Living Walls: Frank Lloyd Wright's Influence on Rocky's Headquarters Building

When architect Tom Casey began work on the headquarters building at Rocky Mountain National Park in 1965, he was already saturated with the architectural philosophy of his famous mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright’s work followed his principle of “Organic Architecture,” designing buildings in harmony with the surrounding landscape. Casey and other students distilled "Four Principles" that helped to simplify Wright’s complex and constantly changing architectural thinking. All four are exemplified in the building that serves as park offices and the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. They are discussed extensively in the Park Service's history of the building.

We concern ourselves here with just one of the four principles: choose construction materials that are native to the area and that will weather naturally with time.

Contractors were fortunate to find a nearby source of large native sandstone blocks, which form the exterior walls of the building. Natural weathering of the building’s outer walls, common to any stone, begins with colonization by lichens (pronounced LIKE-ens) and these stones had already been around long enough to have sprouted a hearty crop of these unique organisms.

Lichens survive by cooperating in a relationship that you might remember from biology class - symbiosis. The creature is actually two organisms, an alga (plural algae) and a fungus. The alga contains chlorophyll which enables it to make food from sunlight and raw materials; the fungus gets food from the alga and makes its own contribution to the association: a hardy substrate upon which to grow and protection from the elements.

The most prominent feature of the building’s exterior besides sandstone is Cor-ten steel, selected because it oxidizes (rusts) to a reddish-brown that fits nicely in the landscape of rocks and Ponderosa pine trees, whose trunks are a similar color. (In polluted cities, Cor-ten steel weathers to a bluish tint.)

When you visit the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, take time to get a close-up view of the naturally decorated exterior walls.

Last updated: March 31, 2012

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Estes Park, CO 80517

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General park questions: (970) 586-1206. Recorded Trail Ridge Road status: (970)586-1222.

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