On-line Book
Book Cover to Mission 66 Visitor Centers. With image of Dinosaur NM Visitor Center, view from beneath ramp


Table of Contentss




Wright Brothers


Pertified Forest

Rocky Mountain

Cecil Doty



Appendix I

Appendix II

Appendix III

Appendix IV

Mission 66 Visitor Centers
Chapter 2
National Park Service Arrowhead

Mitchell/Giurgola, Architects

The Wright Brothers Memorial Visitor Center was the "first building to achieve nationwide recognition" designed by Ehrman Mitchell and Romaldo Giurgola. [15] Although only a year old in 1957, the visitor center building type was not unfamiliar to either young architect. Mitchell and Giurgola met in the office of Gilboy, Bellante and Clauss, a Philadelphia firm commissioned to design the 1955-1956 visitor centers at Jamestown and Yorktown. [16] During Gilboy, Bellante and Clauss' association with the Park Service, Mitchell and Giurgola became acquainted with John B. Cabot, chief architect of the Eastern Office of Design and Construction. In October 1957, Mitchell invited "Bill" Cabot to a cocktail party at the family's new home in Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania. The two discussed the prospect of Park Service work for the untested firm of Mitchell/Giurgola. As Mitchell recalls, Cabot said, "Mitch, don't call me, push me, pressure me . . . if I get work, I'll call you." [17] A few months later, Cabot did call. When Mitchell questioned the Chief Architect about his choice of virtually unknown architects for the prestigious commission, Cabot said that the recent recession in the Eisenhower administration affected his decision: "We got a directive to get every project on the street. We had eight projects and seven architects." [18] If Mitchell/Giurgola obtained the Wright Brothers Visitor Center contract by being in the right place at the right time, the results they achieved far surpassed the Park Service's expectations. The publicity the building would receive in popular architectural journals over the next decade resulted not from the architects' reputation as accomplished modernist architects, but from the design of their building.

Born in Italy in 1920, Romaldo Giurgola was educated at the University of Rome and, beginning in 1950, at Columbia University. He taught at Cornell and served as an editor of Interiors magazine before joining the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in 1958. Ehrman B. Mitchell, Jr., a Pennsylvania native born in 1924, received his architectural education at Penn and a position with a local firm soon after graduation. Three years later he joined Gilboy, Bellante and Clauss of Philadelphia and in 1951 became the supervisor of the firm's London office. His work in England included coordinating with a large English consulting firm in the design of military air fields. When Mitchell returned to Philadelphia by the mid-1950s, he was experienced in running international architectural firms. In 1957, he and Giurgola began planning their partnership, and with the prospect of work from the Park Service, opened their own Philadelphia office. Along with the visitor center commission, the firm designed two other public buildings, several residences, and projects for competitions during its first few years in business. [19] When Giurgola became chairman of Columbia's architectural department in 1966, the firm opened a second office in New York. By this time Mitchell/Giurgola was a well-known architectural presence with an award-winning parking garage and the much sought after commission for the A.I.A. headquarters building in Washington, D.C., to its credit. [20] Ten years later, the partners would receive the A.I.A. firm award, the organization's most distinguished award for an office. The bicentennial year also marked the dedication of Mitchell/Giurgola's second Park Service structure, the Liberty Bell Pavilion on the mall across from Independence Hall. [21] Among the firm's many significant achievements are the headquarters building of the United Fund in Philadelphia (1971), of which one architectural historian declared "one has but to travel up and down the east coast of the United States to see the influence it has had on urban architecture." [22] Mitchell served as president of the A.I.A. in 1979-1980, and in 1982, Giurgola was awarded the A.I.A. Gold Medal, the highest honor bestowed upon individual architects. The Wright Brothers Visitor Center was not only featured in the A.I.A. nomination, but as part of a traveling "Gold Medal Exhibition" sent to schools across the nation. [23] Architectural historians assessing the firm's career look to this building as the beginning, and, as their first significant work, a benchmark from which to judge future growth and change. [24]

The Wright Brothers Visitor Center commission not only inspired Mitchell and Giurgola, but, more importantly, proved a challenging design problem worthy of national recognition. Like a handful of other park sites, the Wright Brothers Memorial is a monument to scientific and technological achievement. For the architects, as for the public, its value lay both in its significance to the history of aviation and to the more personal story of perseverance and experimentation leading to scientific progress. During the 1950s, when many of the country's first modern airports were under construction and the dream of space travel became a reality, aviation facilities used modern technology and materials to create aesthetic representations of flight, suggesting the limitless future of transportation. One early example, the terminal building at Lambert-St. Louis Airport designed by Minoru Yamasaki with George Hellmuth and Joseph Leinweber (1953-1956), housed terminals in three concrete groin-vaulted buildings with glass and aluminum forming the semi-circular walls of the remaining space. By the beginning of the Mission 66 program, Eero Saarinen, creator of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, was busy with plans for the TWA Terminal at Kennedy International Airport, New York (1956-1962), and Dulles International Airport, Reston, Virginia (1958-1962). In November 1957, park employees sent bags of sand from Kill Devil Hills to Los Angeles for the dedication of the city's "Jet-Age Expanded International Airport." [25]

Along with social change, the early 1960s brought restlessness among elite designers and a readiness for new leaders in the profession. In 1961, architectural critic Jan Rowan used the term Philadelphia School to describe what he hoped would become an exciting new direction in the practice of architecture. Architectural historians of today are equally eager to group Mitchell/Giurgola in this innovative "school" and to compare their work with the designs of Saarinen and others. As Ehrman Mitchell recalls, he and his partner were not thinking about modernist philosophy during their work at Wright Brothers, nor were they particularly interested in striking out in a new direction. The architects approached the Wright Brothers commission as a "natural response to conditions of program" and were motivated by "the quest for modern design." The overwhelming challenge was to portray the idea of flight in a static form. Mitchell/Giurgola's unconsciousness of any deliberate attempt to remake modernism was an early indication of their originality and key to their successful practice.

In theoretical discussions following construction of the visitor center, Mitchell and Giurgola explained how the firm was both modernist and critical of the standard tenants of previous modern design. As important as their built work, the theory and projects of Mitchell/Giurgola not only influenced generations of student architects, but inspired the flagging profession with new hope. Mitchell and Giurgola considered themselves '"inclusivist'" in their architectural theory and were convinced that a '"partial vision'" in design presented a more acceptable view of reality than the elitist and exclusionary practices of past modern architecture. [26] The young architects began their career at a time when severe modernist architecture seemed to lack the vim and vigor of real life. The work of Philadelphia architect Louis I. Kahn offered exactly what was missing: a sense of order and a reason for being. Kahn passed on his architectural theories in lectures at the University of Pennsylvania and in his buildings; construction began on the University's Richards Laboratories in 1958, the year Giurgola joined the faculty. Energized by Kahn's work and their shared experience at Penn—Mitchell, Giurgola, Robert Venturi, Robert Geddes, and other young architects emerged as a new force in the profession. By the mid-1960s this "Philadelphia School" was considered on the cutting edge of architectural design. As Rowan described it, the Philadelphia School responded to the modernist work of such icons as Richard Neutra and Mies van der Rohe. In place of the abstract forms and universal principles of the previous generation, the younger architects gravitated toward Kahn's more personal and sensitive design philosophy. The close relationship between Mitchell/Giurgola and Kahn is illustrated by the writings of Romaldo Giurgola, who not only became an ardent follower, but a scholar of Kahn's work. Closer study of Giurgola's writings helps to show how Kahn influenced the firm's attitudes toward place, community, and landscape and their expression through the use of light and attention to building materials. [27]

Although their first major building, Mitchell/Giurgola considered the Wright Brothers Visitor Center an important example of their architectural philosophy; the design is clearly a response to the methods of their predecessors and to the new possibilities outlined by Kahn. In a 1961 reference to the design methodology employed at Wright Brothers, Giurgola explained that the "order will be the participation in the environment of the building's special theme, not the imposition of abstract forms." [28] The same year, when interviewed for Progressive Architecture, Giurgola spoke about the role "subjective experience" played in the design process, a subject considered taboo to the blatantly objective proponents of the International Style. [29] The article included a full-page detail photograph of a segment of the visitor center illustrating the contrast of wood panels and concrete, close-ups of the entrance and ceremonial terraces, and smaller views of the overall building and plan. With the exception of Quarry Visitor Center at Dinosaur, completed in 1958, the Wright Brothers Visitor Center received the most media coverage of any National Park Service project of its type.

The Philadelphia office of Mitchell/Giurgola, Architects became MGA Partners in 1990. The principals of this successor firm—Alan Greenberger, Daniel Kelley, and Robert Shuman—worked with the founders beginning in the 1970s. MGA Partner's current projects include the Gateway Visitor Center on Independence Mall, a new facility slated for completion in 1999, the Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert in Rancho Mirage, California, and a theater and drama center for Indiana University in Bloomington. The firm also inherited records and drawings from past projects, most of which have been transferred to the Architectural Archives at the University of Pennsylvania. The New York office retains the original name "Mitchell/Giurgola." In 2000, Ehrman Mitchell is retired and living in Philadelphia. Romaldo Giurgola lives in Australia, where he is a partner of Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp Architects of Canberra and Sydney.

CONTINUED continued



History | Links to the Past | National Park Service | Search | Contact


National Park Service's ParkNet Home