Posted by: The staff | February 24, 2014

“To so develop and staff these priceless possessions of the American people”: Building a Modern Park


From Beth Parnicza:

Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center Today

The Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center stands today as the park’s best model of the wave of modernism that swept the National Park Service in preparation for its 50th anniversary in 1966.

It’s with a touch of nostalgia and a great desire to better understand previous park historians that park staff recently spent several days dismantling the last large-scale vestiges of a critical period in the park’s history: the “Mission 66” exhibits at the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center and the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. If you have set foot in the park over the last 50 years, your experience has been primarily shaped by two dramatic efforts to mold the park: the War Department and Civilian Conservation Corps period and the Mission 66 initiative. As a new park in the 1930s, much of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP’s lasting infrastructure—roads, trails, and several buildings—dates back to War Department planning and the CCC’s extensive work. With the dissolution of the CCC and the end of World War II, however, increased visitation demands and a changing society soon rendered the park’s facilities outdated, and parks across the country looked to forge themselves anew for the post-World War II, modern age.

To adapt to this changing environment, park planners confronted questions that define the NPS even today: How should a park balance access to resources and grounds with the need to preserve that ground? How can a park best educate and inspire an increasingly consumerist society? For a Civil War park, how could historians best appeal to audiences during the tumultuous era of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement? To address these conundrums, calls to fund a national movement to update park facilities for the National Park Service’s 50th anniversary in 1966 set in motion a massive overhaul aimed at modernizing parks from top to bottom, aptly called “Mission 66.”

Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center with Mission 66 sign

The Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center, shown here under construction, was Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania’s highest-profile Mission 66 project, but signs like this one could be seen in parks across the country, heralding the new age of the NPS.

Prior to the 1960s, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP relied upon the park’s administrative building in Fredericksburg (now styled the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center) and small contact stations to engage the visiting public at Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Prospect Hill on the Fredericksburg Battlefield.

The Chancellorsville Battlefield Contact Station, still in use in 1960. Facilities at Chancellorsville were dated and lacked accommodations like bathrooms. Side note: a close look at this photo shows a stand for postcards--3 for 10 cents!

The Chancellorsville Battlefield Contact Station, still in use in 1960. Facilities at Chancellorsville were dated and lacked accommodations like bathrooms. A close look at this photo also shows a stand for postcards–3 for 10 cents!

Proponents of Mission 66 envisioned a modern park system in contrast to the NPS’s traditional “rustic” cabin-like architecture style and natural construction materials. Mission 66’s revolutionary modern vision manifested in park visitor centers—a concept that became the standard during this era—and other facilities exemplifying principles of modern architecture in design and materials, with mixed reactions.

"The Park Service Dares to Build Well" article by Wolf Von Eckardt

The presence of modern architecture in National Parks sparked strong feelings in both directions. Wolf Von Eckardt expressed his pleasure that the NPS “dares strive for excellence” and, as he quotes NPS Chief Architect John Cabot, “to reflect the truly creative forces of our times.”

Beyond embracing modern architecture, Mission 66 heralded a new era for the National Park Service focused on a more self-guided visitor experience. As park proposals for Mission 66 developments universally state, “MISSION 66 is a forward-looking program for the National Park System intended to so develop and staff these priceless possessions of the American people as to permit their wisest possible use; maximum enjoyment for those who use them; and maximum protection of the scenic, scientific, wilderness, and historic resources that give them distinction.”

The one-stop shopping experience of the visitor center reflected societal shifts in the 1950s and 1960s toward shopping centers and malls. In an era of growing consumerism, park visitor centers developed along plans to allow visitors to “consume” a park’s information in a familiar and efficient way.

Eager to capitalize on Mission 66’s opportunity, staff at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania dreamed big when they authored a Master Plan for the park’s future, completed in 1959. The park’s proposal for updated facilities contained statements on operations, buildings and utilities, forestry, and 95-pages of interpretation concerns. Included in the plan were visitor centers at Chancellorsville, Lee’s Hill, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield; new exhibits and the enlargement of the exhibit space at Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center; the enlargement of parking areas, picnic grounds, trails, and maintenance facilities; additional employee residences at Chancellorsville; increased staff; and historic home restorations, including the Landrum and McCoull houses at Spostylvania Court House.

This incredible growth of infrastructure was coupled with an all-too-familiar observation of its urgency: “In short, the difficulties at Fredericksburg stem from the fact that there are four parks rather than one to be operated in a community where population growth and construction activity have increased at a startling rate.” The park needed to expand in order to accommodate its large network of battlefields and keep pace with a rapidly swelling community.

Several of these proposed developments never came to pass or were modified for cost, victims of the editing pen of regional and national offices, but a remarkable number of these submissions were carried through: new exhibits at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center, the construction of the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center, exhibit shelters at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Lee’s Hill, and employee residences at Chancellorsville. With an updated framework approved, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania was well on its way to accommodating the greater demands imposed by its visitors and the growing community.

Originally proposed to be a visitor center, the Lee Hill Exhibit Shelter on the Fredericksburg Battlefield exemplifies Mission 66 modern design.  It looks today much as it did in October 1963.

Originally proposed to be a visitor center, the Lee Hill Exhibit Shelter on the Fredericksburg Battlefield exemplifies Mission 66 modern design. Today it looks much as it did in October 1963.

The Mission 66 initiative, however, was far more than an effort to build more robust parks. Beyond the physical alterations, the essence and methodology of Mission 66 left its imprint on the park for decades to come. From establishing the visitor center model as a standard among parks to the creation of the arrowhead logo in 1952, Mission 66 worked to create a new National Park Service mentality.

In keeping with that mentality, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania’s proposed facilities and exhibits were designed to supplement personal services and to break the park’s story of four major Civil War battles into individual chapters. As the park’s museum prospectus identifies, new exhibits and related interpretation were designed to “entertain the specialist, inform the layman, and excite the curiosity of those who are finding a new interest in the Civil War.”

However, Planners emphasized that there was no substitute for park staff: “Personal contacts by qualified friendly and enthusiastic interpreters in the field are largely responsible for the internationally famous reputation of the Service for quality interpretation,” but with little else to occupy visitors’ attention, the park’s historical/interpretive staff was being stretched thin. Fresh exhibits served to orient visitors to the park’s basic information, and expanded interpretive offerings at more remote sites allowed park staff to be more site-specific.

Much of the Mission 66 interpretive mentality focused on a centralized visitor center with an information desk. As shown here at Chancellorsville in 1963, park staff greeted visitors and addressed inquiries in a central location before visitors went through the new exhibits or out to explore the battlefields. Our desk has moved around over the years--today this view would look directly into the visitor center's bookstore. In 1963, sales consisted only of the 3 for 10 cents stand, updated and now on the counter.

Much of the Mission 66 interpretive mentality focused on a centralized visitor center with an information desk. As shown here at Chancellorsville in 1963, park staff greeted visitors and addressed inquiries in a central location before visitors went through the new exhibits or out to explore the battlefields. Our desk has moved around over the years–today this view would look directly into the visitor center’s bookstore. In 1963, sales consisted only of the 3 for 10 cents postcard stand, updated and now on the counter.

Through these sweeping improvements for visitor use, park planners hoped that visitors would “gain a realization of the sacrifices made here and their contribution to the final decision” of the war. Specifically, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP officials outlined four primary goals to be derived from visiting the park:

1. An increased understanding of the course of the Civil War, Federal and Confederate objectives and strategy, and the part these engagements played in determining the outcome of the Civil War.
2. A better realization of the grimness and ordeal of these battlefields.
3. A greater sense of identification with the men and events of these battles.
4. A deepened pride in our nation’s history and renewal of devotion to our unity and heritage.

As an initiative invested in improving America’s national treasures and gaining momentum in the midst of the Cold War, Mission 66 undoubtedly exuded nationalistic ideals. Both the search for a deeper understanding of the war and the patriotic ideas proclaimed in these goals found a home in the park’s interpretive exhibits. Meanwhile, expanded facilities catered to a generation’s changing views of their National Parks.

Decades passed before much of our impersonal interpretation—signs, exhibits, etc.—were updated, which brings us to two major conundrums that Mission 66 poses for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania:

Should we preserve elements of the park’s history and past visions of the Civil War, or do we allow these interpretations to fade away? (For further discussion, see an earlier post by John Hennessy here.)

What parts of the Civil War do we lose when we focus on a primarily nationalistic narrative?

Follow-up posts in this series will delve into different areas of Mission 66’s impact on the park and its ultimate legacy. An earlier post considered the origins and demise of a single Mission 66 exhibit: the Confederate Officer’s Hut exhibit at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center.

Beth Parnicza

Sources in order of use above: Increased park visitation and war threat interest: “Master Plan for the Preservation and Use of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park: Mission 66 Edition,” Page 4 of 7, General Information section, and Volume 3, Section C Public Use Data, Page 3, in park files; Modern architecture styles replacing rustic: Ethan Carr, Mission 66: Modernism and the National Park Dilemma (Amhurst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), 339-340; Mission 66 as a forward-thinking program: “Master Plan,” p 1; Importance of automobile touring: Carr, Mission 66: Modernism and the National Park Dilemma; Consumerism in America: Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Vintage Books, 2003); Proposals for new facilities: “Master Plan,” throughout; Struggle to interpret four battlefields in rapidly developing area: “Master Plan,” p 3; Establishment of the arrowhead symbol and visitor center prominence: Carr, Mission 66: Modernism and the National Park Dilemma, p 12, 111-113, 186; New facilities as supplement to personal services: Albert Dillahunty; Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, “Museum Prospectus for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park” (Fredericksburg, 1959), 2; Goals for visitors: “Master Plan,” Page 4 of Objectives and Policies section.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for this. Looking forward to the next installment.

  2. Great read!


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