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Book Cover
Presenting Nature








Design Ethic Origins

Design Policy & Process

Western Field Office

Park Planning

Decade of Expansion

State Parks

Appendix A

Appendix B


Presenting Nature:
The Historic Landscape Design of the National Park Service, 1916-1942
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VI. A DECADE OF EXPANSION, 1933 TO 1942 (continued)


The Public Works Administration (PWA) was created by Executive Order 6174 on June 16, 1933, under the authority of Title II of the National Industrial Recovery Act (48 Stat. 200). The order called for a comprehensive program of public works "to increase the consumption of industrial and agricultural products by increasing purchasing power, to reduce and relieve unemployment, to improve standards of labor and otherwise to rehabilitate industry, and to conserve natural resources." President Roosevelt appointed Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes administrator of the new agency. [1]

The PWA administered the program of federal and nonfederal works through allotments. Federal projects received funding based on their value to national planning and their role in fulfilling comprehensive plans prepared in advance. As a result, the National Park Service received funding for greatly needed capital improvements in all the parks and monuments. Projects ranged from the development and improvement of trails, roads, and water systems to the construction of a wide range of park buildings and structures, the most common of which were comfort stations, ranger stations, patrol cabins, fire lookouts, garages, residences, and maintenance shops. Some parks received funds for administration buildings and museums. Others received funds for campground development. Existing buildings in many parks were added to, improved, and adapted for new uses using PWA funds. Restoration projects were undertaken in national monuments, such as Casa Grande.

In the West, the influx of funds enabled the park service to build long-needed facilities and add to the administrative infrastructure required to meet the demands of increasing visitation. The development of facilities in the national monuments, such as Casa Grande, Petrified Forest, and Tumacori Mission, received for the first time a regular source of funding. In the East, PWA funds made possible the development of facilities in the numerous memorials, battlefields, and reservations that had come into the system in 1933. PWA funds also made possible the acquisition of important land areas for the Blue Ridge Parkway and the construction of the Department of the Interior Headquarters in Washington, District of Columbia.

During the first year of the PWA, the National Park Service received approval for roads and trail work valued at $17,059,450 and other physical improvements valued at $2,145,000. The master plans prepared by Vint's office during the preceding two years provided a ready-made outline of work projects that could be put into action immediately to provide relief to the unemployed. Work was done under contract with skilled labor subject to specifications drawn up by the landscape and engineering divisions. Resident landscape architects reviewed the progress of each project and approved the completed work. [2]

Although the public works programs emphasized construction, this work had a strong relationship to the landscape design of the parks. First, all projects were based on master plans and as such shared the larger concern for site development and conformed to the principles for landscape protection and harmonization that underlined all park development. In addition, projects such as the stockade around the service area at Mount Rainier's Yakima Park and the fence and entry gate at Tumacori Mission, although structural in nature, were important landscape features.

In 1933, the Landscape Division, renamed the Branch of Plans and Designs, was given full responsibility for producing building plans, specifications, and estimates. As the demand for working drawings and updated master plans increased dramatically in summer of 1933, the design process and training program that Vint had instituted in the late 1920s changed. In July 1933, when the first public works allotments became available, Vint (who was now called chief architect) had a staff of fifteen, which included a structural engineer, as well as many landscape architects with varying degrees of experience. Most of these were resident landscape architects assigned to one or more parks in the West and were directing the landscape work of the CCC. Both the men assigned to the parks and those who worked in the office created plans, drawings, and specifications under the process Vint had set up in 1928.

Within two months, however, Vint's office had expanded dramatically. New members included architects and engineers as well as landscape architects with the skills to carry out the drafting and engineering required by the accelerated construction program. By November 1934, twenty-four additional designers had joined Vint's staff in San Francisco. While this corps enabled Vint to meet the immediate demand for designs for public works projects in the parks, this new generation of designers lacked firsthand familiarity with the parks and direct contact with park superintendents. All design of working drawings for the western parks was now done by staff assigned to the San Francisco office. The resident landscape architects continued, however, to revise the master plans and review all drawings for their parks. These changes resulted in a loss of the informality and free exchange of ideas that had marked the late 1920s. There emerged the need for a well-defined approval process involving the park superintendents, the resident landscape architects and engineers, the chief architect, the chief engineer, the chief forester, the sanitary engineer, and the director of the park service.

Vint's own status changed as well. In late 1934, he moved to the park service headquarters in Washington, D.C., to head the Branch of Plans and Designs. William G. Carnes was placed in charge of the Western Division, and Charles Peterson remained in charge of the Yorktown office, which became the Eastern Division. At this time, the Western Division was divided into geographical districts headed by Ernest Davidson, Merel Sager, Harry Langley, John Wosky, Howard Baker, Herbert Kreinkamp, and Kenneth McCarter. [3]

All designers in the service were consolidated into the western and eastern offices, where the architect, structural engineer, mechanical engineer, specifications writer, and estimator could work together and efficiently complete the massive volume of public works projects. This arrangement was successful, building on Vint's idea for a professional design office. Recounting the achievement of the Western Division from 1933 to 1937, architect E. A. Nickel wrote, "It was due to this complete organization that the entire Public Works Building Program was brought up to a satisfactory conclusion, despite many unknown factors at the time, and the continuous change in building conditions and prices of labor and materials in the National Park and Monument areas." [4]

The national parks used PWA funds to build a wide variety of structures, from administrative and utilitarian projects such as patrol cabins, fire lookouts, and blacksmith shops, to landscape structures such as gates and steps, to utility systems and facilities for visitor use. The Western Division received a total of 185 PWA allotments from 1933 to 1937. These allotments covered projects as diverse as steps to the cliff at Montezuma Castle National Monument, the naturalist's residence at Lassen Volcanic National Park, the superintendent's residence at General Grant, barns at Sequoia's Redwood and Ash Mountain headquarters, innumerable snowshoe cabins at Mount McKinley (later Denali), picnic ground improvements at Muir Woods, an administration building at Crater Lake, a pump house and water system at Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and repairs to the lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument. [5]

At Mount Rainier, public works projects included the construction of a stockaded fence at Yakima Park to screen the maintenance sheds, garages, and equipment from public view, thus enclosing the work yard of the park village. Screens of vegetation were impractical in this subalpine terrain, where wind, temperature, and soil conditions hindered tree growth. The design of the stockaded fence was in keeping with the pioneer theme introduced by the blockhouse-style administration building. Public works funds were also used for the construction of log-and-stone comfort stations at the camping and picnic grounds at Yakima Park and a log ranger station and frame warehouse at the White River Entrance. Constructed elsewhere in the park were four fire lookouts, several fire patrol cabins, a number of fire guard cabins and caches, and even an icehouse. PWA funds were also used to develop campgrounds.

At Yosemite, housing demanded much of the designers' attention, and a number of residences were built, in the form of individual homes, apartment houses, and duplexes. There the funds also went toward developing a campground at Tuolumne Meadows, building cabins for the Indian Village, and constructing the Hennis Ridge Fire Lookout. In Yellowstone, at the Mammoth Hot Springs headquarters, a large apartment house was built for rangers, and utility buildings were constructed. At Grand Canyon, a community building was built, in addition to many maintenance shops and residences. At new parks, such as Grand Teton, an administration building, entrance stations, and a superintendent's residence were constructed. At Glacier, sorely needed backcountry patrol cabins and fire caches were built, as well as many snowshoe cabins and several boat houses.

During the 1930s, funding from the Public Works Administration made possible the construction of much-needed housing for park employees in Yosemite National Park. single-family residences took the form of Craftsman-style bungalows and had redwood siding, wooden shingles, stone foundations, an entrance porch with peeled log railings, and a stone chimney. Each house had a living room, dining room, kitchen, 3 bedrooms, and 2 baths. The CCC removed dangerous limbs from the surrounding oaks and planted ferns, azaleas, and other native plants as part of a program to beautify and naturalize Yosemite Village. (Report on the Building Program from Allotments of the Public Works Administration, 1933-1937)

In all of these projects, emphasis was placed on principles of landscape protection and harmonious design. In the 1930s, the Branch of Plans and Designs relied heavily on the standards and specifications developed in the late 1920s and benefited greatly from the experience of Punchard, Hull, Vint, and the service's first resident landscape architects, including Ernest Davidson, John Wosky, Merel Sager, Kenneth McCarter, and Charles Peterson. Practices well established by the 1930s were readily incorporated into the public works building program. Designers endeavored to harmonize structures with the natural surroundings by using native materials. Road building adhered to the specifications drawn up by Vint's office and maintained the characteristics that were recognized as hallmarks of national park roads. The landscape designs for bridges, which routinely included elevations and details for arch rings, were increasingly prepared by engineers in the Western and Eastern design offices. The standards for trail construction that had been developed for western parks by Chief Engineer Frank Kittredge in the late 1920s were published as a circular for the parks in 1934, and, through the substantial PWA funds available for trail building, were applied to parks nationwide, including the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks in the East. The concern for naturalism and harmonization that determined the construction of surface trails was also applied to underground trail construction and improvements in parks such as Carlsbad Cavern. As the National Park Service inherited the parkways in the East, including the Mount Vernon Parkway near the nation's capital, and as the Eastern Division gained experience in building linear park roads and parkways, such as Skyline Drive in Shenandoah and the Colonial and the Blue Ridge parkways, major advances were made in the aesthetics, kinetics, and engineering of park roads.

The entrance to King's Palace in Carlsbad Cavern in 1934 illustrates the lighting and trail improvements made possible by Public Works Administration funds. The trail formed a loop that followed an undulating line among the cave's principal features. A smooth trail surface was made from earth and stone that had been removed from the cave floor during cleanup. Larger rocks formed a coping along the paths as well as the dry-laid walls that supported the trail. (National Park service Historic Photography collection)

While the principles and practices for park development were standardized, their applications were highly individual based on the unique character of each park and the site and setting selected for construction. The western parks, for example, covered many types of areas, such as forested and wilderness areas, deserts, barren mountainous areas, rocky and treeless areas, areas of heavy rain and snow, and areas of no rain. The Western Division adopted a specific type of building for each location, such as flat-roofed adobe or pueblo structures in the Southwest and log or heavy timber constructions in heavily forested areas. As they adopted these forms, designers acknowledged the cultural influence of Spanish and Indian traditions in the Southwest and the pioneer traditions of covered-wagon days in other parts of the West.

The designs were simple and functional but remained consistent with the architectural themes that had been developed for each park or, in new parks, took on appropriate characteristics drawn from pioneer, indigenous, or other local forms. Designers of utilitarian buildings endeavored to find obscure locations out of the sight of park visitors and simple functional and economical designs that harmonized with the natural setting. Due to the rapid production of drawings and the cost limitations placed on construction, new designs frequently lacked the careful attention to detail that marked the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Specific objectives guided the work of the Branch of Plans and Designs during the 1930s. In a 1937 report on the achievements of the Western Division, E. A. Nickel summarized six basic principles. First, buildings should be in harmony with the natural surroundings and should be secondary to the landscape, unlike the buildings in a city or town. Second, all buildings in any one area should be in harmony with each other, having similar materials and elements of design—for example, roofs of the same type built of the same material and having the same slope. Third, horizontal lines should predominate. Fourth, stones and logs used in construction should be in scale with each other and their surrounding natural counterparts, providing a well-balanced and unified design. Fifth, where large trees and rock outcroppings were likely to dwarf buildings, giving them the appearance of being under scale, stones and logs used in construction were to be slightly oversized. Finally, rigid, straight lines were to be avoided wherever possible, "creating the feeling that the work was executed by pioneer craftsmen." This last principle applied to the ends of logs, stonemasonry, ironwork and hardware, and the numerous architectural details that made up a park building. [6]

Before starting a building project, designers carefully studied the field conditions of each site, based on information generally provided by the park superintendent or the resident landscape architect. Designers considered the available natural materials and transportation, the proximity of the site to park headquarters, and any unusual factors that might affect the cost and design of the structure. Certain types of structures were more problematic and costlier than others. Fire lookouts, snowshoe cabins, and outlying ranger stations required that materials be transported to remote locations, often on mountaintops. Hauling in supplies for the work crew and construction materials such as cement, lumber, glass, hardware, and water added substantially to the cost of backcountry construction. Materials were often carried on muleback, making it impossible to transport materials larger than eight feet long. The cost of construction in a large park like Grand Canyon varied from location to location. Costs on the South Rim were lowest because of proximity to the railroad and park headquarters. On the North Rim, materials had to be transported 200 miles from the railroad terminal, and at Phantom Ranch on the floor of the canyon, materials were transported by mule requiring a one-day trip. At Yosemite, construction occurred in three principal sites of varying distances from the railroad: the park headquarters areas in Yosemite Valley, 14 miles from the railroad; Glacier Point and Wawona, one-half day's trucking time from headquarters; and Tuolumne Meadows, approximately one day's trucking time from headquarters. At Yellowstone, the distance between park headquarters and building sites varied from 5 miles to a full day's trucking time, and some sites were accessible only by mule. [7]

Because of their functions and the need for sturdy construction, many of the structures built with public works allotments entailed a substantial amount of concrete work. This work, whether in the form of concrete footings or walls, was carried out in a very different manner from that in cities or towns, where sacks of cement and aggregate stone were delivered by truck to a site and water was piped in by public utility. In national parks, concrete materials were gathered from nearby gravel and sand beds, and water was collected from nearby streams and springs and sometimes brought to the site by mule. Not surprisingly, at Mount McKinley National Park, where cement cost $4.00 per sack compared with 75¢ to $1.00 in most other parks, construction costs were the highest of any park. [8]

PWA projects fostered an increasing reliance on modern materials that were long-lasting and durable, and development of simple and functional designs adapted to the topography and character of their setting. In locations where rustic log-and-stone construction was out of place, where there was little supply of native building materials, or where the scale or utilitarian purpose of a structure made construction with native wood and stone impractical, designers experimented with substitute materials. Concrete was the most common choice, and efforts were made to stain concrete walls a natural color or give them a texture, often by imprinting the natural grain of carefully selected form boards. Climate and the character of nearby vegetation were important factors in the selection of materials, and culturally inspired designs were used whenever possible. Volcanic rocks, for example, formed the walls of overlooks at Hawaii, while corrugated iron provided a practical material for roofing.

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