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 6
National Park Service Arrowhead

Three Southwestern Visitor Centers (continued)

Zion Visitor Center

A cottage cannot be transformed into a skyscraper merely by adding story upon story. Zion cannot be equipped to serve doubled and redoubled numbers of visitors merely by expanding existing facilities in their present location. [31]

Planning for a new visitor center at Zion National Park began a decade before the Mission 66 program. During the 1940s, the park accepted proposals for a new museum to replace the existing one-room facility. Since its establishment in 1919, the park had more than doubled its visitor population every ten years. The museum at the juncture of the main highway and the Zion Canyon spur road was a desirable stop for visitors entering the narrow canyon area, but overcrowding and traffic jams had become such a problem that many were denied the opportunity. In its 1951 master plan, the park suggested a combined museum and administration building that would concentrate both the public and the staff offices in a single location. Such an expensive project hardly seemed possible at the time. But park planners became more optimistic during the summer of 1956, when President Eisenhower signed a bill expanding the park. The Kolob (western) section was then opened to the public and funds were provided to purchase several inholdings. Work began on the West Rim Trail in 1957. [32]

Zion Museum
Figure 77. The Zion Museum, n.d.
(Courtesy Zion National Park Archives.)

When Mission 66 funding and planning came to Zion National Park, discussion focused not on whether a new building was necessary but on where it should be located. The park's Mission 66 prospectus described a facility outside the crowded canyon. Along with the construction of this visitor center at the south entrance of Zion Canyon, the park proposed a new road into the Kolob canyons. The new access was to be designed with pull-outs and interpretation to encourage visitors to explore, picnic, and linger in the area. Cecil Doty began preliminary studies for the visitor center in October 1956, before a site location had been finalized. [33] The next spring, the park sent studies and recommendations to the WODC and Region Three office. Robert Hall of the WODC and Merel Sager of the Washington office met with Superintendent Paul Franke in May 1957 to discuss "an alternate site for the visitor center" suggested by Director Wirth. According to one oral history interview, the controversy over the location of the building lasted for over a year because Wirth favored locating the structure adjacent to the old museum. Superintendent Franke insisted that the canyon location was too crowded, both with visitors and geological formations. Mission 66 planning influenced the choice of a site outside of the main canyon, a site with its own natural beauty but one that would not detract from the park's featured scenic attractions. [34]

Any arguments surrounding the siting of the visitor center were resolved by November 1957, the date that Doty completed two sheets of preliminary drawings for a building off the south entrance road with a view of the canyon to the north and the Towers of the Virgin to the east. In elevation, the visitor center appears as three discreet sections: the steel and glass lobby area, the rectangular museum and auditorium, and the low office wing. The path from the parking lot leads to steps and a broad front terrace from which visitors enter the hexagon shaped lobby oriented toward scenic views. In contrast to the more conservative decor of the office wing, the lobby features modern details. Tapered, spider-leg columns support the overhanging roof; the lobby is almost translucent, its glass walls extending from floor to ceiling. Inside, a central skylight further dramatizes the effects of light and spaciousness. An information desk stands to the left of the skylight between the entrances to the exhibit space and auditorium. The restrooms are located on the north side of the lobby. Although this placement of the restrooms blocks one segment of glass wall facing the canyon, it also directs traffic to the far end of the lobby. Black arrows on the original drawings indicate that Doty intended visitors to pass through the lobby to a framed view of Towers of the Virgin, the rock formation behind the building. Visitors were encouraged to walk out to the exterior viewing terrace, which wrapped around the lobby in a geometric shape that mirrored the facets of its walls.

Preliminary plans for Zion Visitor Center

Preliminary plans for Zion Visitor Center
Figures 78 and 79. Preliminary plans and elevations for the Visitor Center at Zion National Park by Cecil Doty, November 1957.
(Courtesy National Park Service Technical Information Center, Denver Service Center.)

(click on image for larger size)

In elevation, the exhibit and auditorium portion of the visitor center is a transition between the modern lobby and the more conservative office wing. The double-height auditorium section is concrete block, its facade only adorned by alternating light and dark panels. By using a pattern of panels similar to those of the office wing windows, Doty developed a more uniform façade, though he seemed intent on maintaining its austerity. The contract architects, perhaps in consultation with their client, would soften his crisp lines with ornamental details. Despite the steel, glass, and smooth surfaces, however, Doty specified the use of redwood dividers in the exterior terrace, which was to contain natural stone walls and surfaces of exposed aggregate.

Although visitors parking in the main lot are certainly aware of the office wing, the low, utilitarian appendage to the visitor center attracts little attention. Employees park in the rear of the building and enter from the parking lot. A naturalist's study collection, restroom, and storage rooms are housed in the basement. The main floor includes offices for the rangers, superintendent, and other administrators; a conference room; and storage for administrative records. The office wing extends from the visitor center exhibit space and along the back of the auditorium, forming an "L" shape. A short hall from the front entrance leads to hallways in both parts of the L and hidden access to the visitor center via the auditorium. The facade of the office wing is only decorated by a strip of utilitarian windows, the simplicity of which contrasts with the imposing double-height auditorium and dramatic glass and steel lobby. In his drawings, Doty masked the facade of the office wing with a series of trees and shrubs. The office wing appeared subservient to the visitor center in every way.

During the next year, Doty's design for the Zion Visitor Center was handed over to the architectural firm Cannon and Mullen of Salt Lake City. [35] Howell Q. Cannon and James M. Mullen worked as partners beginning in 1949 but both had experience as employees of the firm since the 1920s. Cannon (1908- ), born in Salt Lake City, was educated at the University of Utah and received a bachelor's of fine arts from George Washington University in 1938. After working as a draftsman for Cannon & Fetzer for four years, he took a two-year European tour and then accepted a position as clerk and inspector of construction for the Architect of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Beginning in 1938, Cannon supervised construction for Cannon and Mullen, overseeing work at the $400,000 U.S. Bureau of Mines Experiment Station in Salt Lake City. He was a member of the American Institute of Architects. The "specialties" listed in Cannon's resume describe him as an ideal candidate for Mission 66 contracts, with experience in "supervision of construction, architectural engineering work involving design of wood and steel and reinforced concrete stress members, specification writing, business contacts." James M. Mullen (1912- ), also a native of Salt Lake, spent two years at the University of Utah and was licensed to practice in the state. He was employed by several local firms to design a wide range of buildings—including a hospital, housing project, Salt Lake Hardware and Warehouse, and St. Marks Hospital, Salt Lake City. From 1946 to 1949, he worked on several buildings for the Veterans Administration. [36]

The firm of Cannon and Mullen was well known in the state of Utah. As partners they designed schools, factories, municipal buildings, and churches, primarily in Salt Lake City, and had gained a reputation for solid, professional work. The architects were working in the modern style as early as 1939 when they designed the U.S. Bureau of Mines building on the campus of the University of Utah. The Bureau of Mines facility, now known as the HEDCO Building, is actually many buildings connected by ramps and intended to function as a single entity. Although hardly similar to a visitor center in terms of purpose or program, the HEDCO Building was a high-profile commission and would have been used to demonstrate the firm's skill and modernist design philosophy.

Cannon and Mullen began their employment with the National Park Service in 1958 at Bryce Canyon National Park. Their working drawings for the Bryce Canyon Visitor Center, which was also based on original designs by Cecil Doty, were completed in May 1958. [37] The Bryce and Zion visitor centers are only about twenty miles apart and both share the geography of Utah's canyonlands. Both buildings feature a large auditorium, exhibit room, and lobby for visitors and an office wing for park employees. Despite similarities in climate and program, the two visitor centers illustrate the range of aesthetics contained within the Park Service Modern style. The Bryce Visitor Center is a simple building with a flat-roofed lobby and a double-height auditorium and exhibit area behind. The lobby is distinguished by little more than glass entrance doors and floor to ceiling windows. A standard, single level office wing extends to the north. Doty's red brick building with redwood trim originally featured peaked roofs over the lobby and auditorium. [38] In a second preliminary design completed a few months later, he flattened the roofs, giving the building a more modern, streamlined appearance. After developing a standard plan at Bryce, Doty was clearly more willing to experiment on a design for the more elaborate Zion facility.

The Bryce Canyon Visitor Center commission gave Cannon and Mullen experience with canyon sites, the Park Service Modern style, and Doty's plans. When nearby Zion National Park required similar services, the firm was eager to continue its park work. The Zion Visitor Center was not Cannon and Mullen's most original commission—the design, after all, had been developed by another architect—but the execution of working drawings and supervision of construction did prove a creative challenge. The firm took Doty's preliminary sketch and construction outline and transformed his concept into a visitor center that could actually be built; the project required thirty-nine sheets of drawings. The major design change consisted of moving the restrooms from inside the lobby to the exterior of the building, where they became part of the facade. This arrangement was common to other visitor centers, such as Doty's facility at Colorado National Monument, and may have been advised by the Park Service. In any case, the as-built lobby proved a more effective space for viewing the surrounding canyon landscape and aesthetically complimented the building's modern style. The firm also attempted to mitigate the severity of the central section by adding cast stone vents along the top and covering the restroom walls with cast stone of a "large" aggregate. By choosing a random stone veneer of dark reds and browns, the architects created a clear contrast to the duller-colored, regular concrete blocks. Cast stone elements were specified for the lobby details, and drinking fountains were designed of native stone.

Bidding on the construction of Zion Visitor Center opened on February 19, 1959. Of the fourteen bids received, the lowest acceptable was submitted by Charles H. Renie of Moab, Utah, who planned to construct the building for $359,032. Renie visited the site in April accompanied by WODC Building Inspector Eugene Mott. By the end of the month, excavation for the footings was underway. The park reported "good progress" on the visitor center in April. The footings for the basement were poured, and reinforced steel forms for the concrete walls were placed. Work began on the South Entrance Road project in July, as Renie poured concrete for the main floor of the office wing. The structural steel and partition work for the office wing was reported as sixty percent complete the next month. When James Mullen made a visit to the building site in early September, he saw masons working on split lava brick and molded rock in several sections of the building and examined the completed concrete floors in the visitor center's comfort station and auditorium. [39]

construction drawings for Zion Visitor Center

construction drawings for Zion Visitor Center
Figures 80 and 81. As constructed drawings for the Visitor Center at Zion National Park by Cecil Doty, December 1958.
(Courtesy National Park Service Technical Information Center, Denver Service Center.)

(click on image for larger size)

Although progress was still considered excellent in October, the visitor center project was slowed by a steel strike that caused delays in the erection of the steel framework in the lobby. The strike also delayed construction on the steel work for a bridge on the south entrance road. In the meantime, utilities were completed and plasterboard finished in the office wing. By the end of December, the wing had window sashes, oak trim, and a roof, but Park Service supervisors were forced to contemplate substituting aluminum window sashes for steel in the lobby. The completion of the lobby was contingent on the delivery of the aluminum. Although structural steel work inside the lobby and exterior block work was nearly finished, the visitor center remained a roofless shell. Acoustic stone was placed in January 1960, giving the interior of the auditorium an interesting pattern of concrete block contrasting with blocks impressed with an abstract bird motif. By the end of March the job was reported as eighty-five percent complete, and the Park Service estimated a final completion date of May 10, provided that the necessary aluminum sashes arrived. Details of construction included the placing of acoustic tile in the exhibit room and office wing, plaster on the ceiling of the auditorium, and metal lathing on the ceiling in the lobby. On April 6, Cannon visited the building and, according to Acting Project Supervisor W. P. Fairchild, "liked what he saw." Cannon asked that the bright yellow "ceiling molds [sic]" be changed to match the brown walls, an alteration that Fairchild agreed improved an otherwise "gaudy" situation. [40] The aluminum was finally installed. Two days after the final inspection of the visitor center on June 8, the building was opened to visitors. [41]

Zion National Park Visitor Center,
exhibit room roof
Figure 82. Zion National Park Visitor Center, exhibit room roof under construction.
(Photo by Carl E. Jepson, January 1960. Courtesy Zion National Park Archives.)

Zion National Park Visitor Center, acoustic stone in auditorium
Figure 83. Zion National Park Visitor Center, acoustic stone in auditorium.
(Photo by Carl E. Jepson, January 1960. Courtesy Zion National Park Archives.)

In August, Superintendent Frank Oberhansley, who had replaced Franke in December 1959, reported ongoing difficulties with the visitor center: "lack of exhibits completion, troubles with audio-visual equipment, failure of air-conditioning units, being a few." The museum exhibits were not installed by the Western Museum Laboratory team until the second week of January. Landscaping, irrigation, service roads, and parking areas were almost complete by the end of March. The landscaping was performed "in accordance with Landscape Architect's drawings." [42] Once interior furnishing, exhibits, and equipment were calculated into the price tag, the building cost half a million dollars. The Superintendent may have been unhappy about interior furnishings and mechanical systems, not to mention the overall expense, but he did not complain about the building. In fact, the Park Service was so pleased with the services of Cannon and Mullen that work at three additional Utah visitor centers followed: Timpanogos Cave (1963), Natural Bridges (1965), and Golden Spike (1967).

Zion National Park Visitor Center, northern terrace under construction
Figure 84. Zion National Park Visitor Center, northeast terrace under construction.
(Photo by Charles McCurdy, May 1960. Courtesy Zion National Park Archives.)

The Zion National Park Visitor Center was not officially dedicated until June 17, 1961, a full year after it had been opened to visitors. The dedication program, sponsored by a civic group called the Five County Organization, featured a speech by former superintendent and current Park Service Associate Director Eivind T. Scoyen. A press release described the new visitor center as "a 25-room, one-story and basement building of reinforced concrete, structural steel and masonry block, designed to carry out the motif of its general surroundings in the Oak Creek area of the Park." [43] All seven of the park's living superintendents attended the ceremony.

Zion National Park Visitor Center
Figure 85. Zion National Park Visitor Center, east elevation.
(Photo by Carl E. Jepson, February 1961. Courtesy Zion National Park Archives.)

The Zion Visitor Center was certainly modern enough to offend critics of Mission 66 and the Park Service's new architectural style. As if in response to those who doubted the suitability of modern architecture in the parks, the National Park Courier reported that the building's "sound architectural planning . . .has kept in mind the purpose of the building and the needs of the visitor . . ." [44] The article went so far as to say that the visitor center looked "as though it belongs in Zion Canyon" and conformed to the topography of the location. This was high praise for a building with a glass-walled lobby enclosed by cantilevered spider-leg steel beams. Perhaps better than most visitor centers, the Zion building illustrates the fact that modern architecture was welcomed in the parks as long as it made some gestures toward the natural environment. Promotional literature suggests that the public welcomed bright new facilities with modern restrooms and auditoriums. Mission 66 visitor centers accommodated both the need for improved services and the equally powerful need for service buildings that complemented their surroundings.

Zion National Park Visitor Center lobby
Figure 86. Zion Visitor Center lobby, June 1960.
(Courtesy Zion National Park Archives.)

Although the Zion Visitor Center remains much as it was in the 1960s, today's visitors no longer enjoy the original views of the canyon from the lobby. The once spacious lobby is now overwhelmed by a bookshop that blocks canyon views to the north and east. The shop is a distraction from the outdoors and minimizes the chance that visitors might walk out to the exterior viewing terrace. In photographs taken shortly after construction, the lobby is completely empty except for the information desk, the relief map in the center of the space, and chairs for viewing the surrounding scenery. The lobby's modern character was more apparent in the 1960s, when the unique, translucent viewing area extended from the solid mass of the rest of the building.

CONTINUED continued



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