Mission 66 and Concrete Visitors Centers

Dinosaur National Monument Visitor Center : Jeremy Sullivan PhotoI happen to find the history of the National Park Service interesting. One such interesting period in the 90 year history of the NPS is the era defined by Mission 66. When you consider that today the Park Service is feeling an incredibly tight budget crunch -- with shortages in personnel, aging equipment, and record high maintenance backlogs -- it is almost hard to believe there was a time 50 years ago that our government chose to spend nearly $1 billion on top of the regular budget for new facilities and infrastructure within the Parks. Many of the facilities built during the era of Mission 66 still exist, and as you travel this summer you may have trouble missing them. There are two noteworthy characteristics of the visitors centers built at that time; they are usually right in the middle of everything (as in the case of the Littlebighorn Battlefield where the VC is practically on top of Custer's headstone), and they are usually made of concrete. The website Mission66.com has a nice collection of photographs of these Park Service visitor centers built with concrete.

I had never quite understood why this style was chosen for so much of the new construction. But last week Kurt, the National Parks Traveler, posted a great article which really enlightened me on the subject. In the article, titled 'Gilbert Stanley Underwood and Jackson Lake Lodge', I was introduced to a character with a key role in Park Service history. Underwood was a very busy architect, and was master of the rustic lodge style (referred to as 'parkitecture'). In the post-war boom, Underwood was asked to see what he could build with concrete. The result was the Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park. According to Kurt's article, the modern style was met with great excitement, which then led the way for many more concrete park lodges. If you haven't had a chance to read the article yet, print it off and give yourself some time to check it out on your lunch break, it may give you new appreciation for these old buildings.

In my opinion, the classic wooden 'parkitecture' structures have stood the test of time much better than their concrete counter parts. New construction today, like the new visitor center planned near Old Faithful, mimics that classic early rustic look. And so in that sense, I think the 1950s ultra-modern concrete lodge style will become just an interesting footnote in the long history of the Parks, probably never to be repeated again. Well, let's hope not anyway.