President’s Message Fall 2011: Olympia History: Alive and Kicking

Mark Foutch, President

Our June newsletter showed us unexpectedly how long-ago events can provoke controversy here and now.

Emmett O’Connell’s article challenged a widely-accepted and cherished principle, that today’s Capitol Lake was a key feature of the Wilder and White plan for our beautiful State Capitol campus.  As part of his argument O’Connell produced a map showing a much smaller Reflecting Pool as proposed in the Olmsted landscaping plan, overlaid on an aerial photograph of the lake as it is today.  That pool would not have required a tidal gate and the rest of the Deschutes Estuary would have been free-flowing.

O’Connell followed this with an extended account of how long it took before the Legislature actually authorized and funded the Lake, and how our local officials finally pushed the project through.  To me that was the most interesting part of the article.   His basic thesis—that the Lake was not part of the final Wilder and White plan– did not cause me much concern.  After all, the Lake is what it is.

I should have known better.

My longtime friend and OHS member Allen Miller is president of the Heritage Park Foundation.  For the past quarter century that group has steadily and skillfully worked with the Legislature to improve the shoreline of Capitol Lake.  Completing the Wilder and White Plan has been the vision they’ve used to help convince successive Legislatures to fund the project.  For anyone to question something so fundamental to their efforts certainly caught his attention.  For his own Olympia Historical Society to publish it seemed outrageous.

He demanded a retraction.

It’s likely that OHS had not faced such a situation before.  Writing about Olympia history, good and bad, has always been a “feel good” enterprise.  To provoke outrage was definitely new territory for us.  But as often happens, crisis produces thought, and thought often produces progress.  Allen’s challenge to our responsibilities as publishers prompted our Board to discuss and adopt formal editorial policies for the newsletter, especially regarding articles submitted by outside authors.   Those policies accompany this column.

Allen had waited patiently until after our September Board meeting for a formal reply to his request.  He then responded with his own short article taking issue with Emmett O’Connell’s thesis, and offering evidence to support his longstanding position that Capitol Lake was indeed envisioned in the Wilder and White plan.  At Mark Derricott’s invitation, Emmett added additional supporting detail to his original article. Both responses are included in this issue of the OHS Newsletter.

Having read the original O’Connell  article in June, Allen Miller’s response and Emmett’s added information, our readers can draw their own conclusions.  This is as it should be.

In that same June newsletter our editor Mark Derricott offered a view of history as a philosophical concept and a very human endeavor, citing Hegel and von Ranke among others.  Probably nothing so academic or esoteric had ever appeared in these pages.   That and the O’Connell-Miller dispute got me thinking about the uses (and abuses) of history.

It’s been said that those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it.  But as Mark Derricott’s article demonstrated, history in all its detail is probably unknowable and always subject to interpretation.  Those interpretations can be used to justify, or denigrate, current and future plans and actions, large and small.  Wars have been fought over differing interpretations of history.  Locally, an Olympia city council majority was overturned two years ago over height limits on the “Isthmus,” and the Wilder and White plan was cited in opposition to that council’s move to raise building height limits there.

To me it does not matter whether today’s Capitol Lake, or tomorrow’s, was or was not part of a plan produced nearly a century ago.  The future of the Lake must be decided on the basis of costs and benefits as nearly as they can be determined now.  Today’s Heritage Park is a huge improvement on the neglected Capitol Lake shoreline we knew just 20 years ago, although those improvements were not envisioned precisely that way in the Wilder and White or Olmsted plans.  But the current Heritage Park plan, brought forth largely by the Foundation’s dedication and optimism, is very much alive.  The State of Washington and the City of Olympia have more Heritage Park projects ready to complete when funding becomes available.

As for the Lake itself, in these tough economic times the question of its future presents the Legislature with competing  lists of costs, values and effects, informed by six decades of the Lake’s existence and (sporadic) maintenance.  Unlike the Lake today, one thing is crystal clear:  Something must be decided, funded, and done-soon!

Meanwhile, the OHS Board and our readers have been enriched by this rigorous debate on a key question of our city’s history.  We should all thank Emmett O’Connell and Allen Miller for their dedication to that history and their contributions to this scholarly debate.

 

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