CRM Journal

Research Report

Mission 66 Initiative

by Timothy M. Davis


The National Park Service has launched a major research effort on Mission 66, the controversial postwar development program that played a significant role in shaping the national park experience. Conceived as a means of bringing the national parks up to modern standards of design and convenience after years of neglect during and after World War II, Mission 66 had at least as much impact on the development of the National Park System as the better-known and more widely revered Depression-era programs involving the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Public Works Administration. While Mission 66 made national parks accessible to an increasingly broad segment of the American public, critics have long accused the program of compromising the very values that the National Park Service was charged to protect.

Between its inception in 1956 and its official termination 10 years later in conjunction with the National Park Service's 50th anniversary, Mission 66 channeled close to a $1 billion into program enhancements and infrastructure improvements. Roads were widened, straightened, and outfitted with new turnouts and parking lots; more than 100 visitor centers were constructed, along with a much larger number of comfort stations and picnic shelters; administrative facilities were greatly improved with the development of new headquarters buildings, maintenance yards, and over 1,000 units of much-needed employee housing.

The National Park System itself was greatly expanded. An ever-broadening array of national seashores, national recreation areas, and national historic sites complemented the more traditional western wonderlands. Many research programs were revitalized, enhancing the National Park Service's role in historic preservation, public history, and environmental science. Despite the program's manifold accomplishments, Mission 66 has not yet been subject to extensive scholarly analysis. Not only are the basic outlines of the program imperfectly understood, but there is considerable debate about whether Mission 66 and its physical legacy should be treated with the same institutional reverence afforded earlier eras in national park history.

Ambivalence about Mission 66 is rooted in a variety of practical and philosophical concerns. Many view Mission 66 as an unfortunate episode in National Park Service history, when the desire to accommodate unprecedented crowds ostensibly overwhelmed the mandate to preserve natural and cultural resources. Along with promoting automobile tourism and constructing elaborate visitor centers in close proximity to the Nation's most scenic and historic sites, National Park Service planners introduced modernist architectural aesthetics to settings where natural materials and traditional rustic design had long been the norm.

From an administrative perspective, the sheer volume of Mission 66-related resources poses significant challenges. Not only do aging structures require maintenance, but also a host of potentially burdensome compliance procedures will come into play once these artifacts reach 50 years of age and  become potentially eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

Even for those with no ideological reservations or bureaucratic agendas, it may seem counterintuitive to ascribe historical significance to resources that seem so mundane, ubiquitous, and conspicuously modern in design and function. These preconceptions may be shifting, however, as nostalgia works its way through the decades and the past creeps ever closer to the present. Just as preservationists throughout the country are turning their attention to such seemingly "modern" structures as glass-fronted banks, suburban shopping centers, and mass-produced tract homes, National Park Service cultural resource managers have begun to embrace their roles as stewards of postwar park development. This renewed interest in Mission 66 has generated a wide range of responses. While a growing collection of Mission 66 structures has been listed in the National Register and a select few have even achieved National Historic Landmark status, many seemingly significant resources have been denied historic stature. More problematically, a number of key buildings and landscapes are currently threatened with demolition or alteration.

The most commonly cited reason for this uneven reception is the primitive state of scholarship on Mission 66, which greatly complicates the process of identifying relevant resources and evaluating their significance. In order to redress this shortcoming and provide a more informed basis for the identification, evaluation, and stewardship of Mission 66-related resources, the National Park Service's Park Historic Structures and Cultural Landscape program has launched a wide-ranging research effort involving a diverse cast of bureau employees, independent scholars, academics, and State Historic Preservation Offices.

The first phase of this research initiative focused on one of the signature products of the Mission 66 era: the visitor center. Along with providing opportunities to showcase the program's embrace of modern architecture, visitor centers epitomized Mission 66's commitment to enhancing public education and visitor circulation. Prior to Mission 66, administrative functions and visitor services were generally dispersed among an array of public and private buildings including ranger stations, hotel lobbies, and the occasional small museum or nature center. This system worked fairly well when park staffs were small and most tourists arrived by train to be shepherded around by professional guides.

As expanding operations required additional office space and growing hordes of independent motorists arrived with little idea of where to go or what to see, the need for more substantial and systematic means of addressing these needs became apparent. The visitor center provided an opportunity to gather these functions together in a single facility that was designed to channel visitors through a carefully choreographed sequence of administrative and educational experiences. While the free-flowing spaces of these new facilities elicited little comment, their distinctly modern materials and design vocabularies generated considerable controversy. Siting issues continue to draw criticism from opponents who claim that Mission 66 visitor centers impinge unduly on natural and cultural resources.

The initial study, Mission 66 Visitor Centers: The History of A Building Type, was developed to provide a more balanced and scholarly approach to the evaluation of signature Mission 66 visitor centers.(1) Authored by architectural historian Sara Allaback, this volume provides a brief overview of the Mission 66 program, analyzes the practical and intellectual factors underlying the National Park Service's embrace of modern architecture, and traces the development of five prominent visitor centers. Allaback credits Mission 66 architects with developing a new style, which she labels "Park Service Modern." According to Allaback, Park Service Modern eschewed the overt rusticity of pre-war "parkitecture" and embraced modern materials, modern aesthetics, and modern conceptions of space and movement. Allaback elaborates on these characteristics in a detailed appendix that provides a step-by-step guide to evaluating the National Register eligibility of Mission 66 visitor centers. Visitor centers at Rocky Mountain National Park and Wright Brothers National Memorial have already been designated as National Historic Landmarks, and several parks and National Park Service regional offices are preparing National Register nominations for a variety of additional Mission 66 structures.

Two current projects will complement Allaback's study by focusing on broader aspects of the Mission 66 program. A comprehensive context study will trace the program's origins and evolution, and relate Mission 66 to broader currents in American history such as the rise in personal mobility and leisure time, changing attitudes towards nature and outdoor recreation, and the role of standardization and bureaucratic planning in shaping the modern built environment. This study is being written by Ethan Carr, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. By establishing Mission 66 as a significant cultural development in its own right, this study will obviate the need to argue for Mission 66's merits on architectural grounds alone.

A National Register multiple property nomination form developed by historians from the National Park Service's Pacific and Great Basin Support Office in Oakland, California, will help to identify additional Mission 66 resource categories and provide background information and comparative frameworks to assist in evaluating properties for possible listing in the National Register. The list of specific resource types has yet to be finalized, but likely categories include roads, campgrounds, entrance stations, and administration buildings.

With these two major projects under development and a number of parks and regions focusing renewed attention on their Mission 66 resources, the Park Historic Structures and Cultural Landscapes program convened a Mission 66 research workshop at the National Park Service's Washington headquarters in May 2003. Participants included park and regional office staff, National Register and State Historic Preservation Office staff, Ethan Carr, and George Washington University Professor Richard Longstreth, an international authority on 20th-century architecture and related preservation efforts. The meeting provided an opportunity for participants to share their research and discuss a variety of concerns related to the identification, evaluation, and stewardship of Mission 66 resources.

Workshop participants agreed that Mission 66 was far more diverse than stereotypes suggest. They advised that greater attention should be paid to the program's successes in the realm of seashore, backcountry, and recreational area protection, as well as to its impact on cultural resource management through the acquisition of historic sites and other preservation activities. Participants also suggested that controversial Mission 66 practices should be re-evaluated according to their original intentions. These include the siting of visitors centers, which sought a more immediate connection between visitor education and resource experience than is generally afforded by the contemporary emphasis on low-impact offsite facilities.

Moving from matters of historical interpretation to resource management, workshop participants agreed that, following the completion of a broader context study, the greatest challenge involved the question of determining what not to preserve or designate as historically significant. Acknowledging administrative concerns about the plethora of Mission 66 resources, the group agreed that the most logical solution to managing Mission 66's physical legacy would be to adopt a "historic district" strategy that would recognize a small number of distinctive Mission 66-era complexes rather than declare every structure associated with the program intrinsically significant. Exceptionally important individual structures might be considered eligible, but there would be no presumption that every comfort station and employee residence should be preserved simply because it was associated with Mission 66. This approach would underscore the broader planning goals of the program and preserve a representative sample of Mission 66 buildings and landscapes without unduly constricting future park management decisions. Participants with extensive field experience noted that the vast majority of Mission 66 structures and landscapes have already been significantly altered, so that most would be immediately disqualified from National Register eligibility on basic integrity issues.

The Mission 66 context study and multiple property nomination will provide invaluable guidance as the National Park Service moves forward to assess and manage the legacy of this key period in national park history. Draft copies are scheduled for internal review in early 2004 and final versions should be available by early 2005. In the meantime, academics and independent historians are pursuing various Mission 66-related topics while National Park Service regions along with some individual parks are developing additional National Register nominations and determinations of eligibility. This broad-based research initiative will enlarge our understanding of the National Park Service experience while providing important insights into 20th-century building patterns and social practices in general.


About the Author

For information about the context study, multiple property nominations, or Mission 66-related research in general, contact National Park Service historian Timothy M. Davis at Telephone (202) 354-2091 or E-mail



1. Sara Allaback, Mission 66 Visitor Centers: The History of a Building Type (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2000).