Mission 66 was a federally-sponsored program to improve deteriorated and dangerous conditions in the national parks, the result of a massive visitor boom after World War II.
Mission 66 projects began in 1956 and ended in 1966. During those ten years, more than $1 billion was spent on infrastructure and other improvements in the parks.
Mission 66 planners and architects developed the concept of the “visitor center” to streamline and standardize visitor services at federal parks nationwide. Approximately 100 new visitor centers were built during the ten-year program.
Mission 66 visitor centers have been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places as significant historic structures and as important representatives of a new building type.
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 center.”
The visitor center, a familiar building type constructed for use by private corporations and governmental organizations alike, was created during the National Park Service Mission 66 program. Park Service planners, architects, and landscape architects devised the concept to incorporate visitor facilities, interpretive programs, and administrative offices in one structure. In a departure from the rustic-style buildings constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Mission 66 designers embraced a contemporary structural form for the new centers. As the construction program continued, the distinctive and prominently located buildings became emblematic of the massive improvement project and demonstrated the new commitment of the Park Service to interpretation of park resources and accommodation of visitors and personnel.
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.
PROGRESS AND MODERNIZATION in the NATIONAL PARKS
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…)
WHAT IS MISSION 66?*
“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.).