You are here

Mission 66: Modernism and the National Park Service

Author : Ethan Carr
Published : 2007-06-06

Mission 66, the program that rehabilitated and restored national parks in time for the National Park Service's 50th Anniversary back in 1966, often is cited today as an inspiration for the Centennial Challenge, but it is a program that sometimes is shrouded in mystery.

Its planning and design were conducted in near secrecy by then-NPS Director Conrad Wirth and his top advisors. Now, though, you can get a better understanding and appreciation for what some believe to be one of the government's most significant infrastructure endeavors of the 20th Century courtesy of Ethan Carr's latest book, Mission 66: Modernism and the National Park Service.

Weighing in at a whopping four pounds and spanning 400 pages, Mission 66 is not a book for the faint of heart nor those easily distracted. Mr. Carr launches his narrative of the program not in 1955, when the program began, but rather two decades earlier during the Civilian Conservation Corps era and lays the foundation for Mission 66 before describing in great detail the people involved and the politics of the parks that led to the creation of Mission 66.

What is interesting about the opening chapters of the book is that many of the reasons given for Mission 66 sound only all too familiar to close followers of the National Park Service. Budgets for the parks had been cut to bare bones during World War II. Visitors encountered crumbling roads, small and often inadequate facilities, and rampantly understaffed visitor contact stations. Employee housing was outdated and in shambles, and morale in the Park Service stood a historic low.

In 1954 and 1955, other articles appeared in national magazines with titles such as 'National Parks: Tomorrow's Slums?,' 'The Shocking Truth about Our National Parks,' and 'Twenty-four Million Acres of Trouble.' The tone of and content of such criticism suggested that the Park Service had not met its obligation to the public, and even to its employees, to provide basic services and facilities. The agency seemed unable to regain its position as the country's chief 'recreational planning' and landscape preservation organization. There was no way to compensate for the loss of emergency spending programs, especially the CCC and PWA [Public Works Administration]...

Director Wirth cited these criticisms as a reason to reshape the national parks for their 50th birthday. But, as Mr. Carr points out, a lack of funding was not the only challenge facing Wirth when he became director after Newton Drury.

The vastly increased use of the park system, for example, and the reduced influence and function of the Park Service within the federal bureaucracy both continued to challenge Drury's successors. Negotiations to renew concessioner contracts and secure new private investment for concession improvements became ever more difficult. Wilderness advocates and early environmentalists, while supportive of the general goals of the Park Service, often differed on key assumptions about the purposes of preservation, and therefore on specific policies for managing parks. The postwar social and demographic trends that precipitated moany of these issues – such as population growth, automobile ownership, and low-density urbanization – only intensified in the 1950s...This was the backdrop against which Conrad Wirth would organize and conduct Mission 66.

The author goes on to describe the fast-paced development and design of Mission 66. Mr. Carr lays out how Director Wirth managed to centralize control over the program while involving everyone from himself down to the Park Service's field staff. The director announced the program to his closest advisors by telling them that, “business as usual would end immediately in the Washington office.” The Mission 66 program, conceived and planned largely in the span of only a few months, took shape and Director Wirth brought his agency into the limelight with the ten-year push to restore the parks.

Mission 66 also examines the controversies of Director Wirth's tenure. Environmentalists and congressmen bristled at the lack of input they had into Mission 66. Preservationists bemoaned the 'over-development' of the parks. Business interests wanted more development and harshly criticized the Park Service for bowing to the environmental movement.

Nearly everyone expressed distaste of the new modernist architecture that Mission 66 showcased. The Park Service came under fire from nearly all sides, perhaps showing just how tremendous a compromise and how middle-of-the-road Mission 66 was.

Mission 66: Modernism and the National Parks Dilemma helps readers understand the profound impact that Mission 66 had on America. Our concept of a visitor center, for example, comes from Mission 66. Mr. Carr covers the architecture, landscaping, building, interpretation, and concessions of Mission 66 in three parts, “Planning, Design, and Construction.”

This is a book that is sweeping in its contents, but articulate enough for anyone to understand.

As interesting and engaging as Ethan Carr's descriptions of the reaction to Mission 66 is, his copious illustrations and photographs add to the richness of his writing. He shows readers the Mission 66 planners in action, helping one to visualize what it was like to chart the course of America's parks.

Mission 66: Modernism and the National Parks Dilemma is a text that belongs on the shelf of every National Park Service scholar. It is a book that is an invaluable reference and a welcome addition to the world's libraries.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide