On-line Book


Table of Contents


I. In the Beginning: 1872 - 1916

II. The Landscape Influence: 1916 - 1918

III. The Formative Decade: 1918 - 1927

IV. Maturity Achived: 1927 - 1932

V. Roosevelt's Emergancy Programs: 1933 - 1935

VI. The Decline: 1935 - 1942


Appendix A

Appendix B

Appendix C

Author's Note

National Park Service
National Park Service Arrowhead

Rustic Architecture:
1916 - 1942

VI. The Decline: 1935 - 1942

The decline of National Park Service rustic architecture was a function of changing conditions. In the decade between 1925 and 1935, the NPS grew immensely, adding numerous field units and assuming new responsibilities. The professional staff was enlarged many times over. Total park visitation sky-rocketed. During this decade of rapid institutional growth, the Service attempted to implement on a large scale its internally conceived philosophy of park architecture. Even with the assistance of the C. C. C. and P. W .A. programs, however, it did not prove possible to "catch-up" with the demand for park facilities. After 1935, as the emergency "alphabet programs' were reduced, an awareness emerged within the NPS that park architecture might have to change to meet these challenges. Ultimately that change included the abandonment of the several rustic styles.

The decline of the C.C.C. and W.P.A. programs was real. In terms of actual expenditures both peaked during the 1935 fiscal year. The P.W.A. program in the parks that year included many of the projects funded in the two large allotments of 1933. Later P. W. A. allotments were generally small, and although the program continued to provide funds to the National Park Service until the beginning of World War II, it ceased after 1935 to be the predominant force in the park development program. The decline of the C. C. C. was less abrupt. The peak of activity reached during the 1935 fiscal year was only slowly reduced. As late as 1941 there were still nearly as many C. C. C. camps in the national parks as there had been in 1934. The number of enrollees dropped considerably, however, and this led to a decline in camp productivity. The number of state park C. C. C camps under NPS supervision was reduced steadily after 1935. By 1938 there were only half as many state park camps active as there had been in 1936.

To a certain extent the decline of the emergency programs in the national parks was counteracted by arise in the level of regular appropriations. The regular NPS budget had first peaked in 1932 at a level of about $12, 000, 000. In 1933 and 1934 it had been reduced to near $10, 000,000 but the emergency programs had more than made up the difference. In 1935 the level of regular appropriations rose again to match that of 1932. During the next four fiscal years the Park Service budget rose steadily, finally reaching a pre-war peak of almost $27 , 000, 000 in 1939. The enlargement of the regular appropriations took some of the sting out of the decline of the C. C. C. and P. W. A. , but the loss in total park support was real and apparent.

After the end of the 1939 fiscal year, funding dropped rapidly and remained low for the duration of the Second World War. Throughout all these fluctuations park visitation grew. In 1935, the Service reported total park visitation of 6, 337, 206 persons; by 1941 that figure rose to 16, 741, 855. 1 The composite effect of the lessening of development funds and the steady rise in park visitation was to place considerable pressure on the NPS to achieve greater efficiency. One response to this pressure for efficiency was the NPS reorganization of 1937. Following the successful model of the E. C. W. State Park Division, the entire NPS was regionalized into four parallel geographical units. Thomas Vint and the heart of his Branch of Plans and Design staff were moved to Washington, D. C. Portions of Vint's staff were also distributed among the regional offices. The resident landscape architects were left in the parks. The general effect was to decrease the centralization of the Branch and to make it more susceptible to external architectural influence.

The enormous increase in the size of the professional landscape and architectural staffs between 1933 and 1936 had also tended to make the NPS architectural staff more aware of “modern" architecture. The numerous young professionals added to the Service between 1933 and 1936 brought with them architectural philosophies that had matured in the period following the first World War. These new concepts, which included the "International Style, " emphasized a philosophy of simplicity and structural honesty. The new architectural ideas were also in line with changing economic conditions and new building materials. Generally, they were based on a rejection of the romanticism basic to NPS rustic architecture.

Vint and his associates recognized that the barriers separating NPS architecture from that going on "outsider, were falling. Park Structures and Facilities had been a response to that problem. In 1938 a greatly enlarged text, entitled Park and Recreation Structures, was published by the NPS. It summarized the successes attained in park design under the P.W .A. and C. C. C. programs and pointed the way to yet higher levels of achievement. Actually the volume would come closer to being an epitaph for the rustic movement.

When viewed in relation to the accelerating park facility needs of the late 1930s, NPS rustic architecture had distinct and growing disadvantages. It required large amounts of labor, not only in the form of skilled and unskilled workmen, but also in the form of highly trained professionals. Effective use of masonry and logs required frequent inspection during construction to gain good results. Moreover, once a rustic structure was completed, its maintenance was often a problem. Custom hardware, pole rafters, hand-split shakes, and log trim were hard to replace when damaged. Such problems were often beyond the capabilities of small park maintenance staffs.

Subject to rising visitor facility demand, decreased development funding, and increased outside influence, it is not surprising that the NPS building program of the last years of the Depression was characterized by uneven quality and diversity. Seeking to limit design costs, the Branch of Plans and Design turned more frequently to copying previous designs. The well-executed log ranger station at Redwood Meadow in Sequoia National Park (built in 1938-1939) is nearly identical to the earlier Hockett Meadow Ranger Station in the same park and to the Horseshoe Lake Ranger Station at Lassen Volcanic. A ranger station erected in the Many Glaciers section of Glacier National Park during the summer of 1938 shared its chalet appearance with earlier NPS and concessioner structures.

Especially in the case of residences and utility buildings, increased emphasis on efficiency and functionalism was visible. Fewer exam-ples of "exaggerated rustic” were appearing. Many NPS residences built in the late 1930s made only minor concessions to their immediate settings. Quite often these were rather unexceptional wood-frame houses incorporating rustic siding and stone veneer foundations. Generally comfortable and well built, these late 1930s residences are present in many western parks.

The loss of creative impulse among the landscape architects and architects was far from universal. Especially at sites where there had been little previous development, some interesting design work was accomplished. The Painted Desert Inn at the northern end of Petrified Forest National Monument was constructed in the late 1930s around an earlier structure. A rambling 28-room Indian pueblo, the Inn was handcrafted by C. C. C. crews working with P. W. A. funds (a rare combination). A roadside ranger residence built at Emigrant Junction, Death Valley National Monument, in 1941-1942 made good use of stone in its masonry exterior. Two ski huts, one at Pear Lake in Sequoia and the other at Ostrander Lake in Yosemite, both built in 1940-1941, also made superior use of local stone. The Pear Lake shelter was one of the most environmentally successful alpine structures ever designed by the NPS. It was built with C. C. C. labor.

If the Pear Lake shelter represents the traditional outlook as practised in 1940, several buildings designed for the new Kings Canyon National Park in that same year document alternative options. I , ! In the spring of 1940 General Grant National Park was merged with the new and much larger Kings Canyon National Park. The General Grant area had never been adequately developed. and the merger f placed additional visitor pressure on it. In response the NPS secured a P. W. A. allotment for facilities development at Grant Grove. Staff housing in the area was particularly poor so three residences were built with the P. W. A. funds. Two of these were located in Grant Grove proper while the third was placed at nearby Redwood Saddle.

Redwood Saddle Residence number 117 at Grant Grove was designed by Cecil Doty. Doty had just been transferred from the Santa Fe regional office of the Service. Earlier he had worked for Herbert Maier in the Oklahoma City E. C. W. office. Several of Doty's rustic designs were featured in Park and Recreation Facilities. 2 In the 117 residence, Doty rejected his rustic training, seeking instead to achieve simplicity and efficiency. In nearly every respect the rectangular, gable roofed house was a model of functionalism. , Its severe simplicity extended even to the point of omitting over- hanging eaves from the roofline. The only design concessions to the setting were the use of wooden exterior textures (rustic siding and shingles) and a stone veneer on the chimney and foundation. The veneer was never completed.

The Redwood Saddle residence was also part of the 1940-1941 P.W.A., program in the Grant Grove Section of Kings Canyon National Park. It shared many design features with the two smaller residences built at the same time in Grant Grove proper, but it was a much more complex undertaking. The residence was sited on a steep hillside so that a portion of the understory could be developed into rooms. The upper portion of the structure was quite simple. Overhanging eaves were omitted and the emphasis was on verticality. Board and batten emphasized the height of the tall gable housing the living room. Large windows set into the gable face did nothing to lessen the impression. A low-roofed porch on the uphill side added a ranch house touch while a stone chimney and stone veneer around the exposed portion of the understory granted some minimal harmony with the immediate setting. It was the type of house Americans would build in large numbers after the end of World War II. In 1941 at Redwood Saddle it symbolized the end of the rustic architecture movement in the national parks.

Confirmation that the Redwood Saddle house was in the contemporary mainstream of park architectural design is found in an article published , in the 1940 edition of the Department of the Interior annual publication. Park and Recreation Progress / Published by the National Park Service during the latter years of the Depression, this journal provided "a forum for the expression of progressive thought on parks and recreation conservation...."3 Within the text of "Architecture and its Relationship to the Design of Parks" landscape architect and author George Nason explored several aspects of the relationship between park development and park building design. The reader did not have to go far into the text before the author's views on rustic architecture became clear.

    "Rude buildings are an affectation. They can only be produced by an effort so deliberate and self-conscious that they lay the designer open to the charge of sophistication. They are not a protest against over-elaboration but an elaborate protest against progress in architecture. " 4

Nason returned to the theme a paragraph later.

    "The glorified pioneer structures of today are a species of tawdry circus showmanship, not examples of simple honesty. They are designed to awe rather than usefully charm." 5

As to positive architectural virtues, Nason suggested that "simplicity and restraint are cardinal virtues in parks." 6 He admitted that buildings could look well when constructed of indigenous material, but warned that such materials could be misused. His recommendation was that NPS architecture should come to grips with contemporary architectural progress and strive toward "well conceived, well built, modern buildings. ..."7 The Redwood Saddle residence met Nason's prescription.

Nason and his followers were not advocating a rejection of non-intrusive design in the parks. They were, however, redefining that concept. Henceforth, they believed, harmony with nature could best be achieved through modest functional design. It was a case of modern realism versus romanticism.

In basic terms the new philosophies expressed by Nason and others replaced those that Vint had perfected in the 1920s. Despite the two textbooks it had proved impossible to indoctrinate the large numbers of professionals added to the Service between 1933 and 1936 into the intricacies of NPS rustic styling. The rise in park visitation placed additional pressure on the park designers, especially when the levels of funding declined in the late 1930s. As a result, simplicity of design and efficiency became not only the philosophy of the outside architectural world, but also a NPS budgetary requirement.

Rustic architecture did not die easily. During its years of ascendency it had gained many adherents. Newton Drury, NPS Director from 1940. to 1951, was one. More than a decade after his retirement he would recall that one of the pleasures he enjoyed as Director "was knocking many a plan which called for these contemporary designs that have since blossomed forth." 8 Drury's opportunities for encouraging rustic architecture were limited, however, for during and after the war the NPS labored under a severely limited budget. Not until the mid-1950s did the NPS finally obtain sufficient funding to allow the resumption of park development on a significant scale. In the meantime, the demand for park facilities continued to balloon. The "Mission 66" building program, which began in the middle 1950s, reflected the utilitarian outlook that had emerged among park designers in the last years before the war. Rustic-trained NPS veterans like Merel Sager and William Carnes supervised much of the Mission 66 program, but the press of visitor need did not allow much opportunity to work toward old goals. Occasionally, when a structure was to be added to an area where pre-war rustic structures predominated, attempts were made to erect new rustic structures. Generally, these attempts were unsuccessful, a result of labor and cost factors. Intensive labor projects had become uneconomical, and even when they could be afforded, stone masons and log builders were difficult to find.

The few post-war attempts at NPS rustic construction were unsuccessful because rustic architecture was specifically adapted to the pre-war world. The successful implementation of the NPS rustic architecture philosophy had been possible only in a park system of limited size and scope. An architectural philosophy which called for high levels of design imput from a small staff of specially trained professionals was difficult to implement on a larger scale. At best, this problem was only partially overcome during the early period. Later it became insurmountable. NPS rustic architecture was also specifically adapted to the pre-war situation in its intensive use of professional, skilled, and unskilled labor. This intensive labor use was becoming uneconomical by the late 1930s. Hence the economical coefficients of NPS rustic were such that it was not able to fulfill the rising demand for park facilities.

Nevertheless, NPS rustic architecture earned for itself a secure place in the history of modern American architecture. It was an expression of the romanticism of pioneer America. Like the parks themselves, it may have been a reaction to the closing of the frontier. For two decades rustic provided an alternative to the increasingly functional trends of twentieth century urban architecture.

Rustic architecture was integral to the since-abandoned philosophy that national parks were distinct entities, separate from the rest of the nation. Stephen Mather formulated this policy, which was intended to remove the management of the parks from the realm of politics and traditional land management attitudes. Although the parks were actually an experiment in a radically new form of land use, Mather purposefully created for them a conservative, "all-American" image. The "pioneer" aspects of rustic architecture were a part of this process.

Rustic architecture achieved its goals. It allowed the development of necessary park facilities without needless disruption of the natural scene. It facilitated the separation of the parks from the rest of the world, allowing them to become reserves governed by well-obeyed rules far different from those typical of the non-park situation. It assisted in the formulation of a conservative image for the parks, an image that for better or worse still dominates the public's park expectations to much larger degree than is generally appreciated. At its best, rustic architecture produced buildings of rare and distinctive beauty. A unique expression of twentieth century American architectural thought, the pre-1942 rustic buildings of the National Park Service are a priceless heritage, to be treasured and conserved.


1. Statistics cited in the preceeding paragraphs are from the Report of the Secretary series for 1933-1941.
2. Buildings pictured in Park Structures and Facilities and designed by Cecil Doty include those in plates: A 15, A 16, D 6, D 19, E 8, H 9, H10, K 9, and K 10.
3. National Park Service, 1940 Yearbook, Park and Recreaction Progress (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1940), v.
4. Ibid., 57
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. H.C. Bryant and N.B Drury, Development of the Naturalist's Program in the National Park Service (transcript of interview by Amelia Fry, University of California at Berkley Cultural History Project, Bancroft Library, 1964), 45.


William C. Tweed, Historian
Laura E. Soulliere, Architectural Historian
Henry G. Law, Architect

National Park Service
Western Regional Office
Division of Culutral Resource Management
February, 1977

top of page Top


National Park Service's ParkNet Home