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
National Park Service Arrowhead

Mission 66 in Retrospect

Nearly thirty years after their design, Cecil Doty singled out three visitor centers he disliked Chaco Canyon, Grand Teton and Yellowstone and declared he "would never do them again." [1] Doty attributed these failures to the lack of available funds. In a general way, the entire Mission 66 program could be excused on this basis, since the goal was to build as many visitor centers for as low cost as possible. The "assembly-line" mentality could hardly be avoided. Despite this built-in deficiency, Doty designed a wide variety of visitor centers throughout the western region and consistently devised creative ways of working on a tight budget. The three visitor centers he dreaded to repeat only became problematic after additional demands were made without sufficient means.

Gettysburg Cyclorama and Visitor
Figure 87. Gettysburg Cyclorama and Visitor Center in 1962. Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander, architects.
(Courtesy Lawrence S. Williams, Inc., Photography.)

The Park Service began assessing the Mission 66 program immediately after its completion and was assisted in this respect by the American Institute of Architects, which awarded it the 1970 Citation of an Organization for "its attempts to develop regional character in the visitor centers and also for its continuing effort to provide excellent design at all levels in our national parks." The AIA Journal focused on visitor centers in "Our Park Service Serves Architecture Well," an article praising individual buildings and the design methodology employed throughout Mission 66. The section on the Park Service's criteria for good design explained the rationale behind its choice of the modernist aesthetic for park buildings: "Sometimes areas seem to cry for a design suggesting traditional or regional style. However, to maintain regional or particularly period architecture would result in oddly proportioned boxes covered with pseudo-period gimcracks or reasonably well-proportioned structures stuffed with nonfunctioning activities. The best attack is not to copy styles but to use regional materials and echo forms if possible." [2] Ten years later, in 1976, the Park Service celebrated the 20th anniversary of the launching of Mission 66 with a report of its achievements first in terms of the magnitude of construction, but finally as a program boosting the conservation movement and inspiring the country to develop long-range projects for natural and cultural resource preservation. Park Service Modern architecture symbolized the agency's decision to move forward and develop a broader, more enlightened understanding of its responsibilities as stewards of the nation's parks, monuments and historic sites. [3]

If Mission 66 architecture was novel for the Park Service, the elite architectural profession had largely discounted the principle tenets of modernist design by the late 1960s. The visitor centers featured in this study are all considered modern, but they range from the work of an architect born in 1889 and trained in International Style design, to the early efforts of a firm that would define itself against the abstractions of modernist methodology. The different approaches, philosophies, and results achieved by these architects come together under the umbrella Mission 66, or Park Service Modern, architecture. This decade of patronage provided opportunities for little-known firms and for Park Service architects to experiment with modern design in unique settings and situations. Mission 66 was the last time the federal government championed a development program of this type and at such a scale, and it was also the most socially optimistic architectural effort of the day. In the context of American architectural history, Mission 66 was both old-fashioned and refreshing. The next two decades would bring architectural cynicism that dissolved faith in modernist design.

Even as the Mission 66 program concluded, many architects were beginning to reject modernism for its more colorful successor, postmodernism. And as modernism has come to symbolize the failure to achieve social transformation through design, the gleam of its early existence has faded. Modern architecture in the parks has aged particularly poorly. With limited funds from the beginning, park architects designed in a style that requires constant maintenance. Unlike rustic structures, which benefit from a patina of age and wear, modern buildings depend on a crisp, clean aesthetic. A crumbling rustic wall is considered appropriately antiquated, but a deteriorating gypsum panel only appears shabby. "Improvements" are also more likely to damage the spare, modernist style. When smooth, colored tile is covered with industrial carpet and wood paneling tacked over window walls, a spacious, sunny lobby becomes dim and utilitarian. The Park Service recognized the potential problems of maintaining "high quality in aesthetic features" of Mission 66 visitor centers as early as 1958. Lyle Bennett, supervisory architect of the WODC, criticized the parks for the development of "cluttered, inharmonious or otherwise detracting effects" caused by inappropriate interior decor and furnishings. [4]

In analyzing the Mission 66 effort, it is not only important to consider what was built, but what it was possible to build quickly and efficiently during the 1950s and 1960s. Although comparisons between the Park Service Rustic and Park Service Modern styles are tempting, it is more realistic and historically accurate to think about Mission 66 architecture in relation to changes in the architectural profession. The prohibitive expenses of materials and labor after the war did not permit a return to New Deal methods of construction. As Doty realized, "when the CCC and all that labor ended, getting stone was out of the question." [5] Mission 66 architects and planners approached the crisis from a practical point of view and successfully solved the problem. Beginning in the 1950s, the Park Service realized that simple, contemporary facilities would further its tradition of architectural excellence and represent its forward-looking principles. Cheap imitations of the rustic style would only serve as reminders of American society's loss of fine craftsmanship, traditional materials, and regional identity. The Mission 66 program was intended to memorialize its era's achievements greater accessibility, more extensive services, and the convenience of standardization.

The construction of modern buildings in national parks was not a rash decision, nor was it made by a handful of superintendents. Modernism came into the parks with the blessing of its generation, and its inexpensive, easily constructed buildings improved and expanded the Park System at an unprecedented rate. The Mission 66 program standardized visitor services in countless ways that we now take for granted, providing the basic information, visitor facilities, and interpretive programs that remain an essential part of all national parks. Today, our experience of national parks is determined, to a great extent, by the visitor services established around Mission 66 visitor centers. The visitor center is a part of our national culture, not only within the national park system, but within the National Forest Service, in communities eager to attract tourism, and at private sites throughout the country. As a building type, the visitor center may be the National Park Service's most significant contribution to American architecture. The historical value of the original visitor centers should not be underestimated. The Park Service and the public once celebrated Mission 66 as a great achievement and may well look back on it in these terms. If the current generation cannot always appreciate the styles and choices of another era, it should have the foresight to recognize potential historic value. As a leader in the preservation of the nation's history, the Park Service is responsible for ensuring that the best is left for future generations to judge.



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


National Park Service's ParkNet Home