Mission 66: Modernism and the National Park Dilemma
By Ethan Carr. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, in association with the Library of American Landscape History, Amherst, MA: 2007; 342 pp., hardcover, $39.95.
Mission 66: Modernism and the National Park Dilemma provides an in-depth, historical perspective on an influential period in the National Park Service that has been largely ignored. Carr demonstrates that while the Mission 66 program was the largest project in park service history since World War II (both in terms of scope and funding), many professionals today are largely unfamiliar with the program’s details. Even so, strong feelings about the effort persist today, more than 40 years after the program officially concluded in 1966. A landscape architect and professor at the University of Virginia and former National Park Service historian, Carr seeks to dispel any “mystique” surrounding Mission 66 and addresses some of the criticisms of the program’s legacy in this 342-page treatise.
Though he explores Mission 66 design issues, Carr approaches his topic from a broader social perspective, creating a cultural context for the decade-long program that began in 1956 and culminated in 1966 with the 50th anniversary of the park service. As he explains in his introduction, “The story of Mission 66 is a reminder that the parks are reservoirs of national identity, history, and imagination as well as ecosystems. Their vast symbolic power has been constant, but has also constantly shifted in meaning.” (p. 15)
This extensively researched book often reads in part like a retrospective of NPS from the Mather and Albright years until the end of the 20th century, providing great insight into the personalities, pressures, trends, and thinking that have shaped our parks. The book focuses primarily on the careers of two longtime park service men: Director Conrad “Connie” Wirth and Chief Landscape Architect Thomas Vint. Through a narrative of their years of service, Carr explains what precipitated Mission 66, how the program proceeded, what it accomplished, and its design legacy.
Mission 66 is comprised of three sections: Planning, Design, and Construction, with an additional concluding chapter. The Planning section describes the situation in national parks following World War II, when the lack of funding, combined with a visitation boom, began to have a widespread negative effect on park resources. The Design section is further broken down into chapters regarding architecture, landscape architecture, preservation, and interpretation. In the final section, Construction, other tangible results of Mission 66 concessionaire facilities and roads and their social repercussions are discussed. Throughout the book, specific parks such as Mount Rainier, Everglades, and Yosemite are referenced in detail in order to illustrate specific examples and aspects of change and controversy.From the outset, Carr underscores what he identifies as the “National Park dilemma,” a term borrowed from former NPS Director Newton Drury.
According to the author, a seemingly dichotomous problem is inherent in the enabling legislation of the National Park Service, which states that the parks should be “promote(d)” for “enjoyment,” yet in a “manner...that will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” (p. 70) As Carr ably shows in his work, multiple and conflicting interpretations of this mandate can often cause multiple and conflicting problems. One group, including Wirth and Vint, adhered to the original intent of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., who helped author the original organic legislation. Under this philosophy, nature (arguably a romantic cultural construction) was a scenic landscape resource. Conrad Wirth’s personal history with earlier New Deal programs, combined with this view, helped shape the approach to the Mission 66 program and many of its outcomes. Parks were planned and managed to accommodate a maximum number of visitors. Concentrating heavy use to areas of the front country would prevent any impact to the back country, thus preserving “wilderness.” However, in postwar America, culture was shifting away from this distanced, idealized cultural concept of nature to a more exact, scientific understanding. As a result, Mission 66 efforts were often seen as zealous and overambitious development, even while the National Park Service insisted that they were pursuing resource conservation. Carr demonstrates that disagreements over particular Mission 66 projects helped in part to spur the modern environmental movement and directly contributed to actions like the Wilderness Act of 1964.
While not a doctrinaire defense of Mission 66, Carr’s book does seek to redeem the program’s history and intent to some extent. Placing project decision-making in the context of postwar suburbanization, the modernist design thinking of the 1950s, and the history of prior successes during the New Deal era gives the reader a solid context from which to assess the program. Ultimately, the author’s position is one of learning salient lessons from the past rather than engaging in a debate over the general appropriateness of the Mission 66 program approach.
In this regard, Mission 66 is a timely publication. Aging Mission 66 buildings and infrastructure will soon need to be addressed both in functional upgrading, as well as historic resources in need of preservation. As the park service readies for its centennial in 2016, Carr warns that the moral of the Mission 66 story is not to let design values within the agency “calcify.”
In a 10″ × 10″ hardcover format, Mission 66 appears to be laid out in a graphically oriented content. However, the book is text-intensive and comparatively light on images. All graphics are reproduced in black and white, making it hard to distinguish between the author’s contemporary photos and historic NPS pictures. Many of the images are quite small, with no full-page spreads. The work may have benefited from more graphic representation of content, such as charts showing number of completed projects, their budgets, and reproductions of planning and design drawings. While the Mission 66 program managed the design of the built park environment, Carr clearly intends to reach a broader audience than just designers. Perhaps this explains the scarcity of design drawings in the work. Mission 66 goes a long way toward filling a gap in American cultural resources literature. It provides a solid narrative for a major National Park Service initiative that has rendered a lasting legacy in its relationship to the nation’s national parks. Carr’s detailed history stands as a solid counterpoint to the other significant work regarding this topic: Mission 66 Visitor Centers: The History of a Building Type written by Sarah Allaback. While criticisms of the Mission 66 program abound in other resources, thus far there is no other comprehensive document that compiles such critical analysis. That being said, further work would still be welcome, perhaps from a perspective outside the design world of the National Park Service.
Drachman Institute, College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, University of Arizona