By Chris Madrid French
Can you imagine a trip to the national parks without stopping at the visitor center? Or seeing St. Louis without its landmark Gateway Arch? Both the proliferation of the visitor centers and the completion of Eero Saarinen’s design for the Arch are the result of the National Park Service’s Mission 66 program, a 10-year, billion-dollar effort to improve the visitor experience at the parks and construct new facilities nationwide in the mid-20th century.
Our national parks were nearly loved to death after World War II, as visitation skyrocketed and tourists took to the road to experience history, enjoy nature, and participate in recreational activities. Despite the parks popularity with the public, Congress consistently refused to raise appropriations for maintenance, staff and new construction. The deficiency in the budget resulted in overuse and damage to buildings, roads and natural areas.
Conrad Wirth, the director of the National Park Service at that time, fought against this standard “patch-on-patch” approach to repair at the parks. Wirth “envisioned not a crash program but a long-range one” to start in 1956 and be completed in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Park Service 10 years later. His program, named “Mission 66,” appealed to Congress and the president with the promise of new buildings, roads, campgrounds and visitor facilities for the 80 million annual visitors expected by the mid-1960s. An integral part of Mission 66 was the abandonment of outdated approaches to developing the parks. “Nothing was to be sacred,” Wirth later recalled, “old traditions seem to have determined standards far beyond their time.” The Park Service adopted modern designs for all the buildings planned during Mission 66, abandoning the popular “rustic style,” in favor of a contemporary approach. For the public and the Park Service, the program represented a new era for America’s wonderlands.1
The first 10 visitor centers opened in 1957.2 National Park Service planners, architects, and landscape architects devised the concept to incorporate visitor facilities, interpretive programs, and administrative offices in one structure and restrict modern “footprints” in the parks. The Park Service commissioned private architects (outside of their own corps of designers) to create a select number of flagship buildings. These five visitor centers represented the height of architectural design in the parks during Mission 66, showcasing the park’s assets in structures of glass, steel, and concrete. The list includes the Quarry Visitor Center at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, by Anshen and Allen; the Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center in North Carolina, by Romaldo Giurgola of Mitchell/Giurgola, Associates; the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, by Wesley Peters of Taliesin West Architects. Richard J. Neutra of Neutra and Alexander in Los Angeles, one of the most prominent architects of the 20th century, designed two visitor centers: the Painted Desert Community Complex in Arizona, and the Gettysburg Visitor Center and Cyclorama at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. The unique and distinctive character of each of these structures expressed the diversity of resources held by the National Park Service, articulating the cultural, natural or historical significance at each site.
Several of the most impressive building projects in the U.S. resulted from Mission 66 efforts. The Gateway Arch, designed by architect Eero Saarinen in 1949 for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial National Historic Site in St. Louis, remained unfinished until Mission 66 funding permitted its completion. Major roads completed during the program included the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway (work had stopped in the 1940s with only one-third of the route completed), the scenic Colonial Parkway connecting Jamestown to Williamsburg in Virginia, and a seven-mile extension of the George Washington Memorial Parkway from Spout Run to the Capital Beltway in Washington, D.C.
Mission 66 also provided for the preservation of historic sites. The program reinitiated the recording of historic landscapes and buildings by the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) in 1957, financed rehabilitation work at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and established the registry of National Historic Landmarks (NHL) in 1960.
Preservationists have worked to save critically important buildings from the Mission 66 program over the last 20 years, with a number of notable wins and losses. Three of the five flagship visitor centers are now listed as NHLs, thanks to a concerted effort in the early years of the millennium. Unfortunately, the visitor center at Dinosaur National Monument was demolished after structural damage was discovered. And advocates recently mourned the loss of Richard Neutra’s Cyclorama Building at Gettysburg, torn down despite the protestations of architects and historians, who pointed to the significance of both the structure and its architect.
Hope prevails for Neutra’s other Park Service masterpiece at Petrified Forest National Park, however, with plans in the works to restore the building and renew its original purpose. The Painted Desert Community Complex, completed in 1965, is made up of a cluster of steel, glass and masonry buildings with flat roofs, low silhouettes and native plantings that harmonize with the stunningly colorful geological landscape that surrounds it. Virtually all of the original buildings remain at the site and continue to serve many of the same functions today. While some buildings have suffered from structural damage, inappropriate alterations, and deferred maintenance, the overall character of the complex remains remarkably intact.
In April 2014 the National Trust designated Painted Desert as one of its National Treasures to recognize its unique role in the history of our National Parks and to draw attention to the need for funding and technical assistance to restore it as a beautiful and practical Modern icon that complements the stunning natural landscape around it. National Trust staff, including members of the Preservation Green Lab, are working closely with the Park Service and Superintendent Brad Traver, and Arizona partners Modern Phoenix and the Arizona Preservation Foundation, to raise awareness of and support for this little-known Modern landmark. Drawing on the expertise of well-known restoration and sustainability consultants, the National Trust hopes to provide critical guidance for a model restoration that will return the Complex to its original appearance, integrate sustainable materials and systems (and hopefully achieve net zero energy consumption), and serve as an example for the treatment of Mission 66 resources throughout the Park Service. With this kind of strong, cooperative effort focused on preservation, the public can look forward to another 50 years of service from these irreplaceable assets, each a part of the century-long story of our national parks.
1. Wirth, Conrad L. Parks, Politics, and the People. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.
2.The first ten visitor centers were built at the following parks: Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina; Carlsbad Caverns National Monument, New Mexico; Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico; Chalmette National Historical Park, Louisiana; Dinosaur National Monument, Utah; Flamingo, Everglades National Park, Florida; Fort Caroline National Military Park, Florida; Fort Frederica National Monument, Georgia; Colter Bay, Grand Teton National Park; Mammoth Caves National Park, Kentucky; and Canyon of the Yellowstone, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Staff writer, “Centers Planned for Park Visitors.” New York Times, 21 October 1956, 86.
Christine Madrid French, an advocate for the study and preservation of American modern buildings, was born and raised in Los Angeles. She is the curator of history at the Art and History Museums-Maitland, near Orlando, Fla., and project director of Preservation Capen, a successful conservation effort to save and move an 1885 home to a new location, over water.