Written by Christine Madrid French
The National Park Service credo for architects is simple: produce designs that work in “harmony” with the surrounding landscape. This straightforward directive cannot be applied wholesale to the collection of remarkable places that make up the national park system, however, which counts over 400 sites encompassing the cultural and natural stories of our country from pre-history through today.
In seeking direction and inspiration for their designs, architects drew upon the unique identity of each park area. The resulting building and landscape collection – visible at sites as diverse as Little Big Horn in Montana and the Everglades in Florida – is a singular opportunity to study each generation’s interpretation of this notion of “harmony.” Now, as the Park Service nears the 100th anniversary of its founding, the agency is coming face-to-face with sometimes difficult preservation questions, including saving its own resources from the recent past.
I recently spoke at the Yosemite Forum, a monthly gathering that promotes park studies and science, on the topic of modern architecture in the national parks. In 1956, Congress approved a billion-dollar building project to “improve” the national parks through new methods of interpretation, increased visitor safety, and widespread infrastructure upgrades. The ten-year initiative was dubbed “Mission 66,” with the ending timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Park Service. Whereas rustic-style buildings of rock and timber (known as Parkitecture) had prevailed throughout the 1930s, Americans of the 1950s wanted buildings that expressed their own relationship with nature and history, yet fully recognized the needs of the atomic age generation. Mid-century modern buildings popped up throughout the parks, noted by the introduction of a flagship structure: the now ubiquitous visitor center (100 were built).
Yosemite is home to one of these Mission 66 visitor centers, an appropriately understated building situated close to the valley’s granite walls at the center of an in-park community. Though many of the original visitor centers are aging – with a few targeted for demolition or lost already -- the Park Service is beginning to realize that these buildings can still serve critical visitor needs, albeit with some changes. At Yosemite, a recent interior remodeling has brought the rock-façade structure back to life, with new exhibits inside that enticed my children and engaged the tourists I saw there. Zion National Park in Utah needed a larger facility in a “less sensitive” area, but kept their Mission 66 visitor center and repurposed it as a museum. Grand Canyon incorporated a similar plan into their re-use of vintage buildings and I hear Mesa Verde in Colorado is following suit. We are collecting more of these preservation success stories nationwide as part of an overall effort to demonstrate the continued value of historic buildings in the parks.
Christine Madrid French is the director of the Modernism + Recent Past Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which is headquartered at the Western Office in San Francisco.
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