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
NPS Arrowhead logo


During the formative years of the National Park Service from 1916 to 1942, landscape architects, architects, and engineers forged a cohesive style of landscape design that fulfilled the demands for park development yet preserved the outstanding natural qualities for which each park had been designated. This style subordinated all built features to the natural, and often cultural, influences of the environment where they were placed. Through time it achieved in each park a cohesive unity that in many cases became inseparable from the park's natural identity. Park roads followed nature's contours, affording scenic vistas and achieving remarkable engineering feats. Crushed stone surfaces and rugged boulder walls along graded roads provided safe and convenient access for the increasing numbers of visitors carried to the parks by automobile. Networks of trails in every park not only aided the service in patrolling and protecting the natural landscape, but also gave visitors, on horseback or foot, access to the park's hidden wonders. Facilities for lodging, camping, comfort, picnicking, and purchasing supplies and gasoline were needed for visitors, and ranger stations, residences, workshops, and garages were needed to manage the park and accommodate staff. Even providing the necessary utility systems— electricity, water, sewerage, and telephone—presented challenges in remote and rugged places. Development affected the landscape, threatened its natural integrity, and demanded a consistent responsible policy for management and planning. This policy emerged as the National Park Service made decisions about where to locate development and what form such development was to take. The park service introduced the concept of identifying "wilderness" areas to be left untouched and accessible only by foot or horseback at the same time that it was drafting solutions for developments that could serve increasing numbers of visitors in wholesome and educational ways without sacrificing natural values. A concept of park planning evolved, calling for the creation of park development outlines and general development plans. A system of review and approval ensured adherence to fundamental principles and design solutions that harmonized with nature and upheld the service's twofold responsibility for stewardship and visitor use.

In the National Park Service's first fifteen years, from park to park and through one project after another, service officials, superintendents, landscape architects, engineers, and architects proceeded to define a servicewide policy. Development was carefully situated and then constructed to blend unobtrusively into the natural setting. Existing development was reviewed, improved, and, in some cases, removed. Roads and trails were laid gently upon the land, and construction techniques were developed to create the illusion that the natural landscape had never been disturbed. Wood, stone, and clay were fashioned with native or pioneer building techniques to create facilities for the comfort and convenience of visitors and for the efficient administration of the park. These included entrance or checking stations, inns and lodges, museums, administration buildings, gas stations, maintenance shops, and even small elements such as signs, guardrails, water fountains, fireplaces, bridges, and culverts. Vegetation was selectively thinned, transplanted, cleared, or reintroduced to open up scenic vistas, screen facilities, prevent fire hazards, or blend construction with the natural setting of the park.

Development responded to the expanding park service's programs of natural history interpretation, forestry, engineering, and recreation while conforming to a design ethic based on landscape preservation and harmonization. Principles of naturalistic or informal landscape design were adopted as the chief means for blending construction with the natural setting. These principles included the preservation of existing natural features and vegetation, the selection and enframement of vistas, the screening of obtrusive elements, the planting of native species, the use of local native materials and traditional or pioneer methods of construction, and the avoidance of straight lines and right angles in all aspects of design.

Western Field Office
In the Western Field Office from 1928 to 1933, Chief Landscape Architect Thomas Vint (middle left) created a central design office of landscape architects and architects whose clients were superintendents of the national parks. This office met the growing demand for master plans, specifications for park roads, and drawing of guardrails, culverts, bridges, overlooks, and buildings. By 1934 when this photograph was taken, Vint's staff had grown dramatically in response to the programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. The master plan for Lassen Volcanic National park lies on the table. (National Park Service Historic Photography Collection

The design of natural parks and rustic park structures was rooted in the nineteenth-century English gardening tradition, popularized in the United States by the writings of Andrew Jackson Downing and by the urban parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and others. Principles of naturalistic gardening were carried into the twentieth century in the designs for park and parkway systems and cemeteries in U.S. metropolitan areas, scenic parks and reservations developed at various levels of government, and many private estates and residential subdivisions.

By the end of the nineteenth century, several advances had been made in landscape theory and gardening design that would profoundly influence the design of national and state parks. First was a growing body of literature on the development of wild gardens and naturalistic effects using rockwork and native vegetation, principally in the works of William Robinson, a British master gardener, and Samuel Parsons, an American landscape gardener who for many years was the superintendent of Central Park. The work of Charles Eliot in the reservations of metropolitan Boston demonstrated the value of comprehensive park planning and introduced a philosophy and techniques for the management of vegetation in natural areas. His techniques included vista clearing, vegetation studies, and general landscape forestry, allowing the park designer to manipulate the character of vegetation to attain a healthy and scenic landscape.

In the early twentieth century, naturalistic gardening practices merged with an increasing interest in the native vegetation of the United States. This new blend of ideas became recognized as the principal style of American landscape architecture by Wilhelm Miller in What England Can Teach Us About Gardening (1911), Henry Hubbard and Theodora Kimball in An Introduction to the Study of Landscape Design (1917) and Frank Waugh in The Natural Style in Landscape Gardening (1917). It had important regional expressions such as the Prairie style of the Midwest and the arid and semiarid forms of California gardening. The increasing interest in the vegetation and forms of the American landscape as a source for conscious landscape design coincided with the founding of the National Park Service. The landscape profession, through the American Civic Association and the American Society of Landscape Architects, avidly supported the establishment of the National Park Service and influenced its organization.

In the 1880s, Olmsted and Henry Hobson Richardson collaborated in forging a sturdy, rustic style of architecture for park buildings and structures. This new style drew from the rugged proportions, naturalistic siting, and use of native stone and timbers characteristic of the Shingle style and the rusticated stonework and bold arches of Richardsonian Romanesque. This style, with variations, was widely adopted in the design of shelters, bridges, and other structures for urban parks and parkways and the earliest state parks in the late nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, it would influence the design of suburban and rural bungalows and be embraced by the Arts and Crafts movement. This movement, promoted by Gustav Stickley, combined a variety of "naturalistic" influences, including Japanese architectural and landscape design, the Western Bungalow and Prairie styles of architecture, and the naturalistic gardening techniques promoted by Downing, Robinson, and Parsons. In several editions of the Introduction to the Study of Landscape Design, Henry Hubbard upheld the appropriateness of the style for constructions in natural or country parks.

These influences, coupled with Downing's direct role in the frame-and-timber construction and romantic Swiss and Scandinavian style architecture of the camps and lodges of the Adirondacks, led to the design of the great inns and hotels in Glacier National Park, the El Tovar at Grand Canyon National Park, Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park, and the Bear Mountain Inn in New York's Interstate Palisades Park.

After the National Park Service assumed administrative control of the national parks in 1917, policies and practices for the design of park improvements emerged. A statement issued by Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane in 1918 established a policy for landscape preservation and harmonization to guide all park development and use. The hiring of a "landscape engineer" in 1918 to advise on all decisions affecting the landscape character of each park and the eventual expansion of the Landscape Division in 1927 were critical steps in aligning the needs for development and the role of stewardship.

Roads were a primary necessity. Beginning in 1924, Congress granted appropriations annually for the development of roads and trails in national parks. In 1926, the service signed a cooperative agreement with the Bureau of Public Roads under which park roads attained the most up-to-date engineering and standards of road design. This agreement resulted in a long-term relationship whereby park designers set aesthetic standards of workmanship, location, and design of roads while bureau engineers provided the latest technology. The close interaction between the park service's civil engineers and landscape architects led to clear distinctions in standpoint and in role. Concerned with landscape preservation and harmonization, the landscape designers called for practices of clearing, blasting, cutting and filling, rounding and flattening slopes, bank blending, and planting that harmonized with the natural environment; they called for methods of construction that located roads and overlooks to present scenery at its best and to blend them naturalistically with the surrounding landscape. They designed bridges and culverts to fit their site and setting. Specifications for the masonry rockwork of bridges, guardrails, and culverts emerged that blended manmade construction inconspicuously into the natural setting.

Many park trails received similar attention by both civil engineers and landscape architects. Standards for trail construction were issued by the engineers in 1934. The landscape architects had continuing responsibility for the location of trails and the treatment of trail surfaces and embankments to achieve harmony with local conditions.

Designs for new kinds of park structures emerged to fill the need for entrance stations, administration buildings, comfort stations, community buildings, lookouts, and museums. Principles of informality and naturalism were applied to park structures. Prototypes of indigenous workmanship and design using native materials were studied and adapted to form simple and functional park buildings. The park shelter, a feature of interest and great use in landscape architecture, was central to the design of many park structures, and the prototypes provided by Downing, Hubbard, and others were adopted and improved upon. While efficient design solutions were developed for floor plans and functional layout of structures, exterior standards of design called for durability and above all harmony with the specific characteristics of each location.

Principles of landscape preservation and harmonization rather than prototypes were followed in the external design of these structures. Structures took on a unique character as construction followed and blended with the natural landform and character of each site, and as native materials and pioneering techniques of a region were employed. Naturalistic effects—including the roughened, irregular character of stone masonry walls, the battering of boulder foundations to give them the appearance of having sprung naturally from the ground, and the over- scaling of architectural features in mountainous areas— evolved from general landscape principles. By 1928, many of these practices were formulated and began to appear in the specifications for contracts, on plans and drawings for bridges, guardrails, and buildings, and in the lessons of experienced park designers such as Chief Landscape Architect Thomas Vint and museum designer Herbert Maier to the service's growing corps of landscape architects. Such adherence to model principles and practices, rather than prototypical, standard designs, distinguished the design of National Park Service structures and led to the originality of ideas and diversity of expression.

Concern for the harmonization of construction and nature led park designers to adapt principles of natural landscape design for restoring building sites to a natural condition after construction. In 1930, the recognition of landscape naturalization as an ordinary and advantageous consequence of park development coincided with a policy prohibiting the introduction of exotic plants in national parks. Native ferns were planted along foundation walls, climbing vines were planted in the interstices of earthcuts along roadways, and trees were planted to screen buildings and to frame vistas. Plantings erased the lines between the earth and manmade structures, returned construction sites to their natural condition, and overall enhanced the natural beauty of the parks. Landscape naturalization included the beautification of park entrances and villages, vista clearing, the development of overlooks, the rehabilitation of springs and streams, and "cleanup" projects to remove fallen timber and snags or to restore areas damaged by flood, fire, or blight. By combining the planting and transplanting of native materials with naturalistic road or trail improvements—curbing, sidewalks, paths, parking, curvilinear stone steps, and planted islands—park designers were able to erase the scars of construction and control pedestrian and automobile traffic in heavily visited areas. The overall intent of the program was to allow access while at the same time protecting surrounding vegetation and natural features and harmonizing the manmade improvements with the natural setting. This program "beautified" the grounds of administration buildings, entrance stations, park residences, museums, concession buildings, and other buildings in developed areas. It also created the illusion in the minds of visitors that the landscape had never been disturbed.

A program for general planning began in the mid 1920s to enable park superintendents to schedule the construction and improvement of park roads and trails and other facilities over a five-year period. By 1932, this process had evolved into a program of master planning that programmed all park improvements for six-year periods. By 1939, it encompassed the many emerging programs of the National Park Service, from engineering and forest protection to interpretation and recreation.

In the 1930s, through emergency conservation and public works projects, the naturalistic landscape design of the national parks matured and flourished. Master plans became reality as, project by project, work was carried out under the direction of the park's resident landscape architect.

The beginnings of Civilian Conservation Corps and Emergency Conservation Work coincided with the U.S. Forest Service's introduction of a new approach to campground design, called the "Meinecke plan." This approach, published in A Campground Policy (1932) and further developed in Camp Planning and Camp Reconstruction (ca. 1934), was immediately adopted by the National Park Service. It became the basis for many innovative site plans and facilities for camping and picnicking in national and state parks in following years.

The design principles, process, and practices of the National Park Service were institutionalized nationwide in the development of state parks in the 1930s. This was accomplished through the park service's supervision of state park emergency conservation work, the acquisition and development of recreational demonstration areas, and the publication of manuals and portfolios. Through a program of technical assistance, the National Park Service reviewed and approved project plans for the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in state parks and hired inspectors, architects, landscape architects, and engineers to design and supervise CCC and WPA projects. Several publications—Portfolio on Comfort Stations and Privies (1934), Portfolio of Park Structures (1934), Park Structures and Facilities (1935), and the three-volume Park and Recreation Structures (1938)—provided models and principles for designing park structures. Landscape Conservation (1935) would provide guidance on blending the edges of plantations, lakes, and artificial ponds through a process of studying and recreating naturalistic zones of native vegetation based on soil, moisture, climate, and natural associations.

The work of the National Park Service in state park development went beyond the design of parks to the broader concern for park and parkway planning, recreational development, and the creation of statewide systems of parks and recreation. The reclamation of submarginal lands for park development implemented the landscape naturalization program on a monumental scale as large areas were ref orested and streams dammed to provide pleasing scenery and recreational facilities for hiking, swimming, boating, fishing, skiing, and skating. Major advances were made in the design and development of campgrounds for automobiles and trailers, and in the design of day-use areas and picnic grounds and waysides that were integrated with recreational areas and scenic parkways. The concept of organization camps took the material form of clusters of cabins, eating halls, and comfort stations scenically sited in secluded wooded areas or alongside open meadows or lakeshores and connected to scenic and recreational areas by paths and trails. Today these recreational facilities are the physical manifestation of the broad social philosophy of the New Deal. They are also the tangible results of a state and federal partnership that began when National Park Service Director Stephen Mather convened the first state park conference in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1921, and gained tremendous impetus through the leadership of the park service during the 1930s.

Continued >>>

top of page Top

Last Modified: Mon, Oct 31, 2002 10:00:00 pm PDT

National Park Service's ParkNet Home