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End of a Curious Era at Mount Rainier National Park


The original Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise -- visitor center, or flying saucer? NPS photo.

Moving at a pace several months ahead of schedule, construction crews on Monday are scheduled to mark the end of a curious architectural era at Mount Rainier National Park.

Come 9 a.m. Monday the demolition of the old Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise is scheduled to begin. Park officials say the contractor will have a crane in place with a wrecking ball that is to be dropped on the building at several locations to ensure the its orderly collapse.

The demolition, coming five weeks after the "new" Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center opened, wasn't supposed to occur until spring. But, heck, why wait if the task can be completed now?

While Mount Rainier was a key focal point of the National Park Service's Mission 66 program, it's doubtful that many lovers of national park architecture will bemoan the loss of the old center. Alighting at Paradise in 1966, the old VC had a peculiar flying saucer shape, one that didn't seem to mesh smoothly with the setting. It might be hard to believe, but the Park Service spent $2 million on the building's construction, a then-princely sum that made the VC the most expensive building in the National Park System.

Over the years many -- including the Traveler -- have questioned some of the architectural decisions Mission 66 brought to the National Park System, and when the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center opened in 1966 some visitors were perplexed by the dome-shaped building.

The public's response to the new facility was mixed. The building's modern design pleased some and disappointed others. Designed by the two architectural firms of Wimberly, Whisenand, Allison and Tong of Honolulu and McGuire and Muri of Tacoma, the building's round layout and conical roof were supposed to relate the structure to its mountain setting. Other visual design features included "the swooping, bough-like shape of the beams, the branching 'tree' columns, the 'switchback trail' ramps, and the sloped 'cliffs' of the stone base."

To many people's way of thinking, however, the building did not harmonize with the landscape in the least. People complained that it looked like a satellite, pagoda, or flying saucer. Its weird, extraterrestrial effect was enhanced when Paradise was shrouded in fog, as was often the case. Or when snow still lay on the ground, people joked that the new visitor center looked like the Seattle Space Needle--up to its neck in snow. And when it became known that Senator Jackson had used his influence to get the Department of the Interior to contract with a Honolulu-based architectural firm to design the building, a legend grew among the park's devotees that the building had been designed for a site in the Hawaiian Islands but had been dumped on Mount Rainier instead.

Whether this legend perishes with the building's demolition Monday is hard to say. But the destruction, which is closed to the public, will most assuredly remove a key Mission 66 fixture from Mount Rainier.


I hope the new building won't come with some of the maintenance headaches I understand plagued the "flying saucer," and the new one should certainly be more energy efficient.

Ooohh, I hated that building. Long curving ramps from one floor to the next. No stairs, no elevator, so it was a minor hike just to get to the top. And the panoramic views? Nonsense, there were trees blocking the view of the mountain. Great view of the Tatoosh Range and Nisqually Valley, but that's hardly the point.

I'll give you odds that it won't be long before this weird but distinctive structure is mourned -- maintainenance headaches or no mainteinance headachces, energy efficient or not. An article in yesterday's NYTimes on Buffalo, NY's architectural treasures dating from its prosperity as a Great Lakes port at the end of the Erie Canal bemoans some of the distinctive buildings that have been lost (incl work by Frank Lloyd Wright). I wish the Park Service had just mothballed it until real thought could have been given of what might be done with it. Modernist design might be out of favor right now, but so, at one time, were Victorian hulks, Mission-style simplicity, Art Deco, etc. "Demolition is forever."

Claire Walter,

Yes Claire, I am in mourning.
Memories are flooding in of when I was a kid playing in and around the visitors center before my parents dragged me off on a hike.
I heard the old building did not give up with out a fight. She snapped 3 wrecking balls from their cable before she finally fell.
IMHO: They sure in heck don't build em like they use to.

I got to visit the old building one last time last October, and I'm still mourning it. The new VC is sterile, the views aren't that good, and it seems to be centered much more on the gift shop than on the actual mountain. Yes, I know the old rotunda was a maintenance nightmare and horribly inefficient by today's standards, but I spent much of my life, from very early childhood, running those ramps and climbing the curving rock buttresses, and I always looked forward to going back. It may have looked like a 'flying saucer', but the new VC looks like a maintenance shed.

You'll be missed, Henry.


I visited Paradise and its new Visitor Center yesterday on a beautiful snowy day. The VC is small, has few indoor tables for picnics , and looks just like the interior of the REI store in Seattle. It's pretty, but I miss the huge flying saucer.

The old visitor center had an amenity that will be sorely missed. It had two pay showers that served campground visitors. Not only that, but it had perhaps the most reasonable price I've seen in several years of camping - 25 cents gave 7 minutes of reasonably warm water; I remember coin-operated pay showers at other places for anywhere from $1 for 3 minutes to $3.50 for 7 minutes (plus 25 cents for each additional minute if inserted before time runs out).

Now one has to go outside of the park in order to find a public shower facility. I guess they didn't want to deal with people coming to the visitor center just for the showers.

not only did it have showers ... but it had larger and higher through-put toilet facilities ... nicer ones ... and it has space for a LOT of storage and emergency gear ... it was strong and designed to take dynamic loads from a variety of axes safely ... earthquakes and huge loads from snow and even avalances .. and yes , it was odd and circular and looked like general atomics had gotten the contract for a nuclear space ship ... but it was a sound FUNCTIONAL design ... 

It should have been preserved ... given the expense building it ... for mountaineering ... rented to firms or regbuilt inside as rental spaces or such ... not torn down ... 

National Historic Registry wouild have been a good idea ... 

The new building not only lacks novelty or style ... it is so generic as to bore folks to death ... and ftankly ... looks no more energy efficient ... actually less ... than the old circular center ... 

pretty sure if you slam it with a good earthquake and snow load ... it will crumple ... 

the best that can be said for it ... is that it has a boring gift shop in the boring building ... nothing offensive about the place

but is "not offensive" now our highest standard for public architecture ? 

depressing thought ... that ... 

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