Whitman Mission
Administrative History

Chapter Five:


One of the most controversial cultural resource issues ever debated at Whitman Mission National Historic Site centered on reconstructing the mission buildings. Ever since 1935, when the Whitman Centennial, Inc., first requested "the restoration and reconstruction of the Waiilatpu Mission," [34] superintendents have confronted this issue. Oftentimes, they sought assistance from the Regional Office in order to answer visitor inquiries about the status of reconstruction. In fact, Superintendent Stickler's request for information caused Regional Historian John A. Hussey to write a brief reconstruction chronology in 1965. This chronology provides the basis for much of the following information. In many ways the 1973 decision to forego reconstruction affected the park's entire program--interpretive, maintenance, and administrative. Therefore, an examination of this important cultural resource issue follows.

From the first, mention of reconstruction evoked hesitancy from National Park Service personnel. In 1936, Olaf T. Hagen, Chief of the Western Division Branch of Historic Sites and Buildings, recommended delaying reconstruction until after archeological excavations; the next year Regional Historian Russell C. Ewing agreed. [35] Basically, the National Park Service preferred a "wait and see" approach rather than immediate action.

In contrast, most Walla Walla residents including Whitman Centennial, Inc. President Herbert West advocated restoration. In response, National Park Service representatives maintained that archeological excavations were top priority and had to precede reconstruction. Hagen explained this position to T. C. Elliott of Walla Walla: "It was stated that no restoration be made unless further research and archeological excavations revealed adequate information for reasonably authentic replicas of the original buildings." [36]

Supervisor of Historic Sites Ronald F. Lee firmly established the basis for this position in 1939:

Should questions of restoration policy become involved in the consideration of monument problems I would suggest that they may be studied in light of the policy outlined in the Director's memorandum of May 19, 1937. [37]

The policy to which Mr. Lee referred included several points pertinent to Whitman Mission, including "Better preserve than repair, better repair than restore, better restore than construct." [38] Further, Director Cammerer left no doubt about the course to take at Whitman Mission: "No final decision should be taken as to a course of action before reasonable efforts to exhaust the archeological and documentary evidence as to the form and successive transformation of the monument." [39] Thus, even before the park was established in 1940, regional administrators decided that the future of reconstruction would be based upon the historical restoration policy adopted by Director Arno B. Cammerer on May 19, 1937. [40] These policies (with very slight modifications) [41] were still in effect in 1965. From 1941-1950, then, the fate of reconstruction depended upon the results of Tom Garth's excavations. More importantly for public relations, during these nine years of intermittent archeological digs, National Park Service personnel could truthfully "continue to plead lack of knowledge when pressed to initiate restoration." [42]

On the other hand, some National Park Service officials thought the possibility of reconstruction slim, at best, no matter what the excavations revealed. Supervisor of Historic Sites Ronald F. Lee reiterated to Herbert West that the Service "must remain uncommitted until the archeological work has been completed," but cautioned that excavations alone would probably not justify reconstruction: "The determining factors are several, including educational, aesthetic, and scientific considerations." [43] Therefore, prior to 1950, "the reluctance of the Service to embark on reconstruction was based on policy." [44] However, because this policy left open the possibility of reconstruction, various arguments, both pro and con, continued to surface.

Many people were caught up in the reconstruction debate. Mount Rainier Superintendent Preston Macy clearly favored reconstruction, telling Regional Director Tomlinson, ". . . We should begin now to plan on a complete reconstruction of the Whitman area. I can conceive of no finer project." [45] In fact, Macy suggested including reconstructed furnishings in the reconstructed buildings. [46]

Ernst A. Davidson, Regional Chief of Planning, did not share Preston's enthusiasm because, in his words:

There are still grave doubts in the minds of some historians and others of the Park Service as to the wisdom of attempting actual restorations. In lieu of this we have also thought of merely outlining the foundations when and if discovered . . . leaving the super structures to the imagination of visitors assisted by a model in the Museum . . . . [47]

One of the strongest advocates of this mission model idea was Regional Supervisor of Historic Sites Aubrey Neasham who, as early as 1942, doubted that sufficient details of the original buildings would ever be located to warrant reconstruction. [48] Dr. Neasham's arguments were reported in the Union-Bulletin in 1946:

Dr. Neasham declared that he did not believe in restoration of or building a replica of the mission. He explained that many times the replicas of buildings are found to be historically incorrect later.

"The problem of maintenance is also to be considered," he said . . . . His idea was to expose the foundations of structures if possible. Then to tell the story of the Whitman people with scale models of the mission in a museum. He felt that . . . seeing the ruins of the mission would be even better than seeing replicas of buildings. With this method, he stated, there would be little that is artificial and the grounds would serve as a retreat and the atmosphere preserved. [49]

Dr. Neasham's campaign against reconstruction convinced West and other influential Walla Wallans that a mission model and museum were preferable to reconstruction. [50]

While Dr. Neasham was busy convincing locals to favor museum exhibits, he was convincing National Park Service personnel, as well. In 1947, three years before the excavations were completed, the master plan was revised and included no reference to reconstruction. The reasons for this change were reported in the Union-Bulletin:

There would be no actual reproductions of the mission buildings on their original sites as had been proposed previously. The present trend in historic sites is against such reproductions it was explained by Dr. Aubrey Neasham . . . "It has been found more desirable to preserve such sacred areas in their present conditions than to trespass and build, reproductions which obviously are only that . . . ." [51]

In effect, by 1947 the predominant view was that, regardless of archeological evidence, the site could be better interpreted by models than by obvious reconstructions. Or, as explained by Regional Historian Hussey in his reconstruction chronology: "The burden of [Neasham's] plea, I think, was that the actual sites themselves, properly interpreted, had more impact and more educational value than would any restoration, no matter how accurate." [52]

Dr. Neasham's arguments remained persuasive for years, gaining more credibility when Garth's excavations did not reveal enough information to completely verify the mission's appearance. Accordingly, then, the building sites were outlined with timbers in 1952 and a museum planned to include models of the mission buildings.

While Dr. Neasham's argument quieted the reconstruction controversy somewhat during the early 1950s, the issue never entirely disappeared due, in part, to the park's long drawn-out development plans. During the 1950s the National Park Service sought land and money for development of a superintendent's residence, museum-administration building, and utilities. This obvious emphasis on modern facilities struck many Walla Wallans, already upset about the monument's slow development, as an inappropriate priority. This widely-held view is reflected in a 1952 letter from Walla Wallan Betty Richardson to Assistant Regional Director Sanford Hill, in which she disagrees with plans "to erect an ordinary building at the mission site instead of making 'copies' of the buildings that were burned during the massacre." [53] Hill's response is one of the best indicators of the National Park Service's attitude in the early 1950s regarding Whitman Mission's reconstruction:

Should we place the handiwork of our own generation on [the mission site] we will have created an illusion which, though interesting, is not of the Mission period. Through the preservation and presentation . . . of the authentic building foundations where possible, we have felt that the visitor would grasp the spiritual significance of the area, and perhaps would be able to create in his own mind a sense of historical reality which would not be possible in a full restoration . . .

[The Whitman National Monument] is in the main a memorial dedicated to the memory of the courageous missionaries who founded the Mission. Being hallowed ground, therefore, it should not be disturbed by the buildings of this generation, regardless of how far they might go to recreate the original picture. [54]

Essentially, Hill reworded Dr. Neasham's earlier argument that reconstruction would only intrude on the historic scene.

The reconstruction issue continued to be closely tied with the mission development plans throughout the late 1950s. With the legislative authority to acquire additional land secured in 1958, the park's master plan required revisions in order to reflect the latest construction proposals. Therefore, arguments against reconstruction fell under fresh scrutiny. After Regional Chief of Interpretation Bennett T. Gale raised the issue in Washington, D. C., "The consensus was that the question of restoration be considered for Whitman National Monument . . . . " [55] Therefore, upon the request of Regional Director Merriam, Superintendent Kennedy presented his recommendations in favor of reconstruction. Thus, the debate started all over again in 1958.

Superintendent Kennedy cited several reasons for supporting reconstruction, the most important of which was the need for proper interpretation: The "present bare site [outlined with concrete blocks] does not provide a framework to guide the imaginations of people . . . ." [56] Kennedy also cited the great demand for restoration and finally concluded that sufficient evidence existed on which to base reconstructions. [57] He criticized the arguments against reconstruction, stating that monument employees had "carefully tried to discourage it in order to avoid embarrassment to the staffs of the Director and Regional Director." [58] However, Kennedy acknowledged the need for complete historical evidence and concluded: "If a restoration were to be carried out, it would be advisable to assign to an historian the project of bringing together all the significant material on each of the features to be restored." [59]

After reviewing Kennedy's recommendations, Regional Director Merriam agreed that further historical research should precede reconstruction; therefore, he recommended that action be deferred until after Mission 66 developments were completed. He concluded:

We should like to have the experience of interpreting the monument through the use of a model of the site and other exhibit devices in the proposed visitor center before a decision is reached on the question of restoration. The visitor center displays and the restoration of the grounds so as to be more in keeping with the appearance at the time of occupancy would, in our opinion, form the basis of an easily understandable story and present a significant and attractive scene to the visitor. If later restoration of structures appears desirable, we will have lost nothing, for the visitor center would, of course, be continued as an introduction to the site. [60]

Acting National Park Service Director Eivind T. Scoyen concurred by stating that reconstruction would be reconsidered after full analysis of the historical sources by a historian. [61] Thus, the Mission 66 development projects progressed as scheduled with the museum as the primary interpretive device. However, from 1958 onward, currents ran more strongly in favor of reconstruction than in previous years. The predominant argument shifted away from a concern for the historic scene to a concern about historically accurate reproductions.

This new open-mindedness regarding reconstruction was reflected in several park documents. For example, the 1960 master plan cautioned:

Do not close the door on restoration of the mission and of its various features. Continue to pursue research to reveal the details of the construction or appearance of the mission buildings and other facilities. [62]

Superintendent Kennedy also wrote a "Prospectus for Restoration of the Whitman Mission" in October 1960, in which he stated that he believed research would produce reconstructions that were 95 percent accurate. [63] However, research that same month revealed that such accuracy was highly improbable.

Excavations conducted by Regional Archeologist Paul Schumacher in October 1960 failed to reveal any evidence of the blacksmith shop. Superintendent Kennedy reported in the October "Monthly Narrative Report" that the building's exact location was apparently not determined. [64] Additional research central to the reconstruction issue was conducted by Historian Erwin Thompson. His study on the appearance of the Mission House Kitchen (1961) and "Report of the Appearance of Waiilatpu Mission in 1847" (1962) revealed that gaps existed in the available information about the appearance of the mission. The fervor for reconstruction slowly dissipated because of Thompson's report and the inconclusive blacksmith shop excavations. Thus, the concrete outlines of the building sites were supplemented with individual room outlines in May 1961, [65] and audio stations were installed at the mission sites in August 1963. [66] After September 1963, the visitor center and museum oriented visitors to the Whitman story and the mission site. Finally, in 1965, Regional Director Edward Hummel suggested deleting reconstruction from the park's master plan. [67]

When it appeared that Whitman Mission administrators had heard the last of the reconstruction issue, it surfaced one more time in 1970, when:

Mrs. Julia Butler Hansen, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Appropriations, during the course of the Hearings of the National Park Service 1971 fiscal year budget, on March 18-19, asked Director George B. Hartzog if the National Park Service had considered reconstructing the buildings at Whitman Mission . . . . Director Hartzog said that the Service had not recently considered the question, but that he would have it studied. [68]

The result was "A Feasibility Study on Historic Reconstruction" by Erwin Thompson of the Denver Service Center Historic Preservation Team, formerly from Whitman Mission. This 1973 study determined that reconstructed buildings would not necessarily increase understanding of the Whitman story and they would not necessarily be accurate: "The archeological, historical, and architectural data do not exist for anything but a conjectural reconstruction of the mission house, blacksmith shop, emigrant house, and gristmill." [69]

In addition, the exact location of the blacksmith shop was never found. Therefore, due to lack of historical evidence necessary to comply with "administration policies of the National Park Service affecting reconstruction at historical areas," [70] Thompson recommended the Whitman Mission sites should not be reconstructed. Interestingly, Mr. Thompson, himself, had a change of heart over this issue. During his three years as Whitman Mission's historian, Thompson favored reconstruction. Then, several years later, an important discovery changed his mind:

. . . after the Kane sketch [of the Whitman Mission] was discovered . . . I suddenly realized that reconstruction was not a very good idea. If we had gone ahead with the evidence we had before Kane we would have wasted Federal monies. [71]

As it turned out, Mr. Thompson's report effectively concluded a debate that lasted nearly forty years.

This decision is the most important cultural resource development to affect the Whitman Mission National Historic Site. The decision to not reconstruct preserved the tranquil setting that is important to the park's memorial nature. Very likely, reconstruction would have shifted interpretive focus to the reconstructed buildings rather than on imagining times past. Maintenance would have increased and the administration would have had to grapple with making these modern developments seem historic. In short, reconstruction would have resulted in an entirely different national historic site. Therefore, recognition is given to all those who debated the reconstruction issue, both pro: Whitman Centennial, Inc., President Herbert West, Mount Rainier Superintendent John Preston and, more recently, Superintendent Joe Kennedy, and the con: both Regional Supervisors of Historic Sites, Olaf T. Hagen and Aubrey Neasham, and Historian Erwin Thompson. Only after the surfacing of all sides of the issue and re-evaluation of policies could such a far-reaching decision be made.

NEXT> CHAPTER 5 (continued)

Last Updated: 02-Feb-2000