The Development of the NPS Standard House Plans and Adaptations:
The Early Seminal Designs, the Standard Designs, and their Modification

This presentation is part of A Century of Design in the Parks: Preserving the Built Environment in National and State Parks, June 21-23, 2016, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Abstract and Presenter’s Bio

John Feinberg, The Collaborative, Inc.

John Feinberg: We did the nomination, the Multiple Property Nomination for all of the Mission 66 structures and that was started years ago. Rod Wheaton was a mid-century modernist devote pushed for it and three individuals worked on it in the first stage and they were Ethan Carr, as you might expect. There is Elaine Jackson-Retondo out of San Francisco at this point and Lynn Warner. It got through a first draft type stage and then it sat there for a while and Sandy McDermott pushed it and our firm go the contract to take this first draft. It was just called a draft and rework it to completion. I’m going to focus today on housing.

The first thing I want to explain to you and it’s Randy can reaffirm this but we’re talking about the Mission 66 era and that incorporates three periods. So there’s the pre-Mission 66 from 1945 at the end of World War II. When we all know the parks got way too much visitation for their own good, which set the table for Mission 66. It made it a compelling logic that even President Eisenhower could figure out that we had a problem there. I’ll explain why that’s important in a minute. Mission 66 starting in ‘55 for the planning and ending in ‘66 and the Parkscape Project that followed it that ended in ‘72. So that is the official Mission 66 era. So if you have a park and you have resource in that timeframe, it’s a Mission 66 era building and you should look at this multiple-property form and use it.

Okay, when we started this and the focus on housing, housing’s not nearly as exciting as visitor centers. I mean, visitor centers were the crown jewels of these parks and of the Mission 66 program. In fact, each of those as we’ve seen over the course of these several days was a strong expression of design intent and followed certain criteria that were laid down by both the western office of design and construction and the eastern office of design and construction. We’re going to deal right now with standard plans. So it’s kind of the opposite end of the spectrum and from my perspective it was as we started this project, it was not nearly as exciting as it would be to deal with something else. So it was like one level above a comfort station as far as we were concerned. Of which there were 543 constructed I’d add.

So the decision making … These are the things we’re going to try and have your take aways. Decision making process, how did this get decided that might have been different? I think again, over the last few days we’ve seen a lot of discussion around the decision making process that dealt with the individual firms. Like we just dealt with Welton Becket in Canyon Village but also with the individual visitors centers in terms of location and the criteria that were laid down from above about moving the visitors centers away from the resource. Design program development process, this is an important part and it engages a whole part of the park service community that had not been engaged previously. The architectural style shift, we’ve already talked about mid-century modern and the deal with modernism that comes into the park and it also comes into these housing. The modern housing expectations, the people live in these houses over time, there’s quite a shift from living in a house in 1916 to 1930s to what their expectations were post World War II.

The standard plans that were developed. The site planning evolution that happened as a result of these new homes. The local modifications to the shell of the building. That was the plan, stayed the same and the evolution and the standard plan. Which wasn’t very much. So here’s Ike. The guy’s just come back from World War II, become president and he has a top down decision making process. Okay so when the Mission 66 program is initiated, it’s done behind closed doors. It’s done with the higher end of the hierarchy. It’s done very quickly and it’s done therefore as top down. Which is very similar to what Ike was used to. Remembering that this is all following into the wake if you will, of the incipient interstate highway system and as any good general knew, moving men and equipment around was really critical in warfare and in preparation for it. So that ten year program, that was the basis of it, was the interstate highway system predecessor. So again, not an inclusive process.

He gets hammered on this from the conservation organizations and around some of the stuff we’ve talked about. Some of the roadways but particularly the stuff in Yosemite where the Sierra Club comes out of the woods and comes across the meadow and screams. So not an inclusive process and this becomes important as we go later into the 50s. That last one, we reached out to that park service community and this is probably one of the more important ones that we’ll get into. So it wasn’t like we had terrible housing. Although the vast majority were substandard housing. Indoor plumbing was in rare supply, for example. So there was a lot of reasons why people were not happy with where they lived. They were also, these housing units were often located where the public was. Major complaint of the wives who were not paid, was that they were actually engaged as if they were paid employees in running these individual parks and this period marks as a strong transition, Mission 66. For the wives of park service employees and the professionalization of women in the park service. This is really the rise.

Superintendent’s houses at Zion National Park

Now as we all know, the rustic architecture and style, the local materials, a lot of CCC. So there’s a lot of local labor and you’ve got beautiful homes. This one is Chiricahua, if you haven’t seen that section of housing it really is quite beautifully done. You’re seeing some of the same things that we saw just in the cabins and the Texas park just a couple minutes back. Integration of site work with walls. Again, Chiricahua on the left. This is Casa Grande’s … These are now, pre-Mission 66. Local materials and the adobe in many cases and that’s the background for now doing standard houses.

So how did the whole thing get involved? 1952, there’s the retreat that held on a regular basis and the new director. He says to the women of the park service, “Why don’t you organize?” That is what happened in 1952 and as he’s the new director at that time were, he turns to Herma Albertson Baggley, who becomes a very famous person within the park service in that she was already a permanent employee. One of the first women and botanist and she helps to organize and they do, and this is again part of this process. She does 1,000-household survey of needs. So again we talked about top down decision making but this is ground up decision making based upon a survey and remember the word survey as we come back to another part, which was a companion thing that went on in the late 50s called ORRC. Anyone here know about ORRC? That was not a planet. You don’t have to do nanu nanu but we’re going to talk about that for just a moment here.

So it was wide ranging and it was inclusive. That was the key aspects but to create plans the federal government has lots of different ways to constrict and they constricted the budgets. Lead architect of the EODC, John Cabot. Many of many know the WODC but Cabot’s been a little bit under the radar for a number of years and he’s for the New England Cabot’s Lodges, et cetera, et cetera. We did interview his niece as part of this project. He was the one that ended up with those. At the same time, you got all these G.I.s coming back from overseas and they’ve got the G.I. Bill and amongst the ones that we know, we have education but they also have mortgages and they get very low cost mortgages. So you have these G.I.s with money to spend and you have Sunset magazine as an example, coming out with a ranch house. You’ll see this looks it’s like California ranch house with the roofing but the style of a one story building and these expectations is to style, start to roll through all these people who are buying. Not just by the magazine articles but by the advertisements as well and the expectations as to amenities start to change, you know.

Standard house at Glacier National Park, 1957.

The easy one is indoor plumbing but it’s also washer and dryer and the survey starts to deal with a lot of other things and that those other things included like having a mud room. It includes extra storage and a wife of a let’s say, park service employee’s in one park was very upset because every time her husband moved to a new park the furniture didn’t fit, the draperies didn’t fit on the windows, et cetera and that was one of the big points that came out of the survey. May seem minor now but they wanted to have standardized housing. Of course they didn’t want it to look like standardized housing because they said, “We don’t want to look like urban renewal.” Which was just beginning at that time. So everything from the draperies to the similarity in layout. They were one story ranch houses in general and this is what Cabot is putting together for standard plans.

So we just heard about cost. We heard about the fact that we have very restricted budgets in this case but that meant you had to have locally available construction technologies. So it usually was stud frame. Sometimes it was concrete masonry units with facing that was done with the struck joints, et cetera. We’ll see a few of those in these particular cases that’s a little more typical. The plank could be flipped left to right. Some of them had basements, some didn’t and of course as you might expect the superintendent got a slightly larger house. No shock there but the three bedroom house at this time was 1,260 square feet and the two bedroom at 1,080.

So what evolutions were there in site planning? I want to say as a bottom line to this, not many because the landscape architects in the park service had the same criteria throughout the years. And that is, cut very few trees, open up vistas, work within the topography, et cetera. So they weren’t necessarily in rigid residential grids like America was but they did start to institute the use of things like cul-de-sac and like Zion for example. There’s a central common area with the play equipment, et cetera. So you will start to see some evolutions in site design but we wouldn’t consider them radical today and that was really as you can see here in Zion, it’s just following the contours but the houses themselves had individual driveways, had individual garages. So then we’re talking about on site, off street parking. That key thing of getting away from the public view. Which was one of the critical things that came out of the survey.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area employee housing

So how were the plans adapted to local conditions? You know, there’s a large difference from being out in the desert versus being up in the northwest in terms of rainfall and also snow depths. We just talked about the 235 pounds per square foot that you talked about there in Yellowstone. Roof pitch, they had fairly standard roof pitches. They didn’t really change them too much. Sometimes there was some flat roofs used but it was really mostly, most of the changes, the adaptation, were character defining exterior changes to follow a design medium that may have been created at that park. So we may have adobe, looking like burnt adobe. For those of you who are models who can read that but there was really not much. This one happens to be at Lake Mead. It’s an early seminal design and it has a dip in the middle. As you can see it’s got an AC unit there and this allowed them to have privacy between buildings before the AC unit was put in there but they had cross ventilation that they allowed. So the siding was critical in terms of the site planning and they’re trying to get each individual house to have its own privacy.

Charles Dickey designed house at Volcano National Park.

So you also see some roofing material changes. This one’s one of my favorite. I don’t know if any of you have ever been Volcano House in Volcanoes National Park on the big Island. That was the Volcano House by Charles W. Dickey. Perhaps the most famous architect of Hawaii and he had certain signature design mediums. Again, as I talked about. In this case it’s the siding and you can see the blow up of the siding. Those are two different pieces. So it establishes a rhythm. Standard plan, changes in siding and stuck with a Dickey design. How standard were these? Here’s another couple of them. The National Park Service Women’s Organization continues in this role. They keep feeding new information. You didn’t quite hit it right here.” We need a bigger mud room. We need more storage.” So they do not back off one degree.

At the same time, you understand the park service is adding many many employees. The housing units that were deteriorated that in trying to keep budgets tight they’re going, “No, that one you’re going to demolish. Come on.” So they were always pushing the upper echelon or the park service to meet the objectives that were set down originally which was 1,000 new units. The size increases but not much, but guess what? They didn’t match the budget. They increase the size a little bit as time goes on and as new plans developed, essentially small foot modifications to the first set. Nothing major in this case and here’s an example if you will, of a spreadsheet that we did of the differences in the different plans at different times. Garage or carport. These are all the things that they’re trying to do to make very minor modifications to a standard plan to make it appear that not everything’s cookie cutter. So that’s, you’ll see that now we have washers and dryers, a space for washers and dryers in some of these units and you see the square footage on the right side. It’s not big changes.

So the changes that generally were done were qualitative changes on the exterior of the buildings but from a process standpoint, I think there’s a change in the qualitative process. I mean, as a new director he wants to have engagement by the National Park Service Women’s Organization, helps to get it done. So Conrad Wirth is, has to be put on a fairly high plateau there that falls off when he’s dealing with the speedy things that he has to do to get Mission 66 launched. At the same time as Mission 66 is starting to be implemented, ORRC is being done. Outdoor Recreation Resource Commission, is done by the governor that previously head of natural resources of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, Sergeant. Francis Sergeant, who we all called Sarge is, when he’s later governor of Massachusetts. He was young. He was the same age as Udall. He was the new secretary of the interior and you look at him, his process was totally inclusive of all the conservation organizations.

So there’s a clear cut difference between the methodology used ORRC. Which defined all the outdoor recreation resources of the United States and engaged all the conservation organizations, was young and inclusive versus what had happened with Wirth as he continued to age and now his hand-picked … He hand picked who he wanted to take over for him and that’s what occurred in ‘64 but certainly he wanted to stay around until 1966 to see the end of the program and it was partially that aspect of inclusivity and the pushback from the conservation organizations. So that’s an important aspect of the process lesson. The qualitative changes were minor on the inside but they were mostly you know, just tuning it to their own particular environment that they were dealing with from an aesthetic standpoint.

Not too much from climatic standpoint. So you don’t have extra insulation. You’re not seeing the things that we would have put out for standardized plans today. Where we would have been much more sensitive to the micro-climates of each park as well as the macro-climates. The quantitative changes, a little bit bigger but didn’t change the budget. So all in all, you know kind of boring in one sense. Standardized plans, so the lessons though are they got a lot of units built. They got them done fairly quickly and the ones that are in these parks, often times are standardized plans with those little nuances that make them special and the early seminal designs set the stage for what went on from fiscal year ‘57 on. I’m ready for questions.

National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
645 University Parkway
Natchitoches, LA 71457

Email: ncptt[at]nps.gov
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