Important Note: In a general sense, the history of the building of the FDR chair is reliably known, but many of the details of interest to woodworkers are not, as least as far as I have been able to discover so far. There is also information that appears to conflict. Some of what follows is what seems to me most likely true based on my research to this point and my knowledge of woodworking. I will refine it as I learn more. Readers interested in Timberline Lodge and its furnishings should consult Sarah Munro's excellent and authoritative book (and its references): Timberline Lodge: The History, Art, and Craft of an American Icon
Put these shoes on. Your name is Ray Neufer and the year is 1937. You are in charge of the Works Progress Administration woodworking shop in Portland, Oregon. Some of the workers you supervise are highly skilled and some are less so. Many show signs of the toll taken by the Great Depression and are desperate for the wages they get in this "relief" program, but they are gradually becoming a great team. For nearly a year, you and your guys have been making furniture for the Timberline Lodge, which is under construction up on Mt. Hood. Even though the Lodge is not finished, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is coming to Oregon to dedicate the Bonneville Dam and will be driving up to the Timberline Lodge for the same purpose next Tuesday, September 28th. As the prior work week is winding down, you are suddenly told that, because he had polio, the President can only stand up unaided if the chair he is sitting in has arms. Not a single chair you have built for the Lodge has arms, not even one! Because of the symbolism, the chair must be made by the workshop and it must reflect the spirit of Timberline. The very talented woman, Margery Hoffman Smith, who is in charge of all of the interior decorating and with whom you have a great working relationship, gives you a rough sketch, but the rest is up to you. You must take everything you know about the many details that go into the design of a fine chair and create one for the President of the United States on the fly.
There is no time. Finish will have to be applied to the chair on Sunday at the latest. You can delegate some things to workers in the shop, like stock preparation for example, but there are unique aspects of the design that require your personal attention. You have been a "detail man" in the past, taking sketches from architects for built-in woodworking and turning them into detailed construction drawings for the craftsmen, but there is no time for that. The chair is defined by the graceful rear legs and back, which curve in toward the center to form the "Timberline Arch" while simultaneously arching backward and then forward again to make the chair comfortable and flowing. Steam bending or lamination aren't feasible in the time you have, so you pick out two thick timbers, lay them on your bench and sketch the outline on the front and one side of one of them. You don't have a lot of power tools in the shop, so you work mostly with hand tools. You rough out what you have drawn and then refine it. With the first done, you can use it as the pattern for the other side. Except for the arms, which form a second Timberline Arch along with the back when the chair is viewed from above, the rest of the chair is quite similar to a standard Arts and Crafts armchair and it goes more quickly. The mortises are chopped, the angled tenons sawed, the joints that will be stressed the most drawbored and you breathe a sigh of relief because the deadline is going to be met. Exhausted, you go home to rest, too tired even to travel up to the mountain for the dedication ceremony.
Quite a story, don't you think? Here is a photograph of the chair taken at the time:
Here are pictures of it I took last week up at Timberline Lodge which better capture its beauty:
I love this chair for its truly outstanding design, for what it captures about the best of Oregon, for the engaging story about how it was made and for its historical symbolism. This was a desperate time in our national history; the building of this lodge and its furnishings meant so much to the people involved, as they would never tire of telling for the rest of their lives. It gave them hope when they had none, pride when they had none, a means of sustenance when they had none. What they gave us in return was Timberline Lodge and all its furnishings, as Sarah Munro says, an icon.
I had seen this chair before but this past Christmas I really saw it, heard a little snippet of a video near the display about its construction and just had to try somehow to build one like it. But how? At the time, I had one poor quality photo from one angle through a glass window into a secure display. I can try to put his shoes on, but I'm no Ray Neufer, for whom this would have been enough. Searching for an answer to this question has taken much of my time for the past six weeks.