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Reconstruction

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]

 

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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