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Company 692, Giant City State Park, circa 1935

The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1941
Its Architectural Legacy in Illinois, Part 2

[Part 1 was published in October 2010]

getaway-chicago logoThere is a difference of opinion about what to call the C.C.C. architectural style. Is it Rustic or Adirondack? The Getaway Guys think Rustic is a generic term used to describe structures built with wood and stone in a bucolic setting of forests and stone outcroppings. It is not entirely an inaccurate term. However, being the architecture nuts they are, Neil and Alan think Adirondack more accurately describes its appearance and its origins. giantcitylodgedetailNaturally, the lore-laden log cabin of the American frontier comes to mind, but the American log cabin was a matter of necessity, not a structure of pleasurable pursuits. America’s Adirondack style can trace it roots to 18th century England where the aristocracy built “retreats” (complete with cast iron chairs, benches and settees mimicing branches and limbs) attempting to emulate Theodore Rousseau’s return to nature. fullersburgbridgeHow this idea crossed the Atlantic isn’t a mystery. During America’s early development (despite resentment of the English monarchy), everything English was a’ la mode and ironically (think of France’s military and financial assistance with our Revolution) French tastes were a little too-too. Following America’s Civil War (1861-1865), the United States was still largely wilderness into which wealthy easterners retreated to hunt, fish and commune with nature. In time they built increasing elaborate “camps” of natural stone and timber. Not exclusively confined to New York’s Adirondack region, the style nevertheless became known as Adirondack (fast forward to the 20th century)

giantcitypavilionRoosevelt and his New Deal agency heads were intimately familiar with the Adirondack style. Born or educated in the east, they consciously or unconsciously adopted this aesthetic for C.C.C. park design (exception being regional influences in the southwest and Texas). Adding to the mix were unemployed landscape architects and architecture disciples of Fredrick Law Olmstead, America’s granddaddy of the quasi-rustic in public places. Whatever their true “designation,” C.C.C. structures are very Adirondack in their construction and appearancegiantcitylodge.

Perched above the Illinois River with stunning views, Starved Rock is hilly and densely wooded, while at White Pines the terrain is rolling and the park is buried in majestic while pines (hence the name). With towering sandstone escarpments and deep gorges, Giant City is more topographically unique. All three parks exhibit an understanding of local terrain, allowing their man made structures to blend in comfortably.

Built at the same time, but less grandiose are the picnic pavilions. Scattered about, these are of three basic designs. The more interesting were built using stone and timbers and are distinguished by the incorporation of one stone fireplace (Type A.) or two (Type B.). gebhardwoodsshelterLarger are the all timber and wood pavilions, without a fireplace (Type C.). Using the same basic materials and almost identical floor plans, these appear to be of a pattern widely used. The picnic pavilions in the state parks are often well maintained and used frequently. Strategically located within easy reach of Chicago are a number of smaller state and county parks containing C.C.C. picnic pavilions of the type described above. At these, the level of maintenancechannahonshelter appeared to be less even, but overall good. Not unlike their larger state park brethren, usage appears to be frequent. Using what seems to have been essentially the same set of blueprints (Types A., B. and C. designs), Neil and Alan investigated about fourteen such sites in Cook, DuPage, Will and Grundy Counties. Once they started, the Guys found C.C.C. structures almost everywhere. giantcitycabinsThese pavilions were located at the Chicago Botanic Garden (a replica), Hubbard Woods (Skokie), Lockport, Channahon State Park and McKinley Woods-Frederick’s Grove (Channahon), Gebhard Woods (Morris), Illini State Park (Marseilles), York and Fullersburg Woods (Oak Brook) and McDowell Grove (Naperville). At all but two (Hubbard Woods and Lockport,) literature about their C.C.C. origins is available free of charge. Varying in size and despite some needed restoration here and there, all are well built and in surprisingly good condition after almost 80 years of constant use.

giantcitydetailNot unlike any federal agency hurriedly assembled and thrown into the breech, early C.C.C. efforts were sometimes rudderless and lacking direction. But as the Depression deepened and the lives of architects and landscape architects worsened, too, these professionals joined the ranks of many federal agencies engaged in infrastructure improvements, including the C.C.C.

In the C.C.C., their employment now provided much needed direction and focus, sound structural judgments, and an historical knowledge of the Adirondack style, a knowledge lending itself to coordinated landscaping (i.e., natural vegetation). Technically the Adirondack style was an imposition on nature. Philosophically it adopted nature as its backdrop and raison d’être.

Although the C.C.C. boys were a raw, voluntary group (half a million by 1941 and supervised by the U.S. military), they were prone to the foibles and pranks of their age group. Some deserted or were disciplined for being AWOL. Others dropped out because they could not take the isolation or the rigors of inhospitable places and primitive conditions. They were paid $1.00 a day ($30.00 a month, with $25.00 sent home), received three hearty squares per day, medical care, remedial education and opportunities to learn a trade. At bargain basement prices, what they accomplished was/is a miracle. giantcitymemorialA standard enlistment was six months, but many re-enlisted and remained C.C.C. enrollees much longer.

While touring C.C.C. sites within reach of Chicago, the Getaway Guys were: (A) in-unison with their opinions (no disagreements), (B) dumbfounded by the accomplishments of a bunch of boys, and (C) discouraged by the lack of funds to maintain sites. Benign neglect appears to be the modus operandi. starvedrocksignBetween the 1930s and 2010 the U.S. has grown from 127,750,00 (1935) to 308,000,000 (2009) and it maybe safe to say that America’s parks have not kept up, that facilities are overburdened physically and budgets continue to be squeezed.

Neil and Alan have spoken with acquaintances about the C.C.C., and the inevitable question is “why not today?” The question has been a perennial query around since the Corps demise in 1941-42. A question seeking an answer, the Getaway Guys can only speculate: (A) too expensive, (B) too much government, (C) primitive living conditions, (D) too dangerous, (E) too much work, (F) no cell phones, rock concerts, dance clubs, fast food, (G) no girls, (H) all of the above. Many enrollees were rural kids accustomed to small town life and being out-of-doors. newcgbshelterToday the 18-25 set is predominately urban and suburban, a demographic more at home in a mall and not the wilderness.

The story of the Civilian Conservation Corps (in Illinois and elsewhere) is simultaneously inspirational and heartbreaking. Applauded in its heyday, but probably destined for memory’s dust bin, the Corps embodied all that was good in Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation. For, many who served in America’s wilderness and build its parks, also served in the Armed Services during World War II.

The following books are highly recommended reading:

Adirondack Furniture and the Rustic Tradition, by Craig Gilborn.
Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime, by R.G. Bluemer.
Giant City State Park and the Civilian Conservation Corps, by Kay Rippelmeyer.
The Public Landscape of the New Deal, by Phoebe Cutler.
The Soldiers of Poverty, by Mary Schueller.
Starved Rock State Park: the Work of the C.C.C. Along the I&M Canal, by Dennis H. Cremin and Charlene Giardina.
The Worst Hard Times, by Timothy Egan.

November 2010

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