World War II Navy chapel is still sacred to Shoreline residents

Nov 17, 2021, 8:21 AM | Updated: Nov 18, 2021, 5:26 am

A recent view of the exterior of the chapel from the old U.S. Naval Hospital Seattle in what's now Shoreline. (Shoreline Preservation Society) The chapel was nearly complete when this photo was taken, circa October 1944. (DSHS) Artist's conception of the chapel before it was built. (DSHS) Recent photo of the interior of the chapel, which is remarkably unchanged from when it was built in 1944. (King County Landmarks) Blueprint for the front elevation of the chapel. (DSHS) The chapel under construction, circa summer 1944. (US Navy) Captain -- later, Vice Admiral -- Joel T. Boone was responsible for the look and location of the chapel in what's now Shoreline; he was a decorated war hero and former White House physician. (US Naval Heritage and History Command)

Tucked away in a forested part of Shoreline is a unique artifact dating to World War II and a once-sprawling U.S. Navy hospital. Now, almost 75 years after the Navy left, a group of neighbors is working to raise the profile of this forgotten – yet sacred, in all senses of the word – landmark.

Janet Way is a member of group called the Shoreline Preservation Society. Like many who live in Shoreline, she spends a lot of time on publicly accessible parts of the grounds of Fircrest, a Washington State Department of Social and Health Services residential school for disabled people located on Washington Department of Natural Resources land north of 145th, not far from Shorecrest High School and Hamlin Park.

During World War II, this area was the site of “U.S. Naval Hospital Seattle” – which, at its peak around the end of the war in 1945, was a 2,000-bed facility for wounded sailors, staffed by hundreds of medical and other support personnel. It was 77 years ago this week, on Nov. 12, 1944, when a very special building was dedicated there. Nearly eight decades later, tucked into the trees, that building – a small Tudor Revival style chapel – is still standing.

“It has a beautiful window, which we can go around the other side and see, and then all the woodwork,” said Janet Way on a recent visit to the brick and wood chapel. “There’s a whole lot of beautiful woodwork inside that’s all original, all custom-built. And they built it incredibly fast. The groundbreaking was in June 1944, and it was finished by November.”

Research conducted by and for Way’s group found that the Shoreline structure is considered the first non-denominational chapel ever built for a Navy installation. It’s also one of the only buildings left from the original hospital that’s still serving in its original role – and the hospital closed in 1947. Around that same time, tuberculosis patients from nearby Firlands Sanitorium were moved to the former hospital, and then Fircrest was established a decade or so later. The sanitorium closed in the early 1970s.

Shoreline Preservation Society successfully nominated the chapel to the Shoreline/King County Landmarks Register in a process that began in 2020 and ended earlier this year. The group battled, at times, with DSHS over the nomination and, specifically, regarding the boundaries of the forested land included in the designation.

Janet Way says there are several reasons why she and her group have devoted so much time and energy to getting the publicly owned chapel listed as a Shoreline landmark.

“Number one, it’s beautiful. It’s the most beautiful building in Shoreline, in my humble opinion,” Way said. “And also because of its relationship with the forest. It’s meaningful because we’ve lost quite a bit of forest in the north end here with development and light rail.”

“It’s really valuable for that reason,” Way said, “but also it’s really inspirational, the whole story of Captain Boone and what he did.”

Captain – later, Vice Admiral — Joel T. Boone is the naval officer who was in charge of the hospital in Shoreline during much of World War II, and who gets most of the credit for envisioning and building the chapel. Boone is a larger-than-life figure and a highly decorated veteran of World War I who received the Distinguished Service Cross and the Congressional Medal of Honor for amazing battlefield medical heroics, and who served as White House physician to Herbert Hoover in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Janet Way says Captain Boone had a vision of the chapel being separated from the rest of the hospital complex, and the chapel itself fitting into a special place on a hill – all in the spirit of helping patients recover from their war wounds. That’s why the boundaries of the landmark designation got a little contentious, Way says, because DSHS wanted to preserve their options on part of the land near the chapel for a possible future parking lot.

Bob Hubenthal, director of capital programs for DSHS, says the landmark designation was, indeed, not a pleasant experience.

“The process itself was painful,” Hubenthal told KIRO Radio, referring to the duration and intensity of the debate over the boundaries. “[But] the end results are something that that we can manage and we can live with.”

And what about that new parking lot near the chapel? Should Shoreline Preservation Society get ready to cue Joanie Mitchell and her “Big Yellow Taxi?”

Paving that little corner of paradise in Shoreline, Hubenthal says, is not something currently in the works, but he says he wanted to preserve DSHS’ options should future construction affect vehicle capacity at Fircrest. When the landmark designation was finalized, DSHS had succeeded, and the small piece of land in question was not included.

“We may never develop it, and if we don’t, well, no harm,” Hubenthal said. “But if we do find denser development on the east side of our campus that eliminates our existing parking, we may look to try to put something else in there.”

One thing worth emphasizing is that the 1944 chapel is in really good shape, inside and out. This isn’t some derelict old structure that nobody cares about and that some public agency wants to tear down or otherwise neglect until it collapses.

In fact, Sarah Steen, landmarks coordinator for King County – which is the agency that oversees Shoreline’s landmarks program through an interlocal agreement – says that DSHS and DNR should actually get some serious credit for taking good care of the little chapel.

“DSHS have been really good stewards. They’ve maintained the exterior and the interior quite well,” Steen told KIRO Radio. “DNR owns the land, DSHS owns the building, so they work in tandem for that site, and they’ve done a good job stewarding that building, and so it’s really intact.”

The interior is in such good, original condition, Steen says, that “we actually landmarked a number of the interior features as well, because they were still there.”

Steen also says community members like Janet Way and others not even affiliated with the landmark designation use the Fircrest grounds a lot, and they are, understandably, interested and taking an active role in having a say about its future.

“That’s why they’re so involved, because they do care about that site,” Steen said.

To that end, Way says the Shoreline Preservation Society may ultimately want to have some kind of memorandum of understanding or other agreement with DSHS so that the Shoreline community could have more regular access to the chapel, and so that the society could offer history or other cultural programming inside the chapel.

Hubenthal of DSHS says the chapel is currently being used by the Fircrest chaplain for religious services roughly once a week. He also says there’s something of an analog for DSHS working with a community group to make a facility available more regularly. On the grounds of Western State Hospital in Lakewood, Hubenthal says, DSHS leases cottages containing old officer’s quarters to the nonprofit group called Historic Fort Steilacoom; DSHS maintains the structure, while the history group offers public programming.

However, Hubenthal isn’t convinced that the chapel in Shoreline could be made available with a similar arrangement.

“I think the difference is Fircrest School still operates and programs and uses that building,” Hubenthal says, referring to the weekly religious services held in the chapel. “Whereas our situation in Lakewood, the hospital has no interest and no programs in those historic cottages.”

Hubenthal is also concerned that the recent landmark designation for the chapel has added another layer of bureaucracy to what has been a simple, straightforward and, by all accounts, successful maintenance regimen carried out by DSHS.

“For example, if we want to replace the roof on the chapel — it currently has the cedar shake roof that is going to need to be replaced at some point in the future,” Hubenthal said. “We would likely want to replace it, not with cedar shakes, but with an architectural quality asphalt shingle, because you just can’t get good cedar anymore coming out of Canada.”

Hubenthal’s concern?

“We would have to go through the whole landmark commission review to make that kind of a visible change to the structure because it is a listed historic structure,” Hubenthal said. “If it weren’t, we would do what we believe is in our best interest to preserve the chapel, and would take care of the roof.”

Most preservation experts would say Hubenthal is correct about the required review, but some would also likely point out that dozens of public buildings in Seattle and King County are listed as landmarks, and routinely undergo similar administrative processes related to maintenance and proposed exterior changes.

In the meantime, while the current roof of the old chapel appears to be holding its own, what could definitely use some maintenance and TLC is the relationship – or lack thereof – between chapel owner DSHS and chapel booster Shoreline Preservation Society.

“Perhaps at some point in the future, we could have a conversation” with Way’s group, Hubenthal said, who had not previously heard about Shoreline Preservation Society’s interest in an agreement until asked about the possibility by KIRO Radio. “I don’t know if it’s a conversation about who manages the facility, but the extent to which the facility might be more broadly available for public use, but certainly until we get past COVID, I don’t think it’s appropriate to pursue that yet.”

Until such a meeting takes place and unless and until they say otherwise, a DSHS spokesperson contacted KIRO Radio on Wednesday afternoon to emphasize that the landmark chapel remains off limits to the public, “due to health and safety concerns of [Fircrest] residents.”

But Janet Way is already focused on the next step in the Shoreline Preservation Society’s effort to raise the profile of the old chapel.

“The plan is to go through the process for the National Register of Historic Places,” Way said, “because it needs more respect and status.”

Way says the recent King County/Shoreline landmark designation is powerful, but “just having that status, as a National Register of Historic Places [property], would be really a feather in the cap.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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World War II Navy chapel is still sacred to Shoreline residents