The “Supremely Ugly Museum:” Art Moderne at Ocmulgee National Monument

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 & Presenter’s Bio

Langdon Oppermannj, Joseph K. Oppermann-Architect, P.A.

Langdon Opperman:     Hello, I want to say right off the bat that I do not think this is a supremely ugly building. It’s actually a supremely important building for at least three reasons. First, it is the first and the only art modern structure built by the Park Service in the nation. Second, its design broke from NPS design policies. And third, it predated the Mission 66 approach by several decades.The building when it was built was a watershed event but it was not widely recognized at the time and it’s really not recognized now either. I’m going to tell a bit about how it came to be and why it’s unique, and I do use that word, unique in the Park Service and I use that word in a true sense of the term. We did a structural report on it a few years ago.

The mounds at Ocmulgee

The building’s here because of archeology, amazing archeology. Ocmulgee the site is a cluster of prehistoric mounds, you see two of them here, that in the 1930s became the largest archeological dig in the Eastern United States. It was one of the most significant archeological projects of the New Deal. It had crews from about five New Deal programs.

The mounds had been recognized important for a long, long time, but they were damaged by railroad cuts, agriculture, ranching, timbering, clay mining, fill dirt for a road through the middle of Macon and a motorcycle course. It was local Macon residents who really put out a campaign to try and save them and do archeological work there.

In 1922, they went to the Smithsonian for help to do the excavations. That was ‘22. In 1929, they went back and said they’d help fund the excavations and about three weeks later, the Smithsonian department head was down there. But that was 1929, so just as they thought they were going to get started, along came the Depression and that, as you can imagine, was a major setback, but in the long run, and of course this is true with so many parks, it was the Depression that saved Ocmulgee and the Depression that built today’s visitor center.

The New Deal put thousands of people to work all over of course. At this site, it started in 1933 with 150 laborers who began excavation of the mounds and it quickly grew from there. You had a wide array of New Deal programs, as I said, and they added thousands of workers so that Ocmulgee had the largest archeological team in the United States. In the different programs, you had laborers, anthropologists, archeologists, engineers, draftsmen, lab workers, et cetera, et cetera. Also during this time, they served as guides, because you had two to three thousand visitors coming each weekend to see the mounds and the digs.

WPA Workers wait for assignments, ca. 1935. (SEAC Coll.)

Meanwhile, several things were going on. The Macon group was trying to get NPS to take over Ocmulgee and make it be a national park. So they had the typical back-and-forths in trying to find funds. The excavation of the mounds was producing this vast quantity of artifacts that they did not expect and that they could not handle. Also, one of the important excavations there was the earth lodge, it’s a council chamber, and they found it in pretty good condition. So they decided to save that and to reconstruct  an earth mound, I mean an earth lodge and they chose James T. Swanson of the Park Service as the architect.

Swanson was a young, pretty inexperienced architect at the Park Service and you’ll see that he had a huge impact on the development of the park. The national monument was established just around Christmas in 1936. Swanson’s work on the earth lodge began two days earlier. So he was made acting superintendent.

Because of the quantity of artifacts, they set up a lab at the Macon Municipal Auditorium and the WPA workers were there and processed them and the archeology notes and the drawings and all the processing. Then artifacts from other archeological sites in Georgia and in other states were sent there and Ocmulgee became a depository for the Southeast. It then ended up with a collection of over a million artifacts.

I should add that at this time there was no chronology of prehistory in the Southeast and the ceramic typology that’s still used today was developed at Ocmulgee. For those of you that know SEAC, the Southeastern Archeological Conference, it was there, it was also started at Ocmulgee.

With those artifacts it meant that the storage needs alone required permanent housing. A second pressing need was for office space. The Park Service offices and the New Deal offices were in a nearby farmhouse. The third thing was for the thousands of visitors that were coming and they built this fine little museum for people to see the artifacts. So as the site continued to grow, it became clear that a regional center was needed and the park’s 1937 master plan called for a building with threefold purpose that I’ve just mentioned: administrative, storage, and real laboratories, and public interpretation.

What the master plan said was, “Perhaps most important for the whole picture of southeastern archeology is the building and establishment of a great display and research museum at Ocmulgee, a center for continued scientific investigation in anthropology in the southeastern United States,” and they named the building the Museum and Administration Building.

The superintendent envisioned the park “with well-trained rangers with a modern museum in which the story of Indian occupation, not easily interpreted in the field, will be brought out in a series of attractive, graphic, popular exhibits. It will be a museum where archeologists can meet and consult large collections.”

Now what’s important to know, and I think you’ve heard this a lot, is that this was not typical of parks. Really, far from it. There were buildings in parks, most of them served a single function and there would be several of them. There would buildings in some parks that served more than one function, but you might have an office in a rangers’ quarters. Or you’d have a building and over on one side was a display, was a small museum, but other functions would be in a different building. Often the interpretation in parks were in those little roof sign boards and that was the building.

Mission 66, as you know, created the visitor center, but this building, I think challenges, I know it does, it challenges what’s been said a lot at this conference. That Mission 66 invented a centralized visitor center. That that did not exist before Mission 66. Mission 66 visitor centers were built in a modern style. Their interior spaces were devoted to visitors and all functions of the park were there, but the circulation and space was primarily for the visitors. So here you have that.

I’ll tell you a little about James Swanson, who at this point was acting superintendent and he was from the start and through the master planning process. At some point, he was made architect for this new building. What’s interesting is, we don’t know how that happened, and we don’t know how this controversial design was approved, but it’s pretty likely that he was considering this design before it was a national park and before he started on the earth lodge.

He took over as superintendent in Christmas of 1936. A month later, he wrote that he “would soon finish his studies for the preliminary plans for submission to Mr. Vint’s Office.” Thomas Vint was the longtime head of the NPS branch of architecture, who by the way, loved rustic architecture.Later Vint switched Swanson from superintendent to a position of assisting architect at NPS, so that, so that all of his time could be spent in design of the building.

Now Americans, who are familiar, as you are, with rustic architecture, as being what was in park architecture, and they were designed to blend into surroundings. The rustic style is really more of, to me, a design philosophy of materials and proportions than it is a true style, but it’s what was used in western parks and in the natural parks in the east.

And here’s, Ocmulgee has its own rustic bridge that was built by the CCC. But when you had the non-natural parks in the east, the rustic really didn’t make any work. What did you do when you had a park that was based on a military event or a historic theme? The Park Service very slowly acknowledged that the rustic didn’t work there and they moved to adaptations of early American architecture tweaked to sort of fit into the particular region. In his 1938 publication, Albert Good, who really promoted rustic architecture, affirmed the use of historical precedence for the east. He said, “thus we are influenced by the early settlers along the Atlantic seaboard.”

Some of you may remember Orin Bullock. Hugh Miller used to tell me that Orin Bullock was one of the ones who argued that rustic did not work in the Park Service and he had to argue quite a bit, but it worked. Ultimately the Park Service developed standardized designs for Eastern park buildings, typically in a colonial revival style and again, tweaked for regional influences. One of the reasons was to present a dignified public face, for instance, in a military park.

But, what do you do at Ocmulgee? It was surrounded by open land, prehistoric mounds, this little farmhouse that had no historic association, and the building was going to be significant in size. So along came Swanson. Again, we don’t know much about him. He was a trained architect, he graduated from Rice Institute in 1931, that’s today’s Rice University. The records that we found, and we looked a lot, show him with only a minor role in the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.

Here’s his career. After he designed the earth lodge and the Museum Administration Building, he left the Park Service. He served in the Navy during World War II. After the war, he worked with a New York architect on prisons and hospitals. Then he worked with a Fort Worth architect. Then he worked for an architect of Houston and New Orleans. Then he went to Morocco and worked on an air force project. In the mid-50s, he opened his own architectural firm in Houston and designed schools and office buildings. That’s everything that I could find.

So these two Ocmulgee projects appear to be his only principle work. His response to the design question though for Ocmulgee was unprecedented. It was a radical departure from Park Service policies when he chose Art Moderne. Modernistic architecture had first been introduced to the United States with Art Deco and that was in 1922 with a competition.

Art Deco, as you all know, is more of an ornamental design. It’s stylized. It’s geometric and generally is vertical. In the 1930’s it began to ooze into Art Moderne, which was sleek and curving and rounded and more horizontal emphasis.

This is an accomplished piece of moderne architecture and I think his relative anonymity is pretty amazing from the building you see here. It was going to be made of formed concrete and that would form the rounded turns. Walls of glass block were a new pattern for illumination and he also used aluminum, which was new in doors and windows, and that really spoke of the new age. He used wide stairs, on the right, to get the horizontal pattern and as you move up from there, he had low terrace walls. You see the banding around the bottom of the rotunda. You see a clear story and flat roofs. There’s also the flat cover over the front door.

Swanson’s plan of main floor, 12 March 1938, showing the winding outer gallery and early stair design. (OCMU Coll.)

Here’s the floor plan.  Notice the steps on the front? They’re three-sided. They don’t have any cheek walls. The rotunda is circled in bold and behind it are some offices. The checkered part is terraces around it. But you see coming up to the north is this winding exhibit gallery and that comes around. It took visitors through, now remember there was no chronology of prehistory in the beginning, this took them through a chronology of prehistory. The whole way around and then i you came and you’d enter the auditorium and then the bathrooms were there too. So again, this was devoted to visitors. The lower level of the building was devoted to archeological research. Lots of rooms for labs, for appropriate storage space, and space for archeologists to meet. Swanson continued to work with these designs. This is one of the early plans and he refined it.

Watercolor rendering, early 1939, showing cheek wall and segmented frieze. (OCMU Coll.)

Let me show you some of that. Here’s an example. See the steps on the right where the people are? That’s the front stairway. Remember on the other one, you saw that it had steps on three sides with no cheek wall. If you look at this, let me show you closer. There it is on the top. If you look at the blowup on the left, there’s a cheek wall with a rounded front. Over on the right is the form they built to pour the concrete. So we know that cheek wall as under construction and he changed it to those stairs. That’s a pretty dramatic change in the way the building presents itself.


He made other changes too. Look at this, the frieze, and you remember the earlier one had the dots like that? So he changed that frieze design and look at the pattern of it. It’s very Art Deco and here’s where it came from, a nod to Ocmulgee archeology.  Isn’t that fabulous? That’s Lamar ceramics. They were one of the major prehistoric cultures that were found near there.

Lamar pottery

So they got to work with construction. Construction started in 1938. It was all done with New Deal workers. They excavated the lower level and then built forms and poured concrete. A lot of handwork going on there. What’s interesting is the way they cured it. The steps that were involved, the way they cured it particularly to make the moderne design. They saturated the building and the timing, they saturated with X amount of water, section-by-section for fifteen minutes. They then put wet blankets, and the label says “condemned blankets.” They then put wet blankets over it for three hours and then they got, again they took a section at a time, they got burlap and they rubbed it. They rubbed all the form marks off and they rubbed it to form a paste and smoothed that out to create that smooth moderne surface. Then that was cured in a special way.

Building in the 1940s after construction was suspended. (OCMU Coll.)

From the very start, the building was going to be constructed in phases. Funding didn’t happen exactly the way it was supposed to, imagine that, and so the phases got drawn out, but everything was still going on. They finished the, by 1940, even with the funding, Ocmulgee had as much activity going on as any park east of the Mississippi. They finished the rotunda and they finished the offices and they finished most of the lower level and the NPS and the New Deal agencies were able to move from the farmhouse and move their offices into the lower level.

This is late 40s. The war was on everybody’s minds and the newspaper reported on this building a good deal, the local paper and they said, “if by any chance Mr. Hitler should ever send a bomber over Macon, there would be no safer place than the basement of the museum.” Now, not everybody agreed, but the newspaper loved the building, called it a beautiful structure while it was still under construction and encouraged people to visit, “one of the finest buildings of its kind in the United States and one of the most modernistic in Georgia.” So it’s interesting that locally, at least by some, it was appreciated. Then it became clear that funding was going to stop. The auditorium and that winding gallery were put on hold until funding was going to resume and the last job was for them to put a temporary roof.

I forgot to mention something. See there? See it’s ready to have that second floor put on? Well, that didn’t happen by the time the funding stopped, so they put temporary roofs on until funding was going to resume pretty soon.

Here’s the building and it’s all dowdy looking, but here’s the building when it stopped for the war. It stayed open and the park was open and this is the earth lodge on the right that Swanson reconstructed. Earth lodges, the mounds are flat topped, but the earth lodges, this more of a rounded form and the people could go inside and see it and they made up what half of it looked like, but it works.

They had lots of visitors and I don’t have the numbers. Okay, all throughout the Park Service, things stopped during the war and after the war, some parks got some money. Well, Ocmulgee had these leaky roofs. They had these temporary roofs that were not working and moisture was going into all of the lower level. So they were told that they would have funds to fix that, and then they were told they would have funds to fix that, then they were told they’d have funds to fix that. They never got any.

Finally, in 1950, they got funds to finish the building, but the funds were so small that they had to cut things out and they had to cut out the winding gallery. So they finished the building from 1950 to 1951. It took thirteen years to finish it, but that second phase added lots of significant spaces to the building, put the second floors where they were supposed to be, and then the full staff was able to move in and they had redesigned exhibit spaces and all of that happened.

There were over three hundred thousand visitors to the monument at that point. It got a lot of positive press. Here it is all pretty. A local newspaper said, same paper, “it’s the finest, most modern, and best prepared archeological presentation anywhere in the United States. That is undisputed by the National Park Service, which supervises such monuments and parks.” Interestingly, articles also talked about what a financial benefit this was going to be to Macon, to have all the visitors coming.

The Visitor Center with its flowing cheek wall.

But, you knew this was coming, another view was less positive. The irascible Devereux Butcher. There was a National Parks Association, they had an association. They had National Parks magazine, which was a national magazine and he was a critic and he did a good job. He criticized the Park Service, now this is in the 50s, for abandoning rustic architecture and cited, “the supremely ugly museum at Georgia’s Ocmulgee National Monument.” So the superintendent, he was great. He was mad. So he bit back and he said, “This is not the first outburst by Mr. Butcher. On another occasion, he referred to the building as a monstrosity and suggested, this is the best one, suggested that the Park Service “build a mound over it.”

The superintendent also, when he wrote his official monthly report he said, “it seems that Mr. Butcher still doesn’t like our building. This causes us to doubt his qualifications as a critic. Perhaps he possesses a latent talent more valuable than his writing ability and should enter the field of architecture.”

As Ethan talked about yesterday, the parks throughout the nation were without adequate funding throughout the 40s and that left them in bad shape and unprepared for the postwar boom of people and visitors. So of course the response was Mission 66 and basic to the program was the multifunction visitor center, but that’s something that Ocmulgee had done years and years before, twenty years before.Also though, the parks including Ocmulgee, the grounds and the infrastructure were all in bad shape. They built over a hundred visitor centers in the country. They put a lot of money into grounds and infrastructure and entranceways and roads in a lot of parks.

Meanwhile, Ocmulgee had spent decades with a leaky roof. They had the building finished, but that amount of moisture coming in caused continued moisture problems. So in Mission 66, Ocmulgee got zip. They did get a new name. Their building was changed to the Visitor’s Center.

Today, the building receives (Isn’t that wonderful?) the building receives very little recognition for either its striking architecture or its prophetic role in the evolving park philosophy of public stewardship and interpretation. Though the visitor center is a building type that’s said to be an invention of Mission 66 planners, Ocmulgee’s predated the idea by two decades, needing only that name change to comply with their vision of the future.




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