Short History of Fort Worden and Centrum

January 3, 2023

(Journalist Scott Wilson is researching and writing a booklet to mark Centrum’s 50 years at Fort

Worden State Park, based on archives and interviews. Below is a summary of the earliest years.)

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What became Fort Worden State Park and what became Centrum got their start,

conceptually and historically, together. That symbiotic genesis is the through-line to the

Lifelong Learning Center designation of Fort Worden today.

Through the late 1950s and 1960s, Fort Worden was a Juvenile Diagnostic Center,

operated by the Department of Institutions and holding youth offenders. By the mid-

1960s, the Washington State Arts Commission (now called ArtsWA), energized and

funded by the new National Endowment for the Arts, promoted the idea of

transforming one of the former Puget Sound Army forts into a “Center for Creative

Development” to bring artists and students together in a remote setting.

In Port Townsend, a robust arts education program, the Summer School for the Arts,

came to use some Fort Worden buildings for classes by nationally known painters, as

did a youth symphony from Seattle and a dance company from New York.

When Charles Odegaard became the director of State Parks in 1963, he joined Arts

Commission Director James Haseltine on a committee to create a joint vision for Fort

Worden in which it would have an arts and culture focus, including conference facilities

and a campground, for purposes of “re-creation.” Those visionaries saw Fort Worden’s

creative focus as unique in the nation and even the world. There was nothing like it.

Two key studies advanced the idea of a recreational park with a creative, cultural

identity: In 1970, the “Fort for Rent” vision by Arts Commission consultant and

architect Kenneth Brooks, and in 1972 the “Fort Worden State Park Master Plan,” done

for the Parks Commission by architect John Graham and cultural consultant Ralph

Burgard. The Master Plan was unanimously adopted by the Parks Commission. It set

the tone for Fort Worden State Park’s earliest years (1973-76). It also, with what in

hindsight is remarkable clarity, forecast how Fort Worden operates today.

The Master Plan called for State Parks’ management of the Fort, but with a private, nonprofit

foundation as its prime paying tenant. That non-profit would fill up Fort

buildings with cultural programs and education in a residential setting.

The timing of the Master Plan was crucial. In 1971, in part due to the “Boeing Bust”

recession, Gov. Daniel J. Evans closed the Juvenile Diagnostic Center. Late that year the

rest of Fort Worden’s then-358 acres were transferred to Washington State Parks. Evans

was then (and remains today, based on a recent interview) a vocal supporter of the

cultural education center theme that could make Fort Worden unique in the world.

The Boeing recession curtailed Arts Commission hopes to itself rent Fort Worden

buildings. But it had sufficient funds to hire a gregarious and capable arts administrator

from Tacoma, Joe Wheeler. His job was to fulfill the Master Plan outline: Set up a nonprofit,

develop arts education programming at Fort Worden, and make it happen.

Wheeler immediately did so. With broad support from Port Townsend arts groups and

local schools, he brought in artists and started programs around gifted high school

youth, writers and poets, visual artists, dance and – his own interest – chamber music.

In late 1973, he settled on a name for the foundation: Centrum. In early 1974 the

programs started and were quickly popular. 

In those earliest years, State Parks was eager to find paying customers as a skelton staff

of rangers refurbished and reopened one dusty building a time. Just as eagerly,

Centrum was ready to enter. Centrum immediately became, and remains today, the

primary paying tenant both as a leaseholder and as the sponsor of programs that would

bring to the Fort hundreds of hospitality customers attracted by cultural education or

performances. (Today Centrum programs attract 14,000 people annually.)

In time, the reputation of Fort Worden as a nexus of culture and education attracted

more organizations, which today collaborate as Creative Partners. Among them are Port

Townsend School of the Arts, the Port Townsend Woodworking School, the Marine

Science Center, Madrona MindBody, Copper Canyon Press and Corvidae Press.

Centrum, over almost 50 years, has weaned itself from the substantial State budget

investment that helped it get started. Most of its funding now comes from private

donors. That included substantial private fundraising to reconstruct McCurdy Pavilion

at Fort Worden, a task that – in today’s dollars – would exceed $6.3 million. It was

opened to Centrum and other users in 1990. Thanks to new long-term leases, Centrum

is now gearing up to raise private funds to renovate other State buildings.

Given the unique history of Fort Worden and tenants devoted to creative education,

State Parks’ 2008 “Fort Worden Long Range Plan” by PROS Consulting reinforced the

cultural component that made Fort Worden unique among State Parks. “As a lifelonglong

learning center, Fort Worden State Park is envisioned as a ‘learning laboratory’

where the site – historic buildings and grounds, natural areas and waterfront – will be a

focal point for exploring our place in the world. As a center for lifelong-long learning, it

will represent a confluence of creativity and experimentation.”

That sentiment is laced throughout the subsequent Master Lease that gave over the

Campus area of Fort Worden to what is formally called the Fort Worden Lifelong

Learning Center Public Development Authority. Thanks to its roots, cultural education

remains the primary mission of Fort Worden even today.