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Catoctin Mountain Park
The cabin camp facilities at Catoctin Mountain Park (originally known as Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area, or RDA) are a product of the New Deal and a tour de force of rustic National Park Service architecture. The National Park Service’s RDA program reclaimed barren land near metropolitan areas to create recreation areas for city dwellers. At Catoctin the three cabin camps, plus associated trails and outdoor recreation facilities, were designed to bring the character-building benefits of group camping to underprivileged children from Baltimore and other parts of the region. Social service agencies rented the camp facilities to provide an organized program of sleep-away activities in addition to room and board. Catoctin was the only RDA in Maryland.
Constructed by relief workers employed through the Works Progress Administration, the three cabin camps—Misty Mount, Greentop, and Hi-Catoctin—were built between 1936 and 1938. Each camp included three building groups: a cluster of central buildings including the dining hall, infirmary, staff quarters, administration building, craft lodge, and central washhouse; the “helps” quarters for all workers; and multiple cabin units. Each cabin unit featured camper cabins, leader cabins, a latrine, and a unit lodge. Camp No. 1, Misty Mount, had buildings arranged along a linear road on a steeply sloped site and was leased by groups such as the YMCA and YWCA. Camp No. 2, Greentop, offered a similar menu of structures, but was planned for use by the Baltimore-based Maryland League for Crippled Children. Placed on a much flatter site, the buildings were more closely spaced around a loop road and many had access ramps. Providing recreational facilities for disabled children was unusual among the RDAs. However, in spite of lobbying by prominent African Americans from Baltimore, Catoctin did not provide facilities for disabled black children and the entire project remained exclusively white.
Camp buildings at Catoctin featured local stone, v-notched chestnut logs with concrete chinking, and accents of waney-edged siding which maintained the irregular line of the original tree. The rustic aesthetic associated with National Park Service buildings during this period was being developed and codified by numerous architects around the country. Consulting architect Albert H. Good prepared a small volume in 1935 entitled Park Structures and Facilities, in order to provide models for the rapidly expanding cadre of National Park Service building and landscape designers. In 1938 Good produced a three-volume edition entitled Park and Recreation Structures, which included several Catoctin examples. He emphasized a definition of successful rustic architecture as achieving sympathy with natural surroundings by using native materials, having a proper scale, and avoiding severe straight lines. In order to achieve this sympathy, new buildings were to be subordinate to their environment and executed in natural materials, such as peeled logs with the knots and texture preserved. While artfully rustic in appearance, the cabin camps were also carefully planned to meet modern sanitation standards. Most of the Catoctin buildings stood on stone piers to allow proper air circulation. Care was taken to provide a standard amount of sleeping space for each camper and to provide latrines with a septic system.
The seemingly casual layout of the administrative cluster and cabin units also reflected the latest thinking regarding organized camp planning. An informal arrangement took advantage of natural topography and complemented the emphasis on play in camp programming. This layout was based on the general acceptance of around 100 campers as the optimal size, with unit groups of 16-32. Because the centralized groups of barracks in an older generation of camps were viewed as too institutional, the newer model unit camps were designed to foster individualism. This shift was related to changing notions of child development and education that focused on teaching appropriate leisure. This was a direct response to the abiding fear that poor urban housing conditions were creating a generation of young people disconnected from the wholesome influence of nature-based play.
The RDA program encompassed three main types of projects: expansions to national parks or to state parks, waysides (picnic areas along highways), and new recreation areas. The intention was that all 46 recreation areas would be turned over to state or municipal agencies after their completion but Catoctin had a unique fate. In 1942, Camp No. 3, Hi-Catoctin, was subsumed into Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential retreat “Shangri-La.” The presidential retreat is now known as Camp David, a name bestowed by President Eisenhower. By 1954 the original land of Catoctin RDA was divided between three entities. Approximately 5,700 acres, including Camps Misty Mount and Greentop, remained part of the National Park Service and were incorporated into Catoctin Mountain Park. The southern portion, including about 4,400 acres, became Cunningham Falls State Park.
Catoctin Mountain Park is an excellent example of the overlap between various New Deal initiatives and national and state park development to promote the expansion of the National Park Service. It is also indicative of an influential 1930s approach to organized camping in a naturalistic setting and a devotion to social outreach.
Good, Albert H. Park and Recreation Structures.1938. Reprint, with a foreword by Jerry Dokken and introduction by Laura Soulliére Harrison. Boulder, CO: Graybooks, 1990.
Van Slyck, Abigail. A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890–1960. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
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