This presentation was part of A Century of Design in the Parks Symposium, Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 21-23, 2016.
Presentation Video and Transcript
By Langdon Oppermann
The Visitor Center at Ocmulgee National Monument near Macon, Georgia is the first, and only, Art Moderne visitors’ building constructed by the Park Service. It broke from NPS design policies and predated the Mission 66 approach by decades. The 1938 design was a watershed event, though its significance was not widely recognized at the time. The site is a cluster of earthen mounds on the Ocmulgee River that in the 1930s became the largest archaeological dig in the eastern United States. The discoveries brought national attention to the site. From 1933 to 1941 it was one of the largest and most significant archaeological projects of the New Deal, with crews from the Civil Works Administration (CWA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the Public Works Administration (PWA).
It was evident by the mid-1930s that the vast collection of artifacts and data demanded a museum and space for administrative and laboratory facilities. Relief workers helped construct the new building.
In the 1920s, the Park Service established a policy of rustic design for new construction emphasizing natural materials to harmonize with the building’s surroundings. Using native stone and logs, NPS built rustic fences, bridges, entrance gates, signage and even bathroom and maintenance sheds. The rustic style became a hallmark of national parks.
Another design concept was to model the local historic architecture. But Ocmulgee presented an unusual situation. Both its surroundings and purpose were archaeological, and the needed building was unlike other NPS projects; this structure would serve numerous functions at a time when NPS facilities served a single purpose and typical displays were free-standing signboards.
The architect was the unheralded NPS architect James T. Swanson, Jr. His response was unprecedented; he followed none of the policy cues, instead choosing the Art Moderne, a radical departure from long-established Park Service designs. He had worked at Ocmulgee, but records do not reveal how he came to be the designer or how his unconventional design was approved.
Modernism was introduced to America in the 1920s. Art Deco soon moved toward the more abstract Art Moderne’s smooth surfaces and curving corners. In that spirit, Swanson’s
Ocmulgee building is a sculptural showpiece, revolutionary in the Park Service in both design and material, with curving cream-colored concrete walls and flowing front stairs. Around the rotunda is a geometric frieze in bold red, patterned on pottery excavated at the site.
Opinions were mixed. A newspaper lauded the “beautiful structure,” and Standard Oil’s tour magazine touted the “striking museum building.” In contrast, others criticized NPS for abandoning the rustic, declaring it “the supremely ugly museum,” a “monstrosity,” and suggested NPS “build a mound over it.”
The rustic trend subsided during World War when new construction ceased and the painstaking maintenance of rustic architecture was too demanding. By 1949 the neglect was evident. The response was Mission 66, a program to improve visitor services by the fiftieth anniversary of NPS. Basic to the program was a multi-function Visitor Center in each park, what Ocmulgee had addressed decades earlier.
Langdon Edmunds Oppermann is an architectural historian/planner. She received her BA from Hollins University and MA from George Washington University. She managed environmental review, grants, and tax incentive programs of the SHPO offices of both North and South Carolina before forming a consulting firm in 1987. In 2007 she joined the preservation architecture firm Joseph K. Oppermann—Architect, PA, where she conducts research and prepares Historic Structure Reports and Master Plans. She has been recognized particularly for her extensive research on African-American neighborhoods, has chaired boards at national, state, and local levels, and is a frequent lecturer on preservation issues.