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.
Ethan Carr: Thank you very much, it’s an honor to be here starting off this conference on A Century of Design in the Parks. Part of my duty this morning is to give you an overview of that century of design, which I do with some trepidation since I recognize many people in the audience who could be giving the overview. Nevertheless, that’s probably a good way to start a conference like this just to remind us of what we’re really talking about as far as national park design over the last century.
Notice, for example, I will give my own spin on this as well. We’re starting with an image of the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, Massachusetts where I’ve been spending a lot of time recently as an editor of Olmsted’s papers. But it’s also an important distinction that I would be starting here at Fairsted where, as I like to point out to people at the Park Service and at Fairsted we really should be celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service because this is of course where the legislation that we’re celebrating was written by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. who was living here at the time. In fact, he may very well have been here when he wrote it, although that’s very hard to prove because he was moving around quite a bit at the time.
But I’m starting here at Fairsted and not here at Madison Junction, which of course is the birthplace of the national park idea in 1870, but I want to talk about that distinction just a little bit, because National park design history is really national park history. In a sense national parks, like all parks, are really made not born. Which is not to say they’re not wonderful natural landscapes, but when they become parks that’s different from just being a wonderful natural landscape. There’s a kind of transformation both conceptually and physically that takes place. So the design history of the Parks gives us a particular lens and perspective for understanding what the real meaning and significance of national and state parks are.
That’s particularly important when we’re talking about preserving the work in the those parks, that is park design. So national park and state park design in parks we really need the perspective of design history. Park design history. That’s often ignored by the National Park Service, by National Geographic Society, by Ken Burns for that matter, and for understandable reasons, because this is the story we want to tell, the traditional story of national park idea, which does not emphasize the connections between national park history and municipal park history. Which of course my whole career has been about emphasizing it, you won’t know that, some of you know that, so I will be repeating myself a little bit because those two books that were just mentioned are about these connections between national park history and the larger American park movement. Municipal park history, in other words.
But we cling to this creation myth because it’s a lot less complicated. Yes we’ve known since the 1960s, when Aubrey Haines wrote his great multi-volume [The] Yellowstone History, that it’s not actually true that the campfire story is a myth. That doesn’t take away from its power. Since when does a myth need to be true? In fact, they work a lot better when they’re not true.
Paul Schullery and Lee Whittlesey, current Yellowstone historians, have written a wonderful book about this. I don’t know if any of you have read it, but this idea that the Yellowstone campfire story and the myth of the creation of the national park idea is so powerful that it really doesn’t depend on being true. It’s something that we like to refer to. You all know this story, during the Langford-Doane expedition to the Yellowstone plateau in 1870 a group of leading outstanding citizens decided the Yellowstone plateau should be a national park. That it should never fall into private hands. Then the next year the Hayden expedition brought back more evidence and they brought along Thomas Moran which was a smart idea because he produced imagines like these, the one that hung in Congress when they passed the Yellowstone legislation in 1872.
It’s a wonderful thing. It’s appealing to the better angels of our national character, this idea that this wonderful place would become a park and not fall into private hands for development purposes. The only problem with it is it’s not really true, as I said. The people behind the Yellowstone legislation were, of course, the Northern Pacific Railroad and the potential of the park and the design history of the park really began in 1883 when the railroad is finally completed. Especially after 1903 when the arch is dedicated, when the Old Faithful Inn is completed, when the first iteration of the Grand Loop Road, and if Tim Davis is here he will correct me, but I believe by 1903 it is also operational. So the Park really starts to take shape as a park, mostly. Not through Park Service, of course, but Army Corp of Engineer Design.
The campfire story, by the way, belongs to this period. Because N.P. Langford was promoting the park for the railroad and it needed a more inspirational creation myth than Jay Cook paid off some people in Congress and moved the legislation through nicely and quietly. From the beginning we’re not talking so much about good triumphing over greed, although that is the campfire story. We’re talking about a convergence of interests between conservation and profit. That’s a less inspiring, but much more interesting, story.
It should not be surprising because after all it was a park. Park making in the nineteenth century is characterized by this convergence of interests between the most powerful capitalists’ interests of the day, such as railroad corporations and real estate interests and park advocates. That’s what we see in the municipal park movement. It’s what we see in the national park movement.
There are other aspects of the Yellowstone creation that are typical of American park making of the era. Not something entirely new, although it is something entirely new, but something that also relates to other examples of park making that are taking place in the nineteenth century. For example, people are evicted to make this park possible. In Central Park it was a certain group of people, in Yellowstone it was another group of people, but evictions are a park to this whole process. Dispossessions in other words. Above all a public interest doctrine is evoked to justify government action. For the benefit and enjoyment of the people, is the public interest being, both in municipal parks and on the arch at Yellowstone you recall, this public interest doctrine is being evoked to justify park making. The use of eminent domain in municipal park cases, but also just not necessary in national parks.
In fact there are many parallels between the birth of the national park idea and contemporary broader municipal park movement. National parks don’t necessarily have this completely separate identity even though, of course, it is a new kind of park that is being created. I understand that Central Park is a very different place from Yosemite Valley. I’ve been both places quite a lot and I understand the difference as well as anyone, but national parks are indeed parks. National park history is American park history, especially when we’re talking about design history.
It is design history where these connections are most clear and most important. Because the idea of a separate origin for the national parks, even if we don’t accept the campfire story as true, is still very compelling. It’s still very much a part of the public consciousness. I think the Ken Burns series made clear it’s very much part of the National Park Service culture. This idea of a virgin birth, that parks are untainted by profit and all these ugly politics and motives. They’re also untainted by design, and that’s where the problem comes in. Because if we’re talking about design history, and we’re talking about the idea of design and development as somehow tainting the national park because we’re considering the national park primarily in terms of its undesigned qualities, its wilderness, its nature, etc., then design can only be seen as a necessary evil, as a compromise. Why would you preserve it then in a national or state park?
Even if it is significant, even if it is historic, eligible for the National Register. It’s sort of contrary to the whole purpose of the park. It’s a necessary evil, a tainted … Has anyone ever encountered this attitude? I think Stephanie was alluding to it a moment ago, and she had to deal with it more than anyone and successfully, I might add. So hopefully this is a historical attitude, but I don’t think it is really. In fact, I think it’s sort of resurgent in many ways for a new generation of environmentalists who perhaps see the parks in a certain way and don’t necessarily understand why they are cultural productions at all when that’s not why they’re interested in, those are the values that are interesting them.
So that’s why I started with an image of Fairsted, not Madison Junction, and why comparisons like these are always fun for me because we see national parks here as parks. To understand the origin of the national park idea as part of the American park movement. It’s also why I want to bring in Frederick Law Olmsted into the discussion.
Similarly, we see Frederick Law Olmsted as someone whose career was divided. On the one hand he was this great designer and he did all these wonderful designed landscapes like Central Park. On the other hand he did something else, which by the 1890s we’re calling scenic preservation. As if these two activities were not integrally both part of the professional practice that he defined as landscape architecture. But they were part of one practice. They’re inherently and intrinsically both aspects of the process of park making. Landscape design and landscape preservation were not separate or even antagonistic efforts but part of the overall project of making a place into a park.
Consider these two places, for example, Central Park and Yosemite. Olmsted found himself rather fortuitously in the Sierra Nevada in 1864 when Congress passed the Yosemite Grant Act, at the behest of another corporate interest, of course. Not John Muir, not … you know you hear … No. John Muir was not there yet. Olmsted was though in 1864, and it was one of the great accidents of American history because he had nothing to do with any of this. The State of California turns it into a state park, because it’s granted to them for park purposes in perpetuity. Basically using the same kind of language again, just as Yellowstone does later, that is familiar for municipal park advocates, for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.
Olmsted just happens to be there but Governor Low decides to make him the head of the commission to decide what to do with Yosemite. Which in itself is fascinating because the only thing that Olmsted’s done up to that point is design Central Park. So he happens to be in California, this park gets created as a state park, and they decide we’ve got this park guy, that alone sort of shows you some of the connections between what’s going on in Central Park, which is still under construction, and what’s going on in Yosemite Valley when they’re thinking of making it a public park.
Of course the result is this extraordinary report, the recommendations, which were not implemented in the actual management of the Valley, which did set the etiological framework for the entire enterprise of national and really state park making, and described the political and social and economic justifications for parks. We just celebrated the 150th anniversary of that report at Fairsted. I understand they did something at Yosemite too. I guess they had the right to do that as well.
It’s really important, this 150th anniversary in many ways is as important as the Park Service centennial because it’s remarkable to degree to which this manifesto that he’s writing about Yosemite Valley is really about American parks generally. When we look at some of the basic kind of values that are being expressed, these are values that apply for large municipal parks as well as any kind of scenic reservation including national parks. In other words, the experience of landscape beauty is necessary to human wellbeing. This is something that we’re only beginning to realize or embrace once again. If government does not act to make these experiences available to the public its failed in an essential political duty.
Again, this is something which we need to be reminded of. Since the 1970s, anyway, we’ve moved away from the idea that government actually has an essential duty, political duty, to create parks for public wellbeing. We’ve decided, no it’s something actually nonprofits can do. It’s something partners can do. It’s not really something general taxation needs to take care of as much as the people who benefit should take care of. Well the assertion here is that everyone benefits. What UNESCO likes to call outstanding universal value. Therefore, general treasury funds should be used. And that’s something that we lost somewhere along the way.
Anyway, this is a powerful rhetoric. It’s a political rhetoric. It’s an economic rhetoric. It’s happening during the Civil War. Rolf Diamant, who many of you know, has written very compelling interesting political analysis of what’s going on as far as republican politics during the Civil War. This is the intellectual birth of the national park idea. It has nothing to do with the campfire in Yellowstone. It has everything to do with the municipal park movement, and it is the rhetorical political framework for the entire American park movement including national parks. A movement which really began only seven years earlier with the opening of Central Park.
Since I mentioned Central Park, yes I know it is a designed landscape, all sorts of improvements, circulation, plantings, soil amendments, I understand that very well and at Yosemite Valley Olmsted is not recommending doing any of this, because these improvements aren’t necessary. It’s already beautiful and awesome and picturesque in turn. It’s the noblest park or pleasure ground in the world, as he described it. But what he did recommend is using many of these same tools, design and construction of a circulation system, park drives and trails in other words, municipal public facilities for camping I mean minimal public facilities for camping, etc. that would prevent the destruction of the landscape by visitors.
So what he’s doing is he’s saying it’s the same idea, you just do less of it and for slightly different way and different purposes but it’s still landscape architecture. You’re still making this place into a park because lots of people are going to come to enjoy it and you don’t want them to trample it to death. That’s the basic goal here, is to keep millions of people from trampling these places to death, whether it’s Central Park or Yosemite.
Park design, landscape architecture, can be used to preserve an existing landscape. It did at Central Park too by the way, because the existing site at Central Park is what this park is all about. I’m not going to get into this, but everything about this design is predicated on the existing site. When you look at, from 5th Avenue, what is that? Just behind that low parapet wall. That’s not a man-made landscape, it’s part of the Central Park design, but I assure you that’s Manhattan bedrock, that’s schist outcrop. That’s the preindustrial landscape of Manhattan Island peaking at you from over the parameter wall. These juxtapositions say so much about what this park really is, which is an improved version of what it was not a completely different idea altogether.
Anyway, this practice gets developed here at Fairsted. I don’t know if any of you have been to Fairsted lately, but they’ve completely redone the interior finishes of the interpretive displays. It’s really wonderful. This is the north parlor as it looked in the 1890. This entire practice then is developed at Fairsted. From the very beginning it’s about this site based design process which entails and includes landscape preservation where you have, in some cases you change as little as possible. In some cases you change a little more. It’s all called design. It’s all called landscape architecture, park design.
It’s worth noting how revolutionary this was by the way. It’s completely different from what’s going on in contemporary Victorian park design, let’s say in Great Britain. This is what people were expecting. This is what municipal parks were supposed to look like, the public garden in Boston. This is what they getting. There was a marked contrast. This is a new practice. It has everything to do with the existing site as well as, yes, extensive engineered improvements and design. That’s not a contradiction. That’s what this practice was. It’s how they preserve large areas through their development as public parks, whether at the municipal level or at a larger level.
At places like the Back Bay Fence, again this is, of course, H.H. Richardson is the architect with whom he has the most important relationship of his career, designs that bridge, an entire park system, and again, I don’t want to get into this but why is it that plans for places like Franklin Park absolutely were predicated on very detailed surveys that sometimes were expensive and held up projects for years, but nobody made a move doing that until they had the drawing we just saw. It’s completely site based design process to transform, make transformations of places that already look like this, perhaps, into something … Yes, and it’s quite a transformation, it’s also completely predicated on the existing landscape. This is the country park section of Franklin Park in Boston.
Why this review of Frederick Law Olmsted? Because you can extract out of this not the principles that Stephanie was referring to of designing the park, and, no, I hate to disappoint you Stephanie, I won’t be talking about designing the parks that much. I sort of wanted to move on to talk about some other things but these design principles we can look at and you can derive them from municipal park design in the 19th century and they apply to national park design in the 20th century. Because these are basic design principles of Olmstedian landscape architecture, let’s say, park design, and they apply across scales and they apply across context from places that maybe need a lot of this to places that where you’re doing as little as possible to minimize the interference with the existing landscape, but they are all serving the same purpose.
The primary purpose of large parks is the same. To provide the public at large with necessary opportunities to enjoy landscape beauty and nature in large numbers without destroying, without trampling to death, the landscapes they’ve come to appreciate. That’s what national park design is about isn’t it? Isn’t that basically what we try to do in planning and design national parks, try to keep people from trampling the place to death. This is the same goal in Central Park or Franklin Park or Prospect Park, all projects that are underway at the same time. It’s the same goal we see in projects that maybe where the connection is more obvious like Niagara Falls, or Mount Royal Park, which is a municipal park in Montreal.
This connection between scenic preservation on the one hand and the more designed parks on the other, it’s a continuous spectrum. It is not two different activities. What we’re talking about with national park design didn’t begin in 1916. It didn’t begin in 1964 with the Wilderness Act. Really if you had to give it a beginning date it would be 1858 when Central Park opens. The continuity in this practice is most obvious when we talk about Charles Elliot who learned a lot from Olmsted in the 1880s and designed a system of reservations around Boston in the 1890s.
What’s really interesting is when you look at Elliot’s methods, by the way, which are sort of protoecological and really are all about the harbinger of landscape planning as it is practiced today. Of course his career was cut short, but when Olmsted writes Elliott in 1893, I know this is a long quote, but Olmsted is really trying to say something here. First of all I learned never to refer to anyone’s probable lifetime. Because Elliott was dead not long after this at the age of 38 from spinal meningitis, so the probable lifetime thing didn’t work out. But, what Olmsted is really trying to say here is that Central Park was this 19th century monument. It created this practice, this whole idea. What you’re doing now is what the 20th century is going to be about. What you’re doing are those larger scenic reservations. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out that way. Elliott dies, Olmsted retires in 1895, that’s the euphemism for being institutionalized.
But there is Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. who is really the hero of our centennial discussion. Elliot’s work is taken up by Olmsted Jr. who sort of takes his place as a partner in the firm and brought the methods and the potential of what we can call the “Fairsted School” of landscape architecture to bear on the National Park System through his influence and his ideas in the 20th century. He’s also a major figure in state park planning and these stories are of course linked. I’m not going to get into any detail there, but in about 1915 when the National Park Service is trying to decide how a dispirit group of places can become a modern park system, which is of course designed around the newly available automobile, Olmsted Jr. is called in to draft the critical portions of the 1916 Act creating the National Park Service, which is the centennial that we are celebrating.
In this famous passage he is really recalling his father’s 1865 Yosemite report. I have to add, people talk about the Yosemite report as if it disappeared from the face of the earth after it was written. It did not. It was in the archives at Fairsted. Olmsted Jr. had access to it. He was really the first editor of his father’s papers and I know for a fact because he quotes from it at length and verbatim in 1914 during the Hetch-Hetchy controversy that he was looking at it and reading it during this critical period leading up to the legislation for the National Park System.
He’s making his father’s ideas work for the 20th century for a different America. An America that now possesses automobiles and of course the problem was the car brought in an enormous wave of tourists into places like Yosemite Valley. They were doing a lot of impairment, a lot of damage. Really the very first challenge the Park Service faces once it’s created and once it gets money, which is another thing … It’s really not until the 1920s that they start getting budgets that are meaningful … but the first problem is if we’re going to have this connected system of parks with roads, what are the roads in the parks going to be. This could have absolutely sunk the National Park Service at the beginning, because it could have been over before it started.
It’s first test is as a road building agency, interestingly. Because parks are going to be preserved by building roads, but they’re going to be good roads. They’re not going to do it the way the regular road engineers, the Bureau of Public Roads wants to do. They’re going to do it the way Thomas Vint, who soon becomes the chief landscape architect at the Park Service wants to do. There’s this remarkable moment when the road engineers and the landscape architects get together and that moment we see … Those are designed drawings for Going-to-the-Sun Road, and here’s Going-to-the-Sun Road. The reason it’s a landmark, and I think it’s the only road in the National Park System, or one of the only roads in the United States, that’s a landmark for being a road. There’s the Columbia River Highway is a landmark. Anyone else know any roads?
I was talking to Daniel Marriott about this recently. What other road is a landmark just for being a road? Is it a landmark? There you go, thank you. Is Palisades now a landmark? Well I know lots that are eligible for the National Register but if Palisades were a landmark that would be very interesting. But Bear Tooth Highway is very interesting. Daniel Marriott didn’t know about that either. Tim, where are you? Yeah, Bear Tooth Highway, landmark. I’m talking landmark status here.
Yeah, so anyway, Going-to-the-Sun Road is a National Historic Landmark. The reason isn’t just because it is a spectacular road, it’s because it represents this moment when the Park Service figured out how they were going to build roads. If they hadn’t there wouldn’t … there’s a good argument to be made that the whole Park Service, the whole idea, would have stopped right there, because if they were found to be destroying national parks by building roads in them, they wouldn’t have gotten a lot of support. But they were found to be designing roads in a way that was more expensive and they were getting the engineers to do it even though it was more expensive and more spectacular but also preserved the valley landscape … didn’t put switchbacks up through to the pass in other words. Shelved it in, and if any of you have driven Going-to-the-Sun Road, you know it’s a terrifying experience because it is shelved in on this sheer cliff wall.
Road construction and many roads that have now been found eligible in the National Park System and the State Park System, especially at Mount Rainier where the entire road system is part of a National Historic Landmark district but they’re not designated specifically on their own as roads, but they are contributing structures in a landmark district because, of course, Mount Rainier was the first great example where roads were incorporated into an overall master plan. I’ll get to that in just a minute. So road design, awfully important.
Park village design was the next great challenge because developed areas in national parks had grown up on an ad-hoc basis mostly driven by concessioner development and there was no concept of master planning. There was no concept of overall policy that was guiding. So what we see at Yosemite Valley in the mid-1920s is Thomas Vint working with others including Gilbert Stanley Underwood and the architect Herbert Maier to develop a new park village plan at Yosemite Valley. This is incredibly important as a precedent and as an example of what landscape architecture could do for the National Park System. There are lots of examples here including Herbert Maier’s wonderful park museum from 1925.
Landscape architecture of a certain type and the link to the “Fairsted School” and that whole approach to park design is very evident. If only for the reason that Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. is a very close friend and mentor for Thomas Vint, for example, and continues to have a lot of influence. Stephen Mather makes landscape architecture on a par with engineering and education as the principle divisions of the early National Park Service. There are many examples that we can look at. Grand Canyon, though, to talk about park, this is a National Historic Landmark district as well, to talk about how Daniel Hull who’s really the first chief landscape architect at the Park Service, well we’ll just call him that for now. We won’t get into the details.
What they do at the south rim of the Grand Canyon is develop a new park village, which exemplified the best in town planning ideas of the 1920s, and also he starts to develop, at least he’s one of the people who is developing, a very specific kind of civic architecture that we today call “Park Service Rustic.” There are lots of precedents for “Park Service Rustic” and we can discuss them and what they are in terms of architectural history, but what we see as a landscape architect creating a façade architecture that works with this new idea of a park village plan. An overall aesthetic idea of a park village in which the architecture becomes part of that expression. The architecture is not happening outside the context of park design, in other words, of landscape architecture.
I think that’s important to realize, how and later Thomas Vint has the second administration building. Where are these buildings located, for example. The first administration building up here, which at the time because the railroad was still the main entry was the point of arrival for visitors. The second administration tellingly here, because by this point with the new design, this the automotive entrance becomes the new main arrival point. So this central plaza, which is still there is the second administration building. In other words, where people arrive they get a dose of civic architecture of this very specific type in the context of an overall park village plan.
There’s obviously a lot more to talk about here but what I really want to talk about is that park village and the architecture it contains is in the context of overall master plan. What the overall master plan does, of course, is land use zoning, as we would call it today. Different levels of wilderness protection, and the developed corridor, the road corridor, with the park villages, with a little vignette designs, is important because, of course, it also limits road development. That’s really one of the major factors at Mount Rainier is the limiting of park, the round the mountain highway that was never built is extremely significant as far as this master plan goes. Each park village carefully designed as part of the development corridor, but also limited to that developed corridor.
The way architecture works, again, as an expression of these ideas of park design. Where it is placed. Here’s the administration building, which was a landmark already, it’s now part of a landmark district. As people come in to the park, into the plaza once again, and they see the administration building there. This originally was an open plaza, now been re-vegetated, which is interesting because now that space is being essentially erased as the vegetation matures. But the idea was to have that view, with the mountain in the distance, of the administration building as you came into the park once again.
So when we look at architecture like this, in this case this is Ernest Davidson, who I believe Stephanie just mentioned. You have this wonderful architecture and these were wonderful designers but this is all being done, this is the last bit, right? This is the final expression of an overall conception of how the entire park should be done at a regional scale than at more like the 100, 200 scale for the village plan, and then the architecture, yes, which is a façade architecture by the way, designed by landscape architects generally who were pasting this stuff on the front of a balloon frame construction with a concrete foundation. It’s a stage set to some degree, and a good one I might add. Yes, as Dick Seller’s points out landscape architects are façade managers. Everyone knows that right?
Of course, there are other really important aspects to the architectural history of park service rustic, above all Mary Colter, and working of course for concessioners on the south rim. I don’t want to underplay the rest of the architectural story, the architectural history, but for my purposes today, I’d really like to talk about whether or not the problem shouldn’t be looking more at park history and less at just architectural style, the history of park design of which this architecture is an expression. More of the values and principles behind it all and not just the architectural style itself, which I think we’ve really focused on over the years. This, of course, is the great Herbert Maier who I would point to as the other key architect of park service rustic. Is Jim Steely here by any chance? Jim? Anyway, Jim Steely I think will be here at some point and no one knows more about Herbert Maier than he does.
But where does this architecture come from that Herbert Maier … You know we talk about all sorts of architectural influences and Mary Colter or Robert Reamer at the Old Faithful Inn, who basically as doing a take on Adirondacks architecture. That’s not adequate for me. The architectural history isn’t really explaining this building to me. The park history does a much better job of explaining this architecture to me because it all goes back to a building like this. Now if you understand what Richardson and Olmsted were doing in the 1880s in Boston, Herbert Maier’s trail side museums and rustic architecture in general becomes a lot more clear in the context of American park history. It’s just that we have this failure to look at the context of the American park movement.
So “Fairsted School,” if I can call it that, landscape architecture, what it really means in terms of America’s best idea, which it may be, although I hate that expression. The only question is what is the idea. Where did it come from? If we can agree on that, I can agree that it is America’s best idea. It’s not a question of a single historical event like the Yellowstone campfire. It’s not also the result of a single designer, I’m aware of that, but it’s an entire professional practice of site based landscape design that lent itself to the conceiving of, the planning and design of places, transforming them into parks. Whether those park landscapes were more or less improved in the process. If that’s what we’re talking about as America’s best idea, I’m onboard for that. That makes sense to me.
I just want to note also how much these people believed in this. Olmsted, and he passes it onto his son, who passes it on to someone like Conrad Wirth, who again was a protégé of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. Wirth’s career in public service he owed to Olmsted Jr. He also trained at the University of Massachusetts where I teach, although I wasn’t teaching there then. It doesn’t matter, but his teacher at the University of Massachusetts was also a close friend of Olmsted, and so on. This idea that Olmsted Jr. is writing to Wirth and saying “what our fathers were about” because of course Wirth’s father was a great landscape architect, the great Minneapolis park system was Theodore Wirth’s work. Earlier, Conrad Wirth was born in a superintendent’s residence in a Minneapolis park.
But this idea of the people who use the park, it’s about the people who use the parks. This imbues the New Deal. Remember Conrad Wirth is in charge of the state park development program at the Park Service during the New Deal. He’s responsible for this imagery, which to me is remarkable imagery. Here’s the before of the country child living in the dust bowl and here’s the after of the happy child because of the state parks and the landscape rehabilitation. Here’s the urban child behind the chain link fence and then out at the recreational demonstration area. This is what the New Deal is doing. It’s about the conservation of human as well as natural resources, and seeing these things as intimately linked and inseparable. The New Deal brought this all to fruition. It really brought the entire American park movement to fruition.
The idealism of the 1930 is really as much about state parks, it’s really more about state parks than it is about national parks at this point. All of which is an interesting perspective on this, which is when we start talking about post-war overcrowding in parks. We start talking about the ultimate response that Conrad Wirth’s devises in the second part of his career as director of the National Park Service beginning in 1951, which is called Mission 66.
The reason I started by talking about how much these people believed in American parks and what they could mean for American society, is it think that when Conrad Wirth and his group, who were all New Dealers, saw this they said “hey we’re not going to let a few too many cars in a few places basically undermine a hundred years of park history and fifty years of accomplishment at the National Park Service. This is just a problem, we can fix it,” and they could. They knew how to fix problems like this.
It would get them into trouble though, because they’re not seeing what is really happening, which is a major shift in how we think about conservation in the United States in the 1960s. They don’t see that coming at all. What they see is where they’re coming from and how good they are at fixing problems like this. They go ahead and do it. That’s called Mission 66.
It’s really interesting because it’s very successful if you look at it from one point of view and it’s sort of a tragedy if you look at from another point of view. Because they never really understand, they don’t want to understand, the changes in thinking about American conservation that are taking place in the 1960s. They keep going back and saying “but don’t you understand.” They actually go back and start quoting Frederick Law Olmsted and start quoting the Organic Act of 1916 and saying don’t you understand what this is really about. It’s about the people who use the parks, but for 1960s environmentalists the people were now the problem. It was no longer about threats from grazing and dam construction, logging, that the people were going to be the solution to. Now tourism in fact was the greatest threat to the integrity of parks. That was a fundamental issue. That the planners for Mission 66 could never really resolve.
So you have this huge challenge, they come up with a plan which they call Mission 66. A billion dollars are spent between ‘56 and ‘66 and the goal is really to remain true to the ideal of national parks as public parks by facilitating unprecedented levels of people. They take a lot of heat initially for the appearance of the architecture. Again we’re sort of trapped into thinking this is a story about architectural style. We went from rustic to modern, which is not really what’s happening here.
That’s part of what’s happening of course, but it’s not really the important part. If you really look at the broader context of the Mission 66 program, the architecture again is just an expression of park design ideas. Just as part rustic was. There’s a major shift okay, but it’s not, the fact that they went from rustic to modern was literally, if you read what people like Cecil Doty or Conrad Wirth … how they’re describing it, it’s almost an afterthought. They say, yeah, okay it’s going to be that kind of architecture now.
The important part was the shift from basically overnight accommodations at destinations to day use. Does anyone remember, besides Stephanie, the paradise was here sign? Which was found ineligible for the National Register for good reason, it’s not a particularly good example of what Mission 66 visitor centers were attempting to do. I only have it there because it’s an example of the shift from that to that, from one idea of the national park to a day use idea for the national parks, which was the way that they were considering facilitating this vastly increased numbers of people. And that the visitor center would become the new building type. We have good guidance, and we have had for years, about determining eligibility for visitor centers.
Cecil Doty is another architect who should be mentioned in context, you know Region Three headquarters here in Santa Fe and National Historic Landmark, and after the war stuff like this. Again it’s an expression of the park planning ideas, not just architectural style. When they asked him “why did you switch?” He said “What do you mean?” He couldn’t really understand why they were asking the questions. What else could I do I think was his response. And really sort of my favorite Mission 66 visitor centers are these less intrusive ones that do the job so quietly.
It’s a very different approach. Sorry that’s a little washed out. This is one of Jack Boucher, if any of you remember Jack Boucher the photographer, these are a lot of his photographs. What you probably know more … has this been demolished? Yeah, it’s gone, so I haven’t been there in a while, but it was not for any problem. It was a landmark, it was on a bentonite foundation. There were serious structural issues. But you probably know these, these are the National Historic Landmark visitor centers because they’re not just good examples of Mission 66 visitor centers, they’re also major works of mid-century modernist architecture by some of the major architects.
Mission 66 was probably the high point the Park Service ever had as a design consultant … top design consultants, Park Service had a great reputation as a patron of architecture during Mission 66 because they were hiring people to do buildings like these and they were making the careers of people like Mitchell/Giurgola while a lot of critics were really angry and saying “why aren’t you doing rustic?” And they were hiring … you know this is remarkable building, another landmark, which has now been rehabilitated. Another building, which we don’t need to get into, but Richard Neutra … This one was demolished as well. That’s all right it was time for it to go.
So there’s a lot we could discuss about eligibility in Mission 66. There’s a new multiple property documentation form, which I think offers good guidance along with the study that Sarah Allaback did for visitor centers. I don’t want to get too much into it but I think if I can discuss that with any of you, if you have particular problems or interest in it. This is really the point, as far as where we end up with Mission 66. Conrad Wirth is forced to retire in 1964, same year as the Wilderness Act is passed, and the condemnation of over development.
This is the solution, by the way, to that first slide I showed you of too many cars on Tioga Road. It was condemned at the time because of the way the granite was blasted away to get over the high sierra and widen Tioga Road. When you ride it today, and you read the criticisms from the 1950s where they were condemning Conrad Wirth “You’re building a super highway. You’re completely selling out!” You ride it today, it’s this very sedate two lane road. They didn’t know what was coming as far as the larger American landscape was concerned. Today this looks pretty low-key.
But in fact, they were terribly upset about the widening of Tioga Road. This was really the birth, with David Brower and the Sierra Club, of the Sierra Club as we know it as an environmental organization. It changed the whole relationship between what we used to call conservation advocates and we now call the Environmental Movement and the Park Service. It would never be the same again.
What they were upset about was probably not so much just the blasting but it was really the whole facilitation of much larger numbers of visitors, which was really the problem. Of course, that was the whole point, as far as Mission 66 goes. So when we’re looking at Mission 66, again when we’re thinking about eligibility, I would encourage us not just to think about architectural style, although that is what the multiple property documentation is more or less based on, but to think about some of the differences. What were the real differences that occurred here? What does this have to do with our larger story? What would it have to do, also, because we still need to assess Mission 66 in many ways, because we still live in that world.
Another one of the interesting things about 20th century history is we built a lot of stuff. Really, more than we had ever built in the entire history of the country before the post-war period. Then we brought in a lot of environmental legislation and we really changed the way we did business, but we’re still living in this world. This mid-20th century world, and it’s not the mid-20th century anymore. When we look at what … and this is from the Designing the Parks Conference, these are ideas that came out of the Designing the Parks Conference … when we’re looking at what Mission 66 did and where we are now, you can pretty much go on with lists like this. What’s changed? Oh not much, just everything.
Why are we still building bigger visitor centers? Might be, because in many ways we’re still trapped in Mission 66. Which is probably the other part, if you want to consider Mission 66 a tragedy, the real tragedy is we’re still in it in many ways. But is that surprising? We’re still driving on interstate highways. That’s sort of the other shoe dropping, interstate highway system. That’s the other part of the American landscape that Mission 66 was really trying to keep up with because of the increased access. So we’re still driving on those highways, why shouldn’t we still be using those visitor centers. Will it ever end? I don’t know. Everyone always talks about the internet as if that meant oh now we have the internet, but I haven’t seen it yet as far as actual change.
In conclusion, I wanted to talk a little bit about what preservation means now. As far as the practice of preservation of design in national and state parks. Park design in other words. Does this practice continue to be essential and relevant? I want to make the case that it does. You’ll be hearing at this conference lots of ideas about new technologies, new considerations in determining eligibility, new ideas for what to do with historic buildings and landscapes that may have fallen into disuse. All sorts of challenges about a younger and more diverse group of visitors.
Years ago when I was touring state parks to consider which might be eligible for the register or even for landmark status, and these are two that are National Historic Landmark Districts, it struck me that what we really wanted to preserve wasn’t adequately contained or expressed in the physical fabric of the most expressive places that I found, these campfire circles. Some of the most expressive points in these state parks were also the most transitory. These are things that disappear, campfire circles.
But it wasn’t the physical campfire circle we were really interested in. It was everything that it represented about the New Deal of state parks and recreational demonstration areas, as expressions of the social idealism that was given form and programming through this sort of “golden age” of American park design. Everything that was really significant about what state parks were in American life and, which we seemed to be losing at the time, and we continue. In the end, I don’t know what the answer is. But there is something very poignant about losing these things when, and at the same time more importantly, losing what they represent. What they really embody. What the significance really is of these places. Because it’s something that had to do with the programming and the social history of these parks. It was very hard to say, “Oh well I’ll list this as a contributing structure” that didn’t seem to be adequate somehow.
Some questions to end with, and I will make an assertion about whether preserving park design is still important. What eligibility should really be based on, not just architectural style but park history. That historic preservation is really not just a mandate we do because of the Historic Preservation Act. It’s really essential, vital, to the central mission and success of the National Park Service. I say that because so many buildings and landscapes that we manage through preservation are in fact the primary experience for people visiting the national park system at this point.
When you think about it, they’re all historic parks. We’re getting there. The golden age of park making was in the first half of the 20th century, lets say. They’re historic. By managing these places we are really managing the primary experience for millions of visitors to national and state park systems. So it’s really important to think about preservation in that way, not just as something we do as a mandate but as central to park management generally. Not an ancillary mandate that we’re required to fill because of some policy document or legislation. It’s really all about the primary mission of the National Park Service, which is, well we know, go back to the 1916 legislation if you want to know what it is. Thank you.
Ethan Carr, Phd, FASLA, is a landscape historian and preservationist specializing in public landscapes. He has taught at the Harvard GSD, the University of Virginia, and at the University of Massachusetts, where he is a professor. He has written two award-winning books, Wilderness by Design (1998) and Mission 66: Modernism and the National Park Dilemma (2007), and he is the volume editor of Volume 8 of the Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, The Early Boston Years, 1882-1890 (2013). He is the co-editor of a volume on the history of world park design, Public Nature (2013).