Films of King County Assessor Roy B. Misener documenting the WPA Land Use Survey Project, 1936-1940
Documenting the Land Use Survey Project
16mm films from the 1930s
One of the most frequent requests to archives and libraries in King County is, “where do I find an old photo of my house?” The first and best answer is to refer them to the King County Assessor’s property cards, which provide a wealth of property information along with historical building photos.
These records exist thanks to the Land Use Survey project, a pioneering four-year undertaking begun in 1936 by King County Assessor Roy B. Misener in partnership with the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA).
In 2014, the King County Archives added to its collection four 16-millimeter films documenting this project.
Less than an hour of footage in total, these short films were produced by King County Assessor Roy B. Misener using his personal home movie camera.
They contain original footage shot for a two-reel silent film about the project that was presented and narrated by Misener and his colleagues at community forums around the county.
Misener's films portray not only the technical aspects of the project work, including the photographic and office technology of the time, but they also give us a sense of project employees, showing them at work as well as enjoying one another's company at project social events.
"a happy family and good fellowship attitude"
A Chronicle of the Land Use Survey, King County Washington, a WPA Project, by project supervisor A. C. Klotz, provides an informative and affectionate history of the project, with attention to the project’s personal impact on workers at all levels. Klotz describes the project as having “a happy family and good fellowship attitude,” to the degree that in 1940, several employees volunteered as blood donors for a hospitalized colleague. Multiple King County departments, including the Auditor, the Sheriff, and even the Coroner, also pitched in by allowing temporary use of office space and providing technical services. The book is available in local university libraries and provided here in PDF format:
A Chronicle of the Land Use Survey, King County Washington, a WPA Project, A. C. Klotz, 1940. (Scanned image copy courtesy of Greg Lange.)
What the films depict: the Land Use Survey Project
After his election in 1935, King County Assessor Roy B. Misener found that inequalities in property tax assessments had accumulated over the years due to lack of data, inaccurate data, subjectivity in property appraisals, and an outdated recordkeeping system.
Misener initiated a comprehensive land use survey to correct these problems and to ensure that equity in property taxation was maintained into the future. The Land Use Survey officially commenced as a WPA project in February, 1936.
The survey was based on building appraisals and documentation of land use, and mathematical calculations were systematically applied to determine value. Misener took a multi-pronged approach that included aerial photography, field engineering surveys, a timber survey, and fresh documentation of individual properties throughout the County.
“Assessments have been made on a fair and equal basis for all”
The achievement of the project's primary goal, equalization of property assessments at the time and a system to maintain them, is its greatest legacy. The pioneering methods of data-based assessment and modernized recordkeeping were considered models for other jurisdictions.
Above: example property record being replaced.
Above: scan of property record card (now slightly worn) created for the project.
Employment and training for people “from all walks of life”
The survey also had immediate economic impact in King County as a WPA project that employed and provided training and experience to an average of 600 individuals at a time in the years 1936 to 1940. The project chronicle (see top-right inset) tells stories of several of these people:
Pages from Klotz's Chronicle (below) describe the project's positive impact on individuals. (Click on pages for larger view.)
Field worker photographing a house, ca. 1937. Image from King County Archives Accession A10-009.
Where do I find an old photo of my house? --- Assessor's Property Cards
To researchers seeking photos and histories of King County properties, the most tangible and enduring legacy of the Land Use Survey project are the Assessor's property cards. After the Land Use Survey project concluded in 1940, the Assessor’s Office continued to maintain the cards, updating them with new data and adding over 1.5 million photographs until 1972.
The property cards are today publicly available through the Puget Sound Regional Branch of the Washington State Archives. For help with locating a specific property card and for more information on what they contain, see the King County Archives guide Property Record Cards at Puget Sound Regional Archives.
The 1936 Aerial Survey
The first phase of the Land Use Survey project was the creation of the earliest complete set of aerial photographs covering the entire county. Engineering field surveys were then conducted to reconcile discrepancies between the new aerials and historic maps and data.
Digital images from this series of aerial photographs for much of the County can be found on the Department of Transportation Roads Services Division’s online Map Vault (choose Advanced Search, and select “aerials” as Map Type, Map Year 1937).
Records of the aerials project, including original oversized photographic prints (the same images as those that are online via the Map Vault), and related engineering survey records, are available in the King County Archives collection. For information about these records, see the guide, The King County Aerial Survey.
Photograph from the 1936 aerial survey. The area pictured includes a portion of the Green River, Section 10 Township 22 Range 4E. King County Road Services Map Vault item number 20150303-33119.
Roy B. Misener’s Films
In 2014, the grandson of Roy B. Misener donated to the King County Archives four reels of his grandfather’s 16mm films that document the Land Use Survey project.
The reels hold multiple segments of original camera footage spliced together and are a mix of black and white and color stock. (Film buffs may recall that 1936 was around when consumer grade color film began to be commercially available.)
Three of the reels contain a mix of subjects including some family footage. So, it is most likely some film segments served as sources, but are not the final edit of the film shown to the public. The fourth reel is possibly a master for first part of the complete film presented by Misener to the public.
For ease of online viewing, distinct segments that had been spliced together on the reels are here presented as separate clips.
Title credits and surveying
This clip begins with the title credits for the two-reel film presented at public events. Following the credits are scenes of a project crew working in the field clearing brush and surveying.
Property Card Production
Project staff are shown at work creating property cards using the modern technology of the time. The photo processing lab shown here was housed in the County Coroner’s inquest room, an example of cooperation and support between County agencies around the project.
A brief look at the the display created for an open house to show the outcome of the property revaluation project.
This clip shows project staff at work analyzing aerial photographs, which were used to correct inaccuracies in existing land records.
WPA/King County picnic
Among the social events organized for project employees was a company picnic. This short film portrays a lively and cheerful event, including footraces, what appears to be a hog-calling contest, an egg toss, and dashes (and subsequent dog-piles) for shoes.
Acceptance of the Permanent Record by the County
The County’s acceptance of the product of the WPA project as “the Permanent Record” officially adopted the new data and assessments as the County record on which assessments would be based. This footage shows WPA State Administrator Carl B. Smith presenting the final product to Misener for formal acceptance.
Assessing a home: demonstration
These two clips show demonstrations of the process of gathering data and photographing a house. There is some overlap between the segments.
Employee social events
Roy B. Misener is reported to have dressed as Santa Claus at office Christmas parties. In the following two clips, from a reel with the label, "Office Xmas Party," employees enjoy opening gag gifts.
Note: the footage here suffers from poor lighting, but you can still get a sense of the mood and the people at the events.
The films came with no descriptive information other than a few brief titles taped to the film reels and canisters. The social events in the following two clips may or may not be official project-sponsored events. However, project employees in these clips are recognizable as having been present at the WPA picnic and the office Christmas party.
This first segment is a nightlife social gathering. Project staff from other film segments appear here.
This segment, identified on the reel as “Hunts Point,” shows what are assumed to be project employees enjoying the waterfront.
A few other clips included on the Misener film reels provide brief glimpses of King County in the mid- to late-1930s. Two are shown below.