Memorial Stadium’s success as ‘living memorial’ may have doomed it

Mar 24, 2023, 10:12 AM | Updated: 10:46 am

The front cover of a 1944 booklet published by the American Commission for Living War Memorials, a group promoting creation of practical facilities to honor World War II dead, rather than traditional statues or monuments. (Courtesy Lee Corbin)

(Courtesy Lee Corbin)

As World War II was still raging, a national campaign was launched in 1944 to build ‘living memorials’ in communities around the country. The people of the Evergreen State enthusiastically joined in, which might explain why very few people believe Seattle High School Memorial Stadium is worth preserving.

‘Living memorials’ were part of an American movement to memorialize World War II in a way that was a break from the past and an embrace of a new kind of modernity.

The idea was that instead of building statues or merely decorative monuments – as had been done for the Civil War and World War I – all those generals on horseback for the Civil War and all those Doughboys (including Seattle’s infamously peripatetic example) for World War I – it made more sense to build amenities such as swimming pools, community centers, playfields, highways, and stadiums. They called these more practical monuments ‘living memorials’ because they functioned as usable parts of their communities, not just decorative places to be viewed from up close or afar.

A debate broke out between traditionalists who favored those Doughboys and other kinds of earlier war-related statues and the urban planners and architects who were looking ahead to the big changes that were already coming during and after World War II. Leaps forward in technology, highly mobile populations, and social changes, such as women entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, sped the pace of modern life and impacted many aspects of culture in unanticipated ways.

And this debate about traditional memorials versus living memorials wasn’t just some academic exercise being fought (with pens) by scholars and professors or writers for esoteric architecture journals — this argument was taking place between the covers of mainstream popular magazines, including Good Housekeeping and Better Homes and Gardens.

The national group – the American Commission for Living War Memorials (ACLWM) – published a booklet in 1944 with lists of ideas and photos of different kinds of public facilities that communities could choose to build. It also included tips for community leaders about organizing fundraising efforts and offers from the commission for technical assistance.

For many who were promoting living memorials, the motivation wasn’t only about remembering the war dead in a new and modern way. An equal part was about the physical fitness of future generations, including getting enough exercise and learning important skills like how to swim.

Sam Hayes, a radio broadcaster from California, was head of the ACLWM chapter for the West Coast. Newspaper accounts said that in remarks made during a visit to Washington state, Hayes emphasized the importance of physical fitness and told the audience that many deaths of World War II soldiers and sailors were attributed to not being able to swim.

Hayes visited Washington in May 1945 and gave similar speeches to large gatherings in Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, Everett, Bellingham, Bremerton, and Olympia. News clippings from around that time describe fundraising efforts underway for a memorial pool in Everett and a stadium at Highline High School in Burien.

It’s unclear where Seattle High School Memorial Stadium fits into the larger national movement. Planning for a new stadium was underway in the early 1940s, though the committee working on the Seattle stadium made public a list of seven possible sites just a few days after Hayes’ visit.

In a paper published in 2002, a scholar named Andrew M. Shanken wrote that the memorial planning going on in the United States while World War II was still being fought was unprecedented compared with previous conflicts. In the past, even as recently as World War I, Shanken wrote, officials and other civic leaders waited until the fighting stopped before they planned memorials or monuments.

Perhaps all that technological, societal, and civic change underway during World War II meant that these were different. By a certain point – perhaps D-Day in June 1944 or even earlier, based on the fact Sam Hayes was here in May 1944 – victory was in sight, and people were itching to get on with post-war life and eager to put the bad times behind them.

And this viewpoint fits right in with many civic leaders and community members wanting to build practical, usable facilities that everyone could enjoy as soon as possible – and not just commission a regiment of new statues to take their places standing in public parks.

One possible side effect of building a living memorial rather than a traditional memorial may be that the living memorial becomes known only for its practical purpose. This might be the case with the 1947 Seattle High School Memorial Stadium, which was clearly built as a ‘living memorial’ to Seattle Public Schools’ war dead (the “memorial wall” of 800 names of those alums didn’t come until 1951).

It could be that the “memorial” part of Memorial Stadium was too quickly and easily forgotten; it’s been a popular venue for sports and other civic gatherings for more than 75 years. What else could explain the decades of inadequate maintenance and the effort now to secure a private partner willing to invest millions of dollars to demolish what is clearly a war memorial?

The “living” aspect of Seattle High School Memorial Stadium clearly succeeded; the “memorial” part – based on the eagerness of so many public officials and community leaders to not consider renovation and restoration and go straight to demolition and replacement – might be considered a major failure.

Meanwhile, chances are mighty slim that any public official will ever seek a private partner to invest in demolishing and replacing the Doughboy since he’s now safely tucked into Evergreen-Washelli Cemetery.

Along with Seattle High School Memorial Stadium, KIRO Newsradio has only been able to identify a few other existing facilities that fit this ‘living memorial’ category. Some other examples include the stadium in Port Townsend, which dates to 1948, and a swimming pool in Walla Walla.

We want to hear from you if there are – or were — other ‘living memorials’ to World War II in other communities around Washington. Please reach out using the contact information below.

Special thanks to researcher Lee Corbin for unearthing newspaper stories and other materials related to the American Commission for Living War Memorials and their impact in Washington state.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, 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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