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 4
National Park Service Arrowhead

Painted Desert Community
Petrified Forest National Park, Apache County, Arizona

The Mission 66 program brought improvements to national parks throughout the country, most often in the form of "master plans" designed around existing facilities or additions to older buildings. At Petrified Forest National Park in Apache County, Arizona, Mission 66 planners found a clean slate upon which to design a new Park Service headquarters complete with visitor, administrative, maintenance, and residential facilities. When planning began in 1956, the park contained an assortment of buildings—cabins, privately owned concessions, and adobe structures designed by Park Service architects—but these were concentrated along the highway and on mesas overlooking the Painted Desert. The new headquarters would sit alone on a barren site about three-quarters of a mile away. Park Service architects had already drafted plans for a modern administrative complex accompanied by a separate residential development of single-family homes.

Even more exceptional than this opportunity to create a community from scratch was the Park Service's choice of Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander as its designers. The Los Angeles architectural firm had an international reputation for minimalist modern buildings. By hiring Neutra and Alexander to design both the Gettysburg Visitor Center and the Painted Desert Community, Mission 66 planners not only demonstrated faith in modern architecture, but also an unprecedented willingness to experiment with its purest manifestation. The Painted Desert Community Neutra and Alexander envisioned in 1958, with its dense urban center and adjacent "International Style" row housing, was a shocking departure from the standard Mission 66 layout, not to mention the residential neighborhoods envisioned by the client. According to Neutra and Alexander, the flat-roofed, steel and glass buildings addressed the Park Service's tradition of harmonizing with the landscape and regional history through subtle elements, such as low silhouettes, "desert" color, and native plantings. [1] The Park Service would ultimately accept the streamlined visitor center and unfamiliar row housing, but not without questioning aspects of the design and its relationship to park values.

site of the proposed Painted Desert
Figure 42. The site of the proposed Painted Desert Community, Painted Desert, Apache County, Arizona, ca. 1958.
(Courtesy National Park Service Technical Information Center, Denver Service Center.)

Petrified Forest became a national monument in 1906, a decade before the Park Service was established, but substantial development did not begin until highways were constructed during the 1920s. The completion of Route 66 brought tourists to the north end of the monument, where Highway 180 began its winding path through the Painted Desert and into the Petrified Forest. In anticipation of automobile tourists, entrepreneurs built a trading post for travelers on the rim of the Painted Desert and a store in the Rainbow Forest at the extreme south end of the park. Major Park Service construction first occurred during the 1930s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) began improving park facilities. Led by designer Lyle E. Bennett, the CCC rebuilt the hotel and constructed several ranger residences. The new "pueblo-style" Painted Desert Inn featured carved timbers, tin lighting fixtures, and concrete floors decorated with traditional Native American patterns. Poised on the edge of the canyon rim, the Painted Desert Inn offered visitors spectacular views of the desert, a restaurant, curios, and limited accommodations. [2] This regional example of Park Service Rustic, "inspired by the dwellings of the Pueblo Indians," was mirrored in the employee residences built across the street. These were the types of buildings visitors expected to find in a national park. [3]

The Park Service was still struggling to revive itself after the war during the late 1940s, when designs were submitted for a modern building at Meteor Crater, a privately owned land feature about fifty miles west of Petrified Forest. Prominent architects including Frank Lloyd Wright submitted designs for a museum at the edge of the 570-foot-deep crater. [4] The commission went to Philip Johnson, co-organizer of the 1932 International Style exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and, more recently, architect of the "glass house" (1949) in New Caanan, Connecticut. [5] Johnson's work must have seemed fittingly futuristic to his clients at Meteor Crater. The national interest in space exploration would skyrocket after the success of Sputnik, inspiring many architects to imagine the ramifications of space travel and its impact on design. In his writings of the 1950s, Neutra considered the global effects of "planetary traffic, transport and industrialization," as well as the aesthetic challenge presented by the lunar landscape, a place without cultural history. [6] Mission 66 architecture reflected this contemporary obsession with technological progress.

Although only a short distance from Petrified Forest, Meteor Crater was worlds away in terms of its "park" landscape. The local staff planning for Mission 66 improvement during the mid-fifties had to contend with the monument's former CCC buildings and a motley assortment of souvenir stores and restaurants including Jacob's Trading Post, Olson Curio, and Charles "Indian" Miller's Lion Farm/Painted Desert Park. The Mission 66 plan would not only clear the area of private concessioners, but also create new facilities and improve the road system. The proposal for Petrified Forest included "major development of a Visitor Center, picnic facilities, residential and utility area and location of headquarters in the Painted Desert section near U. S. 66 Highway." [7] By locating the new visitor center and headquarters on the "new Route 66," (now I-40) rather than at the south end, the park defined the modern motorist's experience. Visitors could stop at the center for a rest from the interstate or drive the loop road through the park to Highway 180 and back to I-40. Plans for an interchange into the park from the improved highway became a priority for the new headquarters scheme.

Before the Painted Desert project gained momentum, Park Service planners focused on Mission 66 work in Rainbow Forest at the south end of the park. Improvements would include a museum addition, store, and picnic grounds. Early proposals for enlarging the museum were produced by in-house architects in the summer of 1957. After considering a streamlined, concrete block building with a glass enclosed viewing terrace, the park approved a much simpler scheme by Regional Architect Kenneth Saunders. This 2,400-square-foot "addition to the visitor center" was under construction in October 1958 and completed by January of the next year. [8]

Mission 66 visitor centers were intended to function as "the hub of the park," but at Petrified Forest aspirations for the new headquarters building were even higher. Correspondence from Assistant Director Stratton indicates that in its early planning stages the Painted Desert Community was envisioned as a place where visitors could learn about all the national parks and their shared "National Park concept." [9] According to a fact sheet compiled by the park for newspaper reporters attending the dedication ceremony, the new building would "serve as an Information Center for all of the areas comprising the Park System, the first of its kind designed for this purpose, in the United States." [10] In preparation for this comprehensive new headquarters, the Park Service sent its own designers and planners to Petrified Forest before securing the services of contract architects. In October 1956, Paul Thomas and Glenn Hendrix, landscape architects from the WODC, and Jerome C. Miller, regional landscape architect, met at the park to discuss the part Mission 66 would play in the next master plan. [11] By August 1957, the park had approved an in-house "proposed layout" for the headquarters area. [12] The visitor center and parking for one hundred cars was located off Route 66, with twenty-three units of employee housing grouped around a looping access road some distance from the public facility. The segregation of housing from the visitor center and administrative complex, a primary objective in this scheme, involved building additional roads through the monument. Residences were two- and three-bedroom houses constructed of wood framing and pumice block. In elevation, these are one-story, rectangular buildings with simple, modernist lines—a deliberate departure from traditional Park Service housing. [13]

Over the winter, the Park Service continued to refine its plan for the Painted Desert. Architect Cecil Doty produced sketches for the park's preliminary master plan in February 1958. [14] Doty's sketches show the general layout of the community, with a separate apartment building and dormitory accompanying the visitor center. As in the earlier scheme, the residences are organized in an oval shape around an access road, though in this case much closer to the main complex. Shortly after approval of this plan, the Park Service reconsidered its design of the Painted Desert Community. Dissatisfaction with the proposal may have occurred as a result of a visit from Thomas Vint, chief of design and construction, and Assistant Regional Director Harthon L. Bill. [15] Vint and Bill met with representatives of the Fred Harvey Company on April 6. A few weeks later, the Superintendent and Regional Architect Kenneth M. Saunders traveled to the WODC to discuss the Painted Desert development. At this time, "preliminary talks were held with an Architect-Engineering firm." Shortly after, on April 20, Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander visited the park "to obtain the feel of the area and to discuss proposed work." [16] The next month, the architects discussed their preliminary plans with Conrad Wirth, director of the Park Service. Wirth was not impressed by the residential housing arrangement, which he thought more suited to a crowded urban area than the Painted Desert's endless expanse. According to Vint, Neutra showed little reaction to the criticism and, "although he took notes, he did not explain to us whether they were for the purpose of changing the plans to meet the Director's wishes or for the purpose of developing arguments in support of the plans he has presented." [17] The housing as built suggests the latter.

It appears that Neutra and Alexander began "developing arguments" to support their plans almost immediately. In a brochure entitled "Homes for National Park Service Families on a Wind-Swept Desert," the architects used diagrams, drawings, and text to sell their project, focusing on the special needs of Park Service families and the unique desert site. The community plan included provisions for storage—considered essential for the typical itinerant family—visitors, and social events which usually involved the entire community. The wind-swept aspect of the site was the driving force behind the design. The low profile, compact plan, and private courtyards resulted from wind "known to blast the paint off of exposed automobiles." Since the treeless site lacked visual privacy, the concrete walled patios offered the only opportunity for private green space. Neutra and Alexander addressed Park Service concerns even more explicitly in a discussion of "the dream home in everyone's mind . . . the separate, isolated cottage in the midst of un-touched nature." Although the architects themselves shared this dream of individual homes surrounded by trees, they explained that such an idyllic situation is impossible in most densely populated residential areas. The Painted Desert had the unusual luxury of space, but no foliage to maintain visual privacy. According to the architects, "the vast space around the house would be a menace impossible to maintain, and utility costs would be staggering." Rather than adapting the typical single-family home, Neutra and Alexander favored the Native American method of building a compound of dwellings surrounded by sheltering walls. The Puerco Mesa village became the model for the Painted Desert Community. The architects imagined private homes not only sheltered from the elements, but from the noise and intrusion of neighbors; residents would even enjoy privacy at night without drawing the blinds. The overall plan of the community incorporated larger "oasis" spaces between the rows of houses that served as wind blocks, sound barriers, and sheltered play areas.

Neutra and Alexander also addressed reservations the Park Service entertained regarding the visitor center. The visitor would approach a "cool, shaded, green oasis," where he or she could rest surrounded by services: the concessioner's shop, restaurant, and administration building. Conrad Wirth had advised the separation of Park Service and concessioner facilities, but the architects suggested that the concession and administration buildings share an entrance area "so that one will 'feed' the other." Concession and maintenance walls would be blank in order to focus attention on the lobby entrance, as Wirth desired. In closing, the architects presented the Painted Desert "village" as a microcosm of a city zoned into residential, commercial, recreation, and industrial areas, including apartments, school, civic center, and "parking for visitors from everywhere." [18]

The week before Christmas 1958, WODC Chief Sanford J. Hill and Park Service architect Charles Sigler met at Neutra and Alexander's office to discuss revisions in the plans. After receiving the architects' preliminary designs, the park had developed an alternative layout which relocated major buildings. [19] During this conference, the new plan was reevaluated and in the end, "everyone was pleased to return to the original plan with the Administration-Orientation Building on the right and adjacent to the National Park Service Utility Area while Fred Harvey's store-restaurant was placed to the left and adjacent to their storage building and apartments." [20] Despite this consensus, the Park Service's decision to significantly reduce the square footage of most buildings couldn't have pleased Neutra and Alexander. [21] Although correspondence indicates a good working relationship between client and architects, the firm was obviously inconvenienced by the Park Service's work schedule. According to the regional director, the superintendent and his staff had also "become quite discouraged due to these unavoidable delays." [22] Recent cuts in funding and, finally, the removal of the "package project" from the 1960 fiscal year budget, forced the Park Service to delay construction on all of its contracts—from roads and parking to utilities and buildings. In February 1959, the Director declared that after the architects completed their preliminary drawings, these should be shelved until construction funds were available. [23] Major buildings in "the program of 1958," including the $180,000 administration/orientation facility, were now slated for completion during the 1961 fiscal year. In his report of the meeting to the regional director, Hill revealed that the park had decided not to inform the concessioners of the year delay in construction until after preliminary drawings were approved. The anticipated years of waiting for building to begin "terribly disappointed" both Superintendent Fred Fagergren and the contract architects, who had hoped to start preparation of the working drawings immediately. [24]

Neutra and Alexander had several projects on the drawing boards when they accepted the commission for the Painted Desert Community. The firm was in the midst of designing buildings for St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland; additions to the Museum of Natural History in Dayton, Ohio; the Gettysburg Visitor Center; and plans for the Ferro Chemical Company in Bedford, Ohio; to name a few. Neutra biographer Thomas S. Hines has singled out the St. John's buildings as precedents for the work at Painted Desert. This campus design gathered together several buildings with different functions—classrooms, an auditorium, laboratories, a planetarium—in a compatible arrangement around an open court. The modern brick and flagstone complex stood in close proximity to venerated seventeenth-century buildings. In true modernist fashion, Neutra explained his designs through abstract principles suited to the architectural style; the building attempted "to grasp and express this faith in values that transcend mere historic or modish relativities" through pure form. [25] Like lines in a Shakespearean drama that still ring true today, Neutra hoped to capture a timeless essence. The buildings appear to have been well received by both college officials and the architectural press. According to Hines, poor maintenance subsequently compromised the architects' achievement at St. Johns. A similar fate, exacerbated by faulty construction, would befall the buildings at Painted Desert. [26]

In choosing Neutra and Alexander as architects of the Painted Desert Community and the visitor center at Gettysburg, the Park Service fully accepted modern architecture as appropriate for the Mission 66 program. Other architects hired before and after this firm—Anshen and Allen and Taliesin Associated Architects—worked in the modern style but also designed buildings with "rustic" associations and centered social spaces around domestic features such as fireplaces. For Neutra, architecture could only express the modern age, with its exciting opportunities for efficient contemporary living. Not that Neutra ignored a client's desires; to the contrary, he spent a great deal of time and effort consulting with future residents. But the clients who hired Neutra and Alexander usually preferred the clean lines, bare surfaces, sun-filled rooms, and efficiency of modern design. Although infused with Mission 66 zeal, the National Park Service came equipped with a tradition of environmentally sensitive buildings. It would require all of Neutra's philosophical skill to communicate the appropriateness of the Painted Desert Community.

In the design and construction of the Painted Desert Community, architect and client would deal with the contradictions of decades of modern architecture in microcosm. The Park Service was wary of Neutra's radical row housing. However, when it came to details, Neutra and Alexander pushed the Park Service to consider every aesthetic choice, its associations and the sum of the parts. For example, in response to pictures of sample masonry patterns for the plaza wall submitted by the park, Neutra and Alexander replied that the example was "far too machine-made in appearance to be appropriate." [27] They suggested cutting the stone at the top and bottom, rather than sawing it, to create a less regular pattern. Even more significant, the architects gave an historical precedent for their choice, citing a National Geographic article on the pueblo restoration at Mesa Verde as a good model for laying up the irregular stone veneer. The photographs of cliffs at Wetherill Mesa show intricate pueblo ruins left behind by thirteenth-century American Indians. As he paged through National Geographic, Neutra could hardly have failed to miss an article about the Society's new headquarters in Washington, D.C., the "serene and timeless" structure designed by Edward Durell Stone. According to the architect, the building was "a blend of the National Geographic Society's dignified traditions and the finest modern technological refinements." During the early 1960s, modern architecture was promoted as both respectful of the past and reaching forward to meet the future. [28]

CONTINUED continued



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