Mission 66 and Modern Architecture

A large A-frame style building with many dormers and two chimneys
Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier National Park is one example of Rustic architecture.

Transitioning Away from Rustic Architecture

The early years of the National Park Service were marked by a spree of construction of park lodges, museums, and other buildings. Collectively, buildings constructed from 1916 to 1942 comprise the Park Service Rustic era. Rustic design strived to harmonize with the natural environment through use of natural materials, often locally sourced, as well as a heavy reliance on tedious hand labor techniques.

Much of the Rustic architecture across the National Park Service was made possible by New Deal spending programs, including the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). These programs provided inexpensive labor to build not only elaborate structures, but other park infrastructure such as trails. The discontinuation of the CCC in 1942 further hampered the ability of parks to keep up with needed maintenance and new development. Without the availability of inexpensive labor, the cost of labor-intensive construction methods and Rustic design aesthetics slipped out of reach.

While the Rustic era closed, National Park Service staff included large numbers of highly experienced landscape architects who were invested in design decisions. National Park Service Director Conrad Wirth had worked as a landscape architect for the National Park Service for many years before his appointment as director. He worked with Thomas Vint, a long-time colleague serving as the chief architect who led the National Park Service’s Western and Eastern Offices of Design and Construction. Wirth, Vint, and many of their design staff worked for the National Park Service during the Rustic architecture era and even helped establish Rustic design standards.

With Rustic design financially out of reach, it was time for a new era of park aesthetics. Ultimately, many of the same individuals who built the Rustic charm of the parks were also responsible for establishing its stylistic successor decades later.

The front of a wide, low building showing a repeating geometric pattern made of wood beams
Beaver Meadows Visitor Center at Rocky Mountain National Park displays many characteristics of the Park Service Modern style.

Elements of Park Service Modern Architecture

Mission 66 was a 10-year, billion-dollar initiative to modernize and revitalize the park system. Taking place from 1956 to 1966, this program funded the construction of thousands of new structures. Before development kicked off, National Park Service staff went to work establishing new design standards reflective of the era.

For the Mission 66 era, architects sought to marry contemporary motifs with a timeless, natural aesthetic that stayed true to the National Park Service ethos. The outcome was a new style described as Modern Movement or Park Service Modern.

The Modern aesthetic is characterized by long and low designs and the use of cost-effective construction techniques and materials such as steel, concrete, and prefabricated elements. Common elements include more generous use of glass and steel, including the frequent feature of sweeping floor-to-ceiling windows. Many Modern buildings feature natural colors, textures, and use of accent materials that help harmonize the structures with both existing Rustic-era construction and the natural environment.

Rustic buildings are highly visible, ornate structures that both harmonize with their environment and draw attention to themselves as sights to be seen. Mission 66-era park leadership instead favored building designs and locations that would be more hidden and subtle features within the landscape. While Rustic lodges and buildings carry the romanticism and nostalgia of early park heritage, the Modern style blends with the natural environment in a more understated, utilitarian fashion.

A photo taken from the parking lot shows a building with a tall, glass window walls, an angular roof, and an attached cyclorama
The Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center at Dinosaur National Monument after its construction.

Landscape architects were especially mindful of the overall context in which these structures would exist. Rather than simply designing the building in isolation, they carefully considered how the new construction would blend with surrounding vegetation, views, and other natural elements. They chose orientation of buildings and established circulation patterns that would showcase natural resources and immerse visitors in their environment. The experience of walking to and entering a Mission 66 building was not meant to foster admiration for the building, but to evoke awe for the natural surroundings. While some of these considerations were present prior to the Modern era, the postwar era birthed a much stronger, renewed emphasis on these design concepts.

While most Mission 66 projects were completed between 1956 and 1966, some work continued after this milestone. The National Park Service branded this final phase of work as “Parkscape USA.” Projects in this phase took place from 1966 to 1972. The conclusion in 1972 coincided with the centennial of Yellowstone National Park.

Many distinctive designs across the parks represent the aesthetic and character of the Modern architecture era. Some examples include the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center at Rocky Mountain National Park, Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center at Dinosaur National Monument, Visitor Center at Antietam National Battlefield, Flamingo Visitor Center at Everglades National Park, and Clingmans Dome Observation Tower at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Antietam National Battlefield, Dinosaur National Monument, Everglades National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Yosemite National Park more »

Last updated: September 1, 2023