Gimme Shelter: WPA Shelterhouses and Community Spaces in Town Parks

By Glory-June Greiff

It is always a delight–for over 40 years now!–to visit little city parks around Indiana and discover often substantial WPA-built shelterhouses and community buildings, especially those in towns that did not even boast a park until the New Deal came along. The term “shelterhouse” in the WPA records covers a range of structures, but generally they are partially, if not entirely, enclosed. Many include restrooms.

Take Lewisville in eastern Indiana, for example. In 1938, WPA workers constructed a park on the west edge of town on the north side of the National Road, or, as it had been designated in the previous decade, US40. It contained typical amenities of the time, such as playing fields, horseshoe pits, and a wading pool, and also a fine stone community building still used today.


Shelterhouse in Lewisville town park along US40

Similarly, in Knightstown, about ten miles west of Lewisville on US40, the WPA developed Watts Lake Park, today called Sunset Park, filling it with similar recreational structures, most of of which are gone. The fine shelterhouse remains, but has lost a great deal of its integrity.


Sunset Park, Knightstown, ca. 1950

Sunset Park shelterhouse, Knightstown, today (June 2023)

Still farther to the west along US 40 is Greenfield’s Riley Park, which once could boast one of the largest of these sorts of buildings in the state, erected in 1937.  Despite its construction of recycled granite paving stones (salvaged from an interurban track removal project several miles west on US40) it succumbed to fire just a little over a year ago (December 2022). Alas, the site is now an empty space.


Shelterhouse, Riley Park, Greenfield (burned December 2022)

About 20 miles south of Indianapolis, the stone creekside shelterhouse in Franklin’s Province Park (originally named Pioneer Park) is a more open construction but does include restrooms at its north end. The metal roof compromises its integrity somewhat, but its setting includes a WPA-constructed rock garden up the hillside behind it.


Creekside shelter, Province Park, Franklin

Larger cities usually had established parks by the time of the New Deal. Anderson’s Shadyside Park dates to 1897, originally a private park for interurban employees. The city acquired it in 1923 and made some improvements and then in the 1930s the WPA built several structures, including this beautiful stone shelterhouse.


Shelterhouse, Shadyside Park, Anderson 

Cascade Park, developed by the WPA over several years on the north side of Bloomington (home of Indiana University) is a long, linear park running along a creek.  Old State Road 37 winds through it, and there is talk of eliminating automobile traffic on the former highway. Among the several surviving New Deal structures is a fine shelterhouse built of the local limestone.


Shelterhouse, Cascase Park, Bloomington

One of my favorite examples is in Linton, situated amidst the coal mines of southwestern Indiana. Its city park, developed with the help of the WPA, was renamed Humphreys Park in honor of a tireless park advocate who died in 1939. WPA workers built a memorial the following year. This particular park features a wonderful collection of stone structures built by WPA workers over a period of about 5 years. Although several have compromised integrity, they are still recognizable and still well used, and several even have their WPA credentials carved in stone, as does the shelterhouse.


Shelterhouse, Linton City Park (aka Humphreys Park, Linton

Nearby, incidentally, is a municipal golf course with a beautiful stone club house developed by WPA workers. Golf courses will be the subject of a future essay.

2 comments on “Gimme Shelter: WPA Shelterhouses and Community Spaces in Town Parks

  1. Fascinating! Useful, practical roadside and park shelters. During construction, was the WPA idea at the time to use local building supplies, like the stone from local quarries? Are there similar shelter buildings in other midwestern states? Thanks!

  2. Glory-June Greiff

    Yes indeed! Since most of the WPA needed to be used to pay the workers, projects used local materials, often donated or discarded, even, in some cases (see the previous piece on Washington Park in Michigan City) recycled materials from demolished buildings.  
    And yes, there are similar shelters (though never identical, because of the local materials) throughout Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois that I have seen.

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