LEARN MORE: The National Park Service's Mission 66 Architecture

As visitation to the National Parks outpaced the NPS staff's ability to properly educate the public and protect park resources, NPS Director Wirth needed a solution. New facilities that could educate large numbers of people at a central point were needed. A new ten-year NPS budget would fund the types of multi-year building projects he envisioned.

In the mid-twentieth century, "modern architecture expressed progress, efficiency, health, and innovation" (Allaback, 2000). The American public was seeing capitalism and 'modern' improvements as the new standard in their cities' developing skyscrapers and subdivisions. The National Park Service would match those expectations by the time it turned 50 in 1966 by replacing the small rustic nature centers and other infrastructure and services with what is now known as mid-century modern style visitor centers that could accommodate hundreds of people, house interpretive displays, and show educational films in climate controlled theaters.

Wirth requested wish lists from every park superintendent to identify everything that would be needed to meet the needs of current and future visitor levels, while protecting resources. Park administrators responded enthusiastically, and construction began. Hundreds of new buildings and additions were designed and built in the ten-year thrust.

New visitor centers were produced with a fast, efficient, post-war approach. The resulting buildings had sleek lines, open floor plans, and function-based design. Park employee housing was updated as well. The small CCC-era cabins were replaced with a standard array of popular ranch-style houses. The emphasis was on inexpensive, popular design using modern materials such as steel and concrete. The modern architectural style offered utilitarian buildings that, at their best, echoed the natural forms found in their setting.

While the Mission 66 program was a success with respect to its creation of innovative spaces that could accommodate and educate visitors to the parks, there were some problems. Much of the modernist aesthetic – smooth finishes and sweeping lines – proved difficult to maintain. In addition, some buildings were not built to withstand their environments, and needed extensive upgrading or replacement after a relatively short lifespan. In their heyday, the Mission 66 visitor facilities defined the look and feel of the visitor experience in the National Parks for a generation, and many continue to be the public face of some of our most treasured landscapes.