunderbird emerged from the pine, perpetuating not only the memory of a forgotten race, but the skill of earnest workers. This skill, which they had come to regard as almost worthless, was presented to them again as something valuable, something to be cherished and redeemed. They found it of dual concern: it was made to contribute to fulfillment of the social need for a recreational center, and in this fulfillment objectified the necessity for preserving the products of an active brain and a skillful hand. Old values these, and almost forgotten in the quickening tempo of the machine age. Old values, dear to the intimate soul of man, which respects the human body and the honest toil it may be made to perform.
For a sum total of what Timberline Lodge signified to laborer and craftsman, add the possibility that in their subsequent industrial and economic adjustment, they will find two paths open to them--the pursuit of their own trades as hired workmen, or the opening of their own shops.
The workmen already discussed were all those: who made the roads, constructed the building, prepared the Lodge itself for the highly skilled artisans, artists, and technicians who ornamented and furnished it and made it completely habitable.
Following the dictates of a pattern, they fashioned native timber and stone into an object, which, even in an unfinished state, revealed the spirit of the commonwealth. Their contribution, primitive as it appeared, nevertheless made evident to the dullest observer the beauty and utility of Ponderosa pine from Eastern Oregon, Port Orford cedar from the southwest coast, and stone, both from the Cascades and the Santiam valley.
The crudity of evolving form, symbolic perhaps of the changing social order in which this recreational project has had a part, is evident not only in the exterior of Mount Hood Timberline Lodge, with its projecting and rudely carved beams, its sturdy basaltic foundation, and its stalwart battens and shakes, but may be found in all the interior details. The only permanency, change, is exemplified in stone and wood. Cruel or beautiful, nature is shown in exquisite expressions of a universal power.
This sense of power, experienced by every person who visits the Mount Hood recreational area, is the keynote of all construction and decoration. It is a realization of belonging to a vast freedom, of being fleetingly identified with natural force, with gigantic invisible form which is constantly varying in its manifestations.
Skiers know it well and express it, not in words or in design, but by sweeping curves describe- in mid-air, in swift patterns on precipitous snow. Horsemen glimpse it in rough-barked trees along the bridle paths, in chiseled rock-patterns on glacial moraine. Climbers recognize its nameless kinship in the challenge of the peak, in the sharp splintering of ice, in cruel shard and unyielding basalt.
Ornamentation and furnishing have contributed to a purposeful attempt at stimulating within the visitor the fleeting and inspired sense of belonging to all that is Western--to the mountains serrated with hemlock and pine, to the valleys fragrant with apples and roses, to the restless and urgent sea, to the calm and ribbon-colored uplands.
Consequently, decoration is characterized by : strength rather than by grace. It is identified by masses and substance and permits no confusing superfluity of line and color. A new and indigenous style was developed, a style that is more than a product of the forces that made Mount Hood and the American ranges. It is the mountains themselves, this new Cascadian art. Artists have found their best expressions, not in the perfection of polished woods, but in the hewn strength and swift chiseling of natural figures. In murals, painters depicted the exaggerated comedy of the fisherman's lie, the bravado of the woodsman, and the paradox of the hunter washing grease-mottled dishes. Though amusing in theme, their spirit was drawn from the strength of the hills, a source that artists and craftsmen alike tapped and diverted to social and individual advancement.
Of special significance in this unique development was the fact that working singly and in isolation, none of the artists who were employed appeared capable of approximating this particular style. They could not discern the true Western spirit, could not alone discard the old technique, the old and hardy forms. Brought together under WPA with intelligent direction, they worked out in combination something bigger than any of them individually. Each, in acquiring a new skill, a new ideal, and a new technique, opened the way for subsequent individual participation in an American renaissance.
A young man was employed on the Timberline Lodge project to carve the newel posts on the massive stairway. Each post represents a bird or animal characteristic of the Mount Hood region. To be in keeping with the rough-hewn logs of the balustrades and the iron-bound steps, the designs required sturdiness and swift modeling. Convention-bound by the technique he had learned under a different social order, the wood carver struggled with his old tools, his old methods. In despair he sought help from the source of his material. He learned the relation of the wood to the mountain upon which it grew, discovered the adventure and romance of Mount Hood's past, and found at last a technique suitable for expressing the spirit of the place.
A painter whose hobby is photography made a pictorial record of construction during his employment on the project. He had over 200 pictures to tell of his participation in building the recreational center. His real story, however, could best be told by officials of the United States Forest Service, who were so pleased with the specially mixed paint which he originated for the Lodge, that they made the formula standard, not only for the northwest, but for the mid-mountain region as well. This paint, which simulates frost, is remarkable not only for its realism, but for its economy of cost.
What these men will be able to do with their new knowledge, their precious spark of originality, is a matter for conjecture. It is certain, however, that they have gained in skill, in confidence, in value to society. The personal advantages will depend upon their adaptability in a competitive world.
For Years Mount Hood has furnished definite values to hundreds and thousands through offering them a release from daily monotony. Energy stored or left over from other tasks has here found a constructive outlet, one that develops the individual physically, and, by association with grandeur and beauty, gives him a spiritual relevance to universal ideals, which often he does not recognize, and could not name.
The cabinetmakers who were employed on the project to execute the furniture designs prepared by the artists profited not only by cumulative skill acquired by practice, but by fashioning new models from materials frequently despised because they were commonplace.
This disrespect for the ordinary has long eaten at the core of all American arts and, reflected in home decoration and domestic values, has, with alarmingly increasing pressure, set a false standard in American life. Radio, newspaper, and magazine advertising blare the advantages of the bizarre, the fantastic, the expensive, until the person of ordinary intelligence finds himself so bewildered he accepts what is thrust at him as valid.
Machine-made furnishings of doubtful taste and artificially boosted price are coveted and Yearned over by many a housewife, who, had she the vision to see it, has had in her hands the power to possess beautiful things. In these blind ones, who were employed on Timberline Lodge as seamstresses and weavers, the project found its most far-reaching social opportunity
Obviously no patterns could be employed for curtains, draperies, counterpanes, and the like which are used in the lodge, except those which conform to simplicity and forthrightness. Colors had to be those discovered in earth, in stone, in glaciers, in tree, and sky. Materials had to be sturdy, enduring, devoted to the irregularity and diversity found in individual patterning rather than in the similitude of perfection found in machine-made goods.
Accordingly, hand weaving, employing Oregon flax and Oregon wool as warp and woof, and applique, an art distinguished by its capacity for utilizing scraps of material, were chosen as the media employed by seamstresses.
In this instance the value of the work as a means of focusing attention on a common interest and an ideal was far overshadowed by the personal training in the simplicity of good taste. The women employed as weavers may be presumed to have become sufficiently interested in the craft to carry home a memory of the pattern and the flax and wool used in looming it. It is but a step to the building of a simple loom and the fashioning of a similar design for house furnishing or decoration. Having seen how the homely materials work up into something surpassingly beautiful, a woman may not only become inspired to copy them for her own home, but may even search and find a commercial market for her work.
The use of native materials' flax and wool, is of particular interest in this respect, since anything that stimulates local consumption will be of marked influence on the production of these commodities.
The seamstress, whipping her needle in applying scraps of cloth in orderly progression, discovered that the pieces, which under ordinary conditions would be discarded as useless, here assumed importance to the design. It was a dull woman who could not carry over this thought to her own home. Like the man on the cawing project who became so pleased with shop designs he spent his leisure replacing one of them for his own house, the :women carried away a respect for commonplace materials. They became interesting, then desirable for home decoration.
Its challenge may be the chiefest of ail the values evoked by Timberline Lodge. Like the mountain upon which it is built, Timberline Lodge is symbolic of many things not seen in the timber and stone which make it. As the winding road leading to it represented progress by laborers, not the least of whose rewards was the daily inspiration of the enlarged and expanding view of mountain tops, so the building itself exemplifies a progressive social program which has revived dormant arts and pointed the way for their perpetuation. It presents concretely the evidence that men still aspire to the dream, often secret but always universal, of becoming greater than themselves through association with others in a common purpose.