An exemplary expanse of wilderness, Mount Rainier National Park was created by Congress as part of a nationwide effort to ensure the longevity of America’s natural scenery. The roughly 370-square-mile park, which encompasses the eponymous volcano as well as surrounding mountains, peaks, glaciers, forests, lakes, rivers, and waterfalls, was the fifth national park established in the United States and the first in the Pacific Northwest, opening its gates to visitors in 1899. It was also the first national park to feature a consciously designed “rustic” built environment, which became a model for national parks in later years.
The establishment of Mount Rainier National Park represented an increasing public intrigue with the sublime grandeur of the American West as well as the rising nineteenth-century popularity of the picturesque as an aesthetic response to the untamed wilderness. Its early buildings, constructed of native materials, and its now meandering, contour-hugging roadways responded to this larger philosophy, helping visitors appreciate the park’s otherwise forbidding natural features from the safety of their hotel rooms, windows, and windshields. The park’s visitors in the first years of the twentieth century, many of whom came from the neighboring municipalities of Tacoma and Seattle and sought a reprieve from the increasing density and industry of urban life, did not quite enjoy the park in the comparative luxury of later visitors, however. To reach the most easily traversed path leading to the peak of the volcano, located in a valley called “Paradise,” early visitors traveled to the park on primitive roads via horse and wagon. In order for the park to achieve greater popularity, the process of travel still required expected levels of comfort: the rustic state of the wilderness had to be tamed.
By 1904, a major road-building project began to assist this effort, and by 1908, Mount Rainier had become the first national park to allow regulated automobile traffic. The ambitious road network, led by park planners Eugene Ricksecker and Hiram Chittenden, never quite circumscribed the volcano but did meander up the mountain, bringing visitors first to the now historic districts of Nisqually, Longmire, and Paradise on the mountain’s south side and, by the 1930s, all the way to the Sunrise/Yakima Park district to its northeast. With respect to its pristine scenery, the 147 miles of circuitous roadways were designed along the mountain’s natural contours and intended to frame spectacular views for motorists. Similarly, the roads themselves referenced the scenery by maintaining a “rustic” appearance, made possible by its calculated curves between groves of trees; the use of stone on safety components such as guard rails; and the application of native woods on its bridge superstructures. The roads lent an experience so highly regarded by early motorists that by 1915 the regulations were revoked, allowing unrestricted automobile access throughout the park.
In keeping with a non-intrusive approach to nature, Mount Rainier’s early designers cultivated a cohesive park-wide built environment aesthetic that was applied and later adapted throughout the national park system. This National Park Service Rustic style, colloquially referred to as “Parkitecture,” first emerged in the design of the park’s Nisqually Entrance Gate on the eastern side—a roughly 21-foot-tall pergola constructed of cedar logs in 1911. As the demand for amenities grew, the Rustic style was explored at a grander scale by architects for Mount Rainier’s lodges, inns, and visitor centers. The architectural “crown jewel” of the park, Paradise Inn, spearheaded this development in 1917, followed by the Longmire Administration and Community Buildings in 1927. Over the next decade, additional construction occurred with the intent of serving both visitors and park staff, ending in the mid-1930s at the Sunrise/Yakima Park area—the park’s easternmost and, at approximately 6,400 feet, its highest point accessible by car. This included the never-completed Sunrise Lodge and the Yakima Park Stockade Group—the latter a frontier-style complex for visitors and park administrators designed to resemble a nineteenth-century western fort.
Although all of the early-twentieth-century structures in Mount Rainier National Park have undergone maintenance and some alteration since their original construction, its built environment still largely showcases its original character. The built environment seamlessly incorporates native elements that visually complement their surroundings through scale, palette, and material.
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