Fort Worden: Rebirth Through Decay Introduction
Once a thriving and functional Seacoast Defense Headquarters, the only current functional aspect of Fort Worden is its value as piece of living, authentic American military history. Today, Officer’s residences act as guest houses for tourists and vacationers, military offices have morphed into museums, laundromats and lounges, the outskirts of the campus to campsites, and the “bunkers”, or more accurately batteries, have become a hiker’s destination and explorer’s paradise. To those born within the last thirty years, this is an ancient playground of wonder, intrigue, discovery and history.
Morning strolls through the fort are often characterized by a thick fog drifting off the San Juan de Fuca, shrieking seagulls and the crash of waves, a bouquet of sea salt and the sweetness of firs and pines teasing the nostrils, and dewy grass skirting those same fertile, deep-green trees.
The air is thick with a sense of the antique- the same sensation one gets when snooping through old familial artifacts and garage sale finds. Cement sidewalks are ground down to a gritty surface with old tree roots busting a once-flat walkway into an exciting ride of jumps and dips for young cyclists.
The officer’s houses may as well have the building dates emblazoned across their eves. Grand iron fenced porches, tarnished brass door knobs that slip in one’s hand and leave a metallic essence upon palms. The ceilings are lined with ornate pressed-tin sheeting, stairs with thick wood banisters creak and moan, and faucets leak.
The focal point of Fort Worden is scattered all over Artillery Hill, down on the Norwestern bluff and the tip of Point Wilson. Mossy, moldy, weather-stained concrete batteries are built into and onto the earth. If stumbled upon without context, they give the impression of ancient Mayan ruins. Stair edges are rounded with age, iron ladders, doors, rings and wiring a spectrum of oxidized reds. Painted-over graffiti along with patterns of chipped concrete and moss adorn the fortifications. The tunnels, passageways and rooms are dank, dark, and musty; the swirling odor a mixture of urine, wet concrete, rust and decay. Potato chip bags, beer bottles and the rare syringe litter the ground.
At one point Fort Worden was a bustling military fort employing over four thousand men. Over 200 buildings dotted the land, included barracks, administration buildings, kitchen and mess halls, officers’ quarters, a guard house, hospital, power house, signal station, wharf and a bakery. Twelve batteries with 41 pieces of artillery were nestled up Artillery Hill and down around the beach at Point Wilson.
However, at the onset of WWII nearly all pieces of artillery were shipped overseas or scrapped, leaving the batteries bare and useless.
After the sale of the fort as military surplus in 1957, Fort Worden was effectively finished as an active military entity. The batteries became obsolete and transitioned from “military capital” to “military history”. A lack of use and care reduced them to substrates for moss and lichen and shelters for the homeless and wild animals alike.
The batteries decayed, yes, but through this decay became much more than military installations; they became animal and plant habitats, transient hideaways, teenage hangouts and drug dens, a place explored by parents and children alike, the centerpiece of local myths and ghost stories, a jogger’s paradise, blank canvases for graffiti artists, tourist destinations, and for all aforementioned, a seed of wonder and intrigue, of fantasy. The longer one ruminates on the purpose, history, and potential of Fort Worden, the greater the lore produced, the deeper the dreams woven of this sacred, eerie and richly historic collection of concrete objects watching over the Sound. It is a rebirth through decay.
Peter St. George © 2011-2016