On-line Book

Book Cover
Presenting Nature








Design Ethic Origins

Design Policy & Process

Western Field Office

Park Planning

Decade of Expansion

State Parks

Appendix A

Appendix B


Presenting Nature:
The Historic Landscape Design of the National Park Service, 1916-1942
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The very character of the work dictated that the organization be composed of a group of men especially trained in planning the use and improvement of conservation lands; schooled in the principles of design and graphic presentation of ideas; acquainted with the fundamentals of architecture and engineering; accustomed to preparing grading plans, planting plans, preliminary architectural plans, specifications, and estimates; with an understanding of forestry, botany, geology, and wildlife; and above all, men who could evaluate scenic resources and recreational possibilities, and then correlate these values in a Master Plan.

—Henry Hubbard, "Landscape Development Based on Conservation," 1939

While Stephen Mather's vision for the landscape engineer's role called for a variety of tasks, by 1927 the landscape engineers' efforts were channeled into three distinct areas: locating and designing park roads and trails, designing park structures, and reviewing concessionaires' plans and designs. In the next five years, the size and influence of the Landscape Division would grow as the National Park Service received additional funds for park development and as the need for advance planning increased. On October 1, 1927, Director Mather established a field headquarters in San Francisco to create a centrally located group of specialists whose job was to advise the director and park superintendents on matters related to park development and management. The field headquarters was divided into several divisions, covering civil engineering, landscape architecture, education, forestry, and sanitary engineering.

Under the new organization, the responsibilities of the Engineering and Landscape divisions were differentiated. Engineers did the preliminary programming of roads and trails funds and provided design and supervisory services to parks without resident engineers. The engineers advised park superintendents on the construction of trails and minor roads and on the development of utilities, including water, electricity, telephone, and sewerage. They also were in charge of purchasing equipment needed for building and maintaining roads and other facilities. [1]

The Landscape Division's responsibilities lay in three areas. First were design services, including the preparation of landscape layouts for developed areas and architectural drawings—both sketches and working plans—for buildings, bridges, and other structures. Next came the preliminary planning and final approval of roads, trails, and pertinent structures in cooperation with park officials and the Bureau of Public Roads in accordance with the "interbureau agreement" adopted on January 18, 1926. And finally, before construction, landscape architects were to review and recommend approval of all building plans by authorized concessionaires, or park operators. All of these projects were to be inspected by the landscape architect to verify that the approved plans and specifications were "faithfully carried out from a landscape standpoint." [2]

Under Thomas Chalmers Vint in the late 1920s, the landscape program expanded into a single, fully orchestrated process of park planning and development based on the principles of landscape preservation and harmonious design. Vint offered the service a varied background of practical skills in architecture and landscape architecture. As Hull's assistant, he had had many years of field experience working out practical and aesthetic solutions. He was able to translate the vision of administrators Stephen Mather and Horace Albright and park superintendents like Owen Tomlinson of Mount Rainier and John White of Sequoia into plans for interconnecting systems of scenic roads, trails, and developed areas and into drawings that fulfilled the functional and aesthetic requirements of park facilities. He developed a highly successful program of training his staff, assembled from several fields of study and areas of expertise: architects, landscape architects, engineers, and draftsman. He was the "genius" behind a program of master plans on which the National Park Service relied for many years. He devised standards for locating and designing park roads that have had substantial influence on highway construction outside the National Park Service, and he coordinated a servicewide program of landscape preservation and harmonization to meet the park service's difficult twofold mission. [3]

Although primarily a landscape architect, Vint had training in architecture as well. A skilled draftsman and designer, he studied architecture in high school and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a bachelor of science degree in landscape architecture in December 1920. He supplemented these studies with a semester of study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts at the University of Lyon, France, after serving in Europe during World War I and a course in city planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1921. [4]

Vint's early working experience equipped him with a variety of practical skills that prepared him well for his duties as landscape engineer for the National Park Service. Before graduating from high school in 1913 and during summers while in college, Vint worked in the offices of several Los Angeles landscape architects, architects, and builders. These included A. S. Falconer, who at the time (1912-1913) was preparing a portfolio of bungalows for the Southern California Home Builders and Standard Building Investment Company. From January to August 1914, Vint worked for W. J. Dodd, an architect whose projects were mostly large residences. Next, from August 1914 through July 1915, Vint worked as a draftsman and only assistant to Lloyd Wright, a landscape architect and the son of Frank Lloyd Wright, who was designing the grounds of large residences and laying out residential subdivisions. The following summer, Vint returned to work for Wright and his new partner Paul A. Thieme, who were working on landscape designs for residential areas in Pasadena. Years later Vint recalled that in Wright's office he had the opportunity to deal with "every problem from many angles" and received "thorough" training and exposure to the landscape profession. It was through these formative experiences that Vint was also exposed to the Arts and Crafts movement, California's burgeoning bungalow craze, the work of architects Charles and Henry Greene, and what Eugene O. Murmann called the California gardening style. [5]

After graduating from Berkeley, Vint worked a variety of short jobs while intermittently accepting contracts to grade and plant residential grounds and supervise construction. While working with a "pick and shovel" for a Los Angeles construction company, he learned about the large-scale planting of trees and shrubs. While working for the architectural firm of Mayberry and Jones from April to October 1921, he observed firsthand the use of concrete for the construction of hotels, garages, and hospitals. As head of the landscape office for Armstrong Nurseries of Ontario, California, Vint advised on planting designs and supervised planting projects. Just before moving to Yosemite to begin work for the National Park Service, Vint also did experimental nursery work for the California Walnut Growers Association at the state's experiment station at Riverside. [6]

In November 1922, Vint became Hull's assistant and architectural draftsman at the office in Yosemite. In 1923, the office moved to Los Angeles, where Hull and Vint shared the offices of architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who was working on a number of park lodges for concessionaires. When the office moved to San Francisco in spring of 1927, Hull left the park service and Vint took charge of the landscape program, and when the field headquarters was organized the following October, Vint was given the title of chief landscape architect. Through this reorganization the landscape architects of the service, and particularly Vint, as chief landscape architect, assumed official responsibility over the location, character, and quality of all park construction. In spring 1927, Vint began to build a staff to assist him with the increasing tasks related to the division's multifaceted work. At that time the office consisted of himself and John Wosky, an architectural draftsman hired the previous year. Wosky was to remain in the San Francisco office, provide design support, and take care of landscape matters in Yosemite. Vint first hired Ernest Davidson, whom he assigned to work in Glacier, Yellowstone, and Mount Rainier. Davidson had worked on road projects and had substantial experience in the planting and transplanting of native plants and trees. He was assigned to the field to work on campground problems, oversee construction projects, supervise road and bridge construction, and advise on general matters pertaining to landscape and landscape protection.

In 1928, due to increasing appropriations, Vint was able and ready to expand his staff of landscape architects, who would reside in the parks during the summer and work on drawings and plans at the headquarters in San Francisco during the winter. Merel Sager was a recent graduate of Harvard University's School of Landscape Architecture and had previously worked in the parks. New to the office, Sager spent a substantial amount of time in the office assisting Vint with plans to expand the staff. Sager also spent time in the field assisting Davidson at Mount Rainier, where he worked on the park's emerging program of native planting and transplanting. Kenneth McCarter and Harry Langley also joined the staff that year and, with little training from Vint, were assigned to the field. [7]

Because there were no civil service standards or examinations, Vint worked out a special list of job responsibilities and qualifications for the staff he wanted. His staff was to be capable in landscape matters, the design of buildings and structures, community planning, and the design of bridges. Designers were to divide their time between the parks and headquarters. Fieldwork included supervising construction of general park development projects, such as communities, tourist camps, buildings, roads, and bridges. Fieldwork also involved the general protection of the native landscape, tree removal, and screen plantings. Office work included the preparation of working plans, sketches, and perspectives for architectural work and drawings for government buildings, including administrative and utility buildings, living quarters, shelters, and gateways. Designers were also to review and revise plans submitted by concessionaires for the construction of hotels and camps. [8]

Landscape design in national parks called for a unique combination of skills. Vint was looking for staff members who were trained in the general principles of landscape architecture and city planning and had a general knowledge of the fundamentals of architecture. Experience in design and construction of buildings and bridges was desirable, while training and experience in nursery work or horticulture was not needed. He also was interested in individuals trained in architecture and city planning with some knowledge of the general principles of landscape architecture and experience in the design and supervision of the construction of residences, lodges, and resort buildings, particularly in "log, stone, and rustic construction." [9]

Vint described the unique work of his division:

The work of the Landscape Division . . . is a different character than the general practice of the landscape profession. Although landscape work predominates in the work, it merges into the field of architecture. We have little use for landscape men whose experience is limited to the planting of shrubbery and allied to landscape work. There is little planting done within the National Parks and what is done is limited to the transplanting of native shrubs and trees, so the general commercial stock is not used. The work has to do with the preservation of the native landscape and involves the location and construction of communities, buildings, etc. within an existing landscape. [10]

In June 1928, Vint submitted sample civil service problems to the director to be included in the examination of possible candidates. These problems represented "typical" situations arising in park landscape work and represent the division's routine work. The first problem was to design, from given floor plans of a park residence, two elevations for each of three types of construction—stone, log, and timber. The second problem was to lay out a small park community having an administrative, residential, and utility area. Buildings, roadways, and walks were all to be located on the topographic map. The third problem asked applicants to design a trail bridge for travel by foot and horseback and to redesign a bridge so that it was suitable for park purposes. [11]

Vint wisely amassed a wide range of expertise in his staff members, who came from different backgrounds and had various strengths. Based on his own experience, with its balance of theoretical study and practical field experience, Vint strove to shape a staff that was equally well rounded and capable. His staff included men experienced in road construction, architectural drafting, landscape architecture, and park engineering. It included graduates of Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, who brought with them the most recent design theory from well-known professors, as well as graduates of state agricultural colleges, such as Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota, that focused on practical applications of design, horticulture, and landscape engineering.

As his staff grew, Vint asked them to submit monthly narrative reports of their progress and problems they encountered in the field. In addition, handwritten notes passed between San Francisco and the landscape architects in the field, often jotted hastily while in transit or in the evening hours. Communication between Vint and his men was constant. Vint, too, spent much time in the parks, examining the work of contractors, Bureau of Public Road engineers, and park landscape architects. He also spent considerable time selecting the sites for museums at Yellowstone and Grand Canyon and cooperating with the Education Division and the advisory committee on the design for the museums.

By July 1929, Vint had transformed the Landscape Division into a design office with an increasing emphasis on general planning. He described its primary purpose as obtaining a "logical well-studied general development plan for each park, which included the control of the location, type of architecture, planting, and grading, in connection with any construction project." The division was involved to some degree in all phases of park development. It prepared the architectural and landscape plans for government projects under the direction of the park superintendents, reviewed the plans for tourist facilities to be built by the concessionaires, reviewed the plans for roads, and prepared the architectural plans for bridges constructed by the Bureau of Public Roads. All field staff returned to the San Francisco office as their field schedules allowed; for many, this was during the winter season. There they prepared and reviewed the plans for each year's construction. Vint preferred to have the men work on the plans that they would supervise in the field. They also developed sketch plans on which the park superintendent could base estimates for requesting funds the following year. [12]

By mid-1929, Vint's staff consisted of six assistant landscape architects and two junior landscape architects. He had established a training process in which each new member of the staff spent a year in the office working on drawings before being assigned to a field position as resident landscape architect. Vint felt that the division had succeeded in making "good landscape men" out of the park superintendents and the engineers of the Bureau of Public Roads and that it took at least a year to make "national park men" out of even the best-trained landscape architects he hired. In June 1929, Vint assigned Wosky to Lassen, Crater Lake, and Yosemite; Davidson to Glacier and Mount Rainier; Sager to Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, and Sequoia; Langley to Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon; and McCarter to Yellowstone. For the first time, Vint had a team of men with at least one year's experience in park work overseeing the projects in the major parks. New to the staff, Charles Peterson remained in the Western Field Office. [13]

Vint clearly envisioned his division as a design office specializing in both landscape and architectural design and his staff as professional advisers. In 1930, he remarked that the San Francisco office operated "much like the usual professional landscape office" except that it had "the ideal condition of having park superintendents for clients." [14]

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