The buildings of Mission 66 arose during the prosperous
years of the mid-1950s. Post World War II wealth and optimism led enormous
numbers of Americans to pack their cars for visits to the national parks.
Once they arrived, tourists found small, rustic-style nature centers
and museums built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, often
containing less than 500-square feet of space and no interior bathrooms.
The Park Service, unprepared for the onslaught, lacked a systematic
method and enough on-site rangers to communicate to visitors the importance
of preserving the geysers, forests, and wildlife. Tourists unwittingly
(and some purposefully) vandalized and abused resources at Yellowstone,
the Grand Canyon, and other parks. By the early 1950s the crisis had
grown to overwhelming proportions. In 1955, the Director of the National
Park Service, Conrad Wirth, envisioned a plan to improve conditions
at the parks by developing modern conveniences and implementing a system-wide
method of educating the visiting public. A key element in the new plan,
named "Mission 66" was the introduction of the now ubiquitous "visitor
Contrasting with the reserved residential character of the CCC administrative buildings, the Mission 66 visitor centers conveyed a bold commercial appearance to entice and attract visitors. Prominently sited on major entry roads, the buildings became an instantly recognized feature of the parks, advertising public service, orientation information, and other amenities. Modern materials and design characterized the new park architecture, with open interior spaces and expansive areas of glazing to provide views of nearby natural and cultural resources. The strikingly contemporary buildings in the parks symbolized, for the visiting public and the agency itself, the achievements of the Mission 66 program and a new era in the National Park Service.
Mission 66 represented the largest program for park improvements ever initiated by the National Park Service and is one of the most significant federal undertakings of the twentieth century. In 1955, responding to mounting political and public pressure, Conrad Wirth, Director of the National Park Service, proposed a ten-year building improvement program to regenerate and modernize the national parks. New accommodations were desperately needed by 1966, the fiftieth anniversary of the Park Service, to serve an expected eighty million annual visitors. With the goal-oriented ideology of the project in mind and the proposed date of completion set, the committee chose the name "Mission 66" for the program.
By the end of the billion-dollar program, the parks and the public enjoyed a wealth of modern services, including 584 new comfort stations, 221 administrative buildings, 36 service buildings, 1,239 units for employee housing, and more than 100 new visitor centers.The Park Service also acquired 78 additional park units under the program, an increase of almost forty percent over the 180 parks held in 1956. New parks authorized during Mission 66 included the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Maryland and West Virginia; Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C.; Canyonlands National Park in Utah; and the Edison National Historic Site in New Jersey.
Several of the most impressive building projects associated with the Park Service today resulted from Mission 66 efforts. The Gateway Arch, designed by architect Eero Saarinen in 1949 for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial National Historic Site in St. Louis, remained unfinished until Mission 66 funding permitted its completion. Another significant Mission 66 project is the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile scenic road running through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. Only about one-third of the total planned distance had been finished when work stopped in the 1940s. Construction began again under Mission 66, which contributed "better than 75 per cent of the cost" for the route. The scenic Colonial Parkway connecting Jamestown to Williamsburg in Virginia was completed, as was a seven-mile extension of the George Washington Memorial Parkway from Spout Run to the Capital Beltway in Washington, D.C. (the story continued...)
"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.
Construction is an important element of the program. Modern roads, well planned trails, utilities, camp and picnic grounds, and many kinds of structures needed for public use or administration, to meet the requirements of an expected 80 million visitors in 1966, are necessary; but they are simply one means by which "enjoyment-without-impairment" is to be provided.
Under this program, outmoded and inadequate facilities will be replaced with physical improvements adequate for expected demands but so designed and located as to reduce the impact of public use on valuable and destructible features. It will provide both facilities and personnel for visitor services of the quality and quantity that the public is entitled to expect in its National Park System. It is intended to assure the fullest possible degree of protection, both to visitors and resources."* This text was included in the formatted statement "What is Mission 66?" at the front of every National Park Service unit submission for projected improvements. "Mission 66 for Gettysburg National Military Park." (Gettysburg, PA: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, n.d.).