The National Park Service (NPS) had a problem. When the NPS was created (in 1916), travel was primarily done by train. In fact, some railroad companies were responsible for the building and operation of national park visitor centers. But with the rise in popularity of the car (and the advent of the US highway system), travelers could now access parks that previously weren’t accessible. This brought about a need for new visitor centers in new places.
So, in 1955, NPS Director Conrad Wirth proposed a program (funded by the federal government) to create new visitor centers (among other facilities) all across the national parks. The goal was to have the various structures and improvements done by 1966 (the 50th anniversary of the NPS). The program was dubbed Mission 66.
A decision was made by Thomas Chalmers Vint (the director of design and construction) to design these new structures in the modernist style, reflecting the modernity of not only the NPS but also the park visitors.
Let’s take a whirlwind tour of some of the amazing visitor centers that were built all across the US.
Cyclorama Building at Gettysburg designed by Richard Neutra (now demolished)
Painted Desert Community by Richard Neutra & Robert Alexander (Apache County, Arizona)
Alright. Enough non Tennessee structures, let’s talk about the two Mission 66 structures here in the Volunteer state.
Structure: Sugarlands Visitor Center
Location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Architect: Eastern Office of Design and Construction (EODC)
Tidbit: The structure was just restored in 2013 and is in really great shape. That’s it. That’s the tidbit.
Structure: Clingmans Dome Observation Tower
Location: Sevier County, Tennessee (35°33′46″N 83°29′55″W)
Architect: Bebb & Olsen
Tidbit: Built as a part of Mission 66, the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower caused quite a stir when its design was revealed in 1958. Apparently Hubert Bebb and Raymond Olsen’s design was a bit too modern for the national audience.
Despite its controversy, the tower was quite popular with the locals and so, a year after it was announced, the tower was built.
Of note, the Shark Valley Observation Tower (designed by architect Edward M. Ghezzi in 1964) bears a striking resemblance to the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower. Great artists, I suppose?