Fred A. Bernstein

Mission 66

An endangered species at the National Parks: modernist architecture

Published in Architecture, December 15, 2000

The battle over mid-century modernism has moved from cities and suburbs to the badlands and beaches, as skirmishes break out over the visitors' centers (including two by Richard Neutra) created by the National Park Service in the late 1950's and early 1960's. It was then that the parks abandoned the rustic style employed before World War II for a bold new approach that brought modernism into startling proximity with nature.

With the Park Service's 50th anniversary in 1966 looming as an unofficial deadline, the building program was dubbed "Mission 66." Now figures as diverse as Frank Gehry and the Reverend Robert Schuller (whose church occupies a Neutra-designed campus) have been working to stop the Park Service from demolishing, or "rusticating," many of the Mission 66 buildings.

"It's an extremely important moment," says Christine Madrid, a Charlottesville, Va. architectural historian who has been trying to visit all 114 visitors' centers while there's still time. At least one significant building, the Mt. Rushmore visitors' center seen in the Hitchcock film North By Northwest, is already gone; Madrid says that its "horrible" replacement contains, ironically, a Mission 66 exhibit. And at Bryce Canyon, Madrid caught the walls being torn off the 1958 visitors' center by Cannon & Mullen, in preparation for a renovation that will give it the look of a wilderness theme park. In many cases, Park service employees have denied her requests for historical records. "They don't like working in old buildings, and they don't like anyone trying to save them," she said. The indefatigable Madrid has learned to take photos while posing as a tourist, and to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain documents that Parks employees don't want to turn over.

Randy Biallis, the chief historical architect with the National Park Service, agrees that "quite a few of the buildings are in danger. These buildings are now 40 to 50 years old, and they were built to serve a visitor population that is a lot smaller than it is now. For years parks have worked around that, but with new money there is a lot of proposals to remove these buildings, or to do major rehab that would in some cases affect their integrity." That new money, he explains, is the result of increases in user fees imposed during the Clinton administration, funds appropriated under President Bush to help the parks wipe out their deferrred-maintenance backlog, and public-private partnerships, which both administrations have encouraged.

Typical of the endangered buildings is the Salt Pond visitors' Center at the Cape Cod National Seashore, where tiny bathrooms are inaccessible to people in wheelchairs, and inhospitable to everyone else. Park officials would like a new facility. According to William Burke, who has been the Seashore historian for 15 years, "The issue is the park's control of its own buildings. We're thinking in terms of accessibility and safety." A moderate on the issue, Burke says, "I personally think some of the buildings from that period should be saved. They shaped how people saw the parks for decades." But he notes that for many Parks employees, it's hard to get used to the fact that buildings designed to help preserve the environment are suddenly part of the environment that has to be preserved. He added, "Some of us are still learning to describe these buildings as 'historically significant' without cringing."

But there may be others reasons to cringe. Wally Cooper, the respected Salt Lake City architect whose firm, Cooper Roberts, designed the new exterior currently being built "over" the Bryce Canyon Visitors' center, admits to mixed feelings about the project: "Certainly, there are people who will not be happy about it," he said. "We talked to the owners about it," he said, referring to the National Park Service and the private group that has helped pay for the renovation. "They have this vision of what a park building should be and, boy, they pushed it hard." Even Biallis, the Park Service historian, says of the Bryce Canyon project, "The aesthetics are very questionable."

At the same time, preservationists have won some significant victories. Three of the Mission 66 buildings -- visitors centers at Dinosaur National Monument, in Utah, and Wright Brothers National Memorial, in North Carolina, and an administration at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, by Taliesen Associated Architects -- were named National Historic Landmarks earlier this year. The designations occurred after Biallis commissioned a report from MIT-trained architectural historian Sarah Allaback (available at the NPS website).

At Kitty Hawk, designation means the shelving of plans for a 26,000-square-foot visitors center -- intended to replace the Mitchell/Giurgola center from 1957-60 in time for the Wright Brothers' centennial in 2003. "It was touch and go for a while," says Madrid. But, according to Biallis, in the wake of designation "park officials have backed off" and are now planning an addition to the existing building.

But so far there's been no such luck at either of the Neutra Designed buildings. In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the Cyclorama Building (designed by Neutra in partnership with Robert Alexander) has been allowed to deteriorate badly; the Parks Advisory Board has declined to recommend it for Landmark status. Parks officials are proceeding with plans to destroy the Cyclorama (which houses a 360 degree painting of the battle), return the site to an open field; and build a flashier center nearby. In one of many letters from prominent architects to the advisory committee, Kevin Roche, insisted, "There are enough fields in Gettysburg." Sir Norman Foster wrote: "It gives me no satisfaction to tell you that if Neutra's building were here in the European Union it would have been listed and preserved decades ago."

Madrid, a former National Park Service employee who wrote her master's thesis on Mission 66, believes that artful renovations can solve the buildings' problems without wholesale destruction." A realist, Madrid doesn't expect all of the buildings to be saved -- her goal is to document all of them, and preserve a representative sampling -- "maybe a quarter of the buildings."

She believes that the Park service -- which treats the buildings as some kind of anomaly -- "a post-war mistake" -- ought to learn some history. "Mission 66," she says, "was about promoting a certain image that appealed to the public, that was right for its time, just like the log cabins were right for theirs."