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Painted Desert Visitor Center
The Painted Desert Community Complex (Visitor Center) in the Petrified Forest National Park epitomizes Mission 66, a nationwide infrastructure improvement program implemented by the National Park Service (NPS) between 1956 and 1966 that resulted in a radical departure in the substance and style of park facilities. Designed by the architectural partnership of Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander and constructed between 1961 and 1965, the complex is one of only a handful of Neutra buildings in Arizona. Located close to historic Route 66 and situated amidst one of America’s most spectacular natural landscapes, the Painted Desert Community Complex is understated and expertly executed.
Coterminous with the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations, the ten-year Mission 66 program was established to upgrade the National Park System in concert with the development of the Interstate Highway System, which fostered an increase in park visitors (up to 80 million annually), and to mark the 50th anniversary of the NPS (in 1966). Pre–World War II park facilities were often primitive and small, and unable to cope with the new volume of tourists. They were of inconsistent quality throughout the national parks and monuments and were non-existent in many places. Mission 66 was the largest park improvement effort in the NPS’s history. By the end of the billion-dollar program, a modern service infrastructure was in place, including more than 100 new visitor centers, 584 comfort stations, 221 administrative buildings, 36 service buildings and 1,239 units for employee housing.
Within Mission 66, the Visitor Center was conceptualized to enhance and standardize the visitor experience with architecture intended as a sensitive contrast to the existing site. In Arizona, the NPS hired modernists Philip Johnson (at Meteor Crater) and Richard Neutra to produce modern designs that referenced regional architecture and complemented natural and cultural resources in a more “sophisticated” and abstract manner than earlier “rustic” buildings. Although the results of this architectural paradigm shift were often striking, park employees and park visitors did not always appreciate the aesthetics of the new facilities.
By 1957, NPS designers were preparing conceptual plans for a visitor center complex in the Petrified Forest National Park. After staff architect Cecil Doty, who would later design the visitor center at Sunset Crater, produced preliminary sketches for the project, the NPS contracted Neutra and Alexander to rework Doty’s sketches into a complete scheme. At the time, Neutra was best known for striking modernist houses in Southern California. At the Petrified Forest, the design he developed with Alexander offered a new and innovative approach to providing concentrated visitor and community services, offices, maintenance facilities, and employee housing within a national park or monument.
During the design and construction process, significant disagreements occurred among the architects, park service staff, and the concessionaire, the Fred Harvey Company. Nonetheless, Neutra and Alexander’s scheme was substantially realized with 36 steel, glass, and masonry buildings featuring flat roofs, low profiles, primary colors, and indigenous landscape materials, all of which set the precedent for what became known as “Park Service Modern.” Today, virtually all of the original buildings are still in use, including structures housing administration and orientation, service and utility, concessions (Fred Harvey’s store and restaurant), storage, and housing, though the harsh high desert climate and deferred repairs and maintenance (due to underfunding) have taken their toll on the facilities. The housing units, especially, are in poor condition.
Several alterations have also diminished the architects’ original concept. The current paint scheme, for example, is not consistent with the original palette of bright white, metallic gray, and bright blues and golds. In the housing complex, five different schemes once coordinated interior colors with the exteriors. These interiors were painted white, tiled in “salt-n-pepper,” “dawn blue” or “Inca gold,” and equipped with “frost white,” “primrose” or “aqua” kitchen countertops.
By June 1976, however, the NPS required that all exteriors be painted “cliff brown” with “tobacco brown” trim, in conformance with the park’s new color scheme. Elsewhere in the complex, original materials have been altered or obscured, including exposed concrete, wood, steel, and aluminum. On the terrace, the original “spider leg” supports spanning over the balcony were covered by a 1980s addition and the same is true of the original floor-to-ceiling glass storefront of the concession area.
The Painted Desert Visitor Center was slated for demolition in 1993, but it was spared after public outcry. It remains not only one of the earliest and best examples of Mission 66 architecture, but, with the demolition of the Cyclorama Building at Gettysburg in 2013, the only remaining Neutra building in the entire National Park System.
Allaback, Sarah. Mission 66 Visitor Centers: The History of a Building Type.Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 2000.
Associated Press. “Petrified Forest buildings named national treasure.” Arizona Central. Accessed December 1, 2014. http://www.azcentral.com/.
French, Christine Madrid. “The Emergence of the Mission 66 Visitor Centers .” Mission 66: Modern Architecture in the National Parks. Accessed January 3, 2015. http://www.mission66.com/.
King, Alison. “Neutra's Last Standing National Park Project is Right Here in Arizona.” Modern Phoenix Network. Accessed December 1, 2014. http://www.modernphoenix.net/.
“Painted Desert Community Complex.” National Trust for Historic Preservation. Accessed December 1, 2014. http://www.savingplaces.org/.
Zeman, Amanda, Rodd Wheaton, and Dawn Bunyak, “Painted Desert Community Complex Historic District,” Apache County, Arizona. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 2005. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
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