WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels with the WPA State Guides: Watertown Arsenal, Massachusetts

By Fern L. Nesson

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

There’s not much to see in Watertown, Massachusetts, a quiet suburb of Boston on the banks of the Charles River. The Massachusetts guide mentions a few historic houses and historical markers memorializing the first settlement in Watertown dating back to 1630. But there is one site of real note—the U.S. Arsenal.

The Guide describes the Arsenal laconically, perhaps because it was not possible to visit the site in 1937:

“U.S. Arsenal (not open to the public). During the World War, the Arsenal was enlarged by $24,000,000 worth of new buildings devoted to the manufacture of ordnance, employing over three thousand persons.” (p.377)

But it would be a mistake to fail to visit the Arsenal today.

The federal government acquired 40 acres on the Charles River in 1816 in Watertown for an arsenal, and engaged Alexander Parris, later architect of Quincy Market in Boston, to design it. By 1819, construction had been completed on 37 buildings, including an arsenal, factories, shops and housing for army officers and men. The design was spacious and superb in early 19th century federal style. All of the buildings were made of brick with enormous floor to ceiling glass widows, stone lintels on doorways, and slate roofs. Manicured paths and gardens connected each building to the others and roads were paved with cobblestones. The Arsenal resembled a perfect town—spacious, light and air, no poverty, no traffic, clean streets, beautiful views.

Until it closed in the 1980’s, the arsenal was one of the most important sites for storing and manufacturing and testing army weaponry. In the Civil War, the arsenal supplied the Union Army with field gun carriages. (Field gun carriages were used to deploy cannon on the battlefield. Several Civil War era field gun carriages are scattered throughout the Arsenal site. See photo below.)

During World War I, several large buildings were constructed to accommodate the manufacture of larger gun carriages and the equipment used to construct them, but the architectural integrity of the site was maintained. These buildings are also brick construction, with beautiful windows and elegant doors.

After World War II, a nuclear reactor was constructed onsite, but that program was disbanded in the 1970s and, in 1995, the Army abandoned the site. In 2000, Harvard purchased the property, commissioning the architectural firm of Bruner/Cott & Associates to renovate the buildings for civilian use. Bruner/Cott did a wonderful job, returning the buildings to their pristine original condition.

The Arsenal buildings now house high tech companies, a theatre, a health club, several restaurants, and art galleries. The grounds are planted in flower and vegetable gardens, and playgrounds and paths lead down to the Charles River. The original Commander’s house, built in 1861, is now used for parties and community events. The renovation effort was more than worth the $40 million it cost; what was once a deserted industrial site is now extraordinarily beautiful and well worth a visit.