Sunday, July 20, 2014

A New National Treasure

The fact that Petrified Forest National Monument was created in 1906 and converted to Petrified Forest National Park in 1962 is ample evidence that the resources there to protect have long been considered a national treasure.  But it’s a newer resource – one not built until after national park status was achieved – that is the latest to hold that title.

The Painted Desert Community Complex was one of five projects during the Mission 66 nationwide re-building program for which the National Park Service commissioned designs by noted American architects of the time.  Of the five projects (the other four were in Dinosaur National Monument, Wright Brothers National Memorial, Gettysburg National Historical Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park) only three remain.  The Cyclorama at Gettysburg was demolished in 2013 due to its location in an area now considered inappropriate and the Quarry Visitor Center at Dinosaur developed structural problems and was also demolished in recent years.  The firm of Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander designed both the Petrified Forest and Gettysburg projects.  Richard Neutra was a well-known modernist architect, working mostly in southern California.  He had worked for Frank Lloyd Wright early in his career and had made his name through his use of glass, steel, and concrete or masonry in rectilinear and unadorned shapes.  The selection of Neutra to design projects for the National Park Service, which was only 15 years or so removed from the end of the CCC era and its rustic style, was exceptionally bold.

The Painted Desert Community Complex was the only project of these, and maybe the only one during the Mission 66 program, that included facilities for all aspects of park operation.  It is a small planned community that included public facilities in the visitor center with adjacent concession services around a central plaza as well as maintenance shops, employee housing, a school, and community center.  The project even included the park entrance station.  Very few, if any, other projects in the NPS encompass this scope.  Neutra and Alexander’s design used building massing and the austerity of their design ethic to brilliantly separate incompatible uses in such a way that each use can function well and independently of the others, all in a relatively small space.  It is the genius of this arrangement of spaces when added to the architect’s prominence, the importance of the Mission 66 program as a whole, and the importance of the Painted Desert Community Complex as a highlight of that program that has led the Complex to achieve a greater recognition in recent years as a collection of buildings and landscapes worthy of protection.

The architects visited the site of the project in May of 1958.  I surmise that the wind was blowing hard that spring day because the main environmental feature of the complex, appropriately, is protection from wind.  The entire Complex is oriented to turn its back on the southwest, the direction much of the wind comes from at this site.  The architects drafted an explanation of their housing designs they called “Homes for National Park Service Families on a Wind-Swept Desert”. 

Built in the early 1960’s, the Complex began having structural problems right away due to both soil problems and poor construction practices.  The first post-construction structural analysis was completed in 1965 – several others followed.  The most recent one is from 2009.  The structural problems were not adequately addressed and kept getting worse.  The roofs of many modernist buildings, including these, were designed to be perfectly flat and failed, predictably, giving all flat roofs a bad name in the process.  When energy prices went up, the large expanses of glass became more expensive to keep.  As vehicles got bigger, the entrance station and the gas station canopy were not tall enough to accommodate them.  By 1993, when the park updated its master planning in a new General Management Plan, the Complex had been a failure that was considered too expensive in maintenance costs to retain.  The park proposed to demolish the Complex and rebuild something new and larger in its place. 

By 2004, whether due to economic realities or a reassessment of the Complex, thinking had changed and a revision of the General Management Plan included the decision to retain and rehabilitate the Painted Desert Community Complex.  In 2005, the Painted Desert Community Complex Historic District was created, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  In 2006, a thorough Historic Structure Report and Cultural Landscape Report were completed and have been used as a guide for the modest rehabilitation work that has been done since.

This year, Petrified Forest has entered into a partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation on the sustainable rehabilitation of the Painted Desert Community Complex.  The Trust has designated the Complex one of its NationalTreasures and will work with the National Park Service by raising the profile of the Complex, providing expertise, planning, and perhaps some fundraising toward its sustainable rehabilitation.  When the National Treasure web page was uploaded, there was a companion blogpost also uploaded by modernist advocate Chris Madrid French in the Preservation Leadership Forum. 

As the Treasure page says, the major threat to the Complex is the lack of funding for its rehabilitation.  We have successfully competed for occasional NPS capital funds to stabilize the foundations of three buildings (Community Building in 2009, Visitor Center in 2014, and Block A housing units in 2015) and to replace heating and cooling systems in the Visitor Center (2010 and 2012, respectively).  We used our cyclic maintenance allocation to replace obsolete windows in the administrative offices this year, and we have used operating funds to restore the Visitor Center balcony and planter and the main fa├žade of the School.  Despite those inroads, millions of dollars are still needed to address all the needs at the Complex.  The NPS Centennial may provide the next opportunity to continue raising the profile of this Complex, get additional partners excited about its sustainable rehabilitation, and get some of the high-profile work done that NPS funding sources are not likely to reach.  These projects include restoring the glass storefront to the restaurant and gift shop, restoring flat roofs to the Visitor Center and Painted Desert Oasis (concession building), restoring at least a portion of the gas station canopy, re-exposing the terrace off the southeast side of the Visitor Center building, and returning the restaurant to its original diner design. 
It’s also true that there is inadequate fire protection, the plumbing and electrical systems are over 50 years old, and many other components need attention if the Complex is to serve as park headquarters for another 50 years.  The less public buildings like housing and maintenance shops will be harder to get a partner’s help with.  We will keep our shoulder to the wheel and try to make quality improvements that recognize and appreciate the Painted Desert Community Complex’s unique place in the history of the park and the country as another of the National Treasures under our care.


Painted Desert Visitor Center Front


Fred Harvey Company 1963
Fred Harvey Company: Xanterra 2013


Painted Desert Visitor Center Balcony 1963

Painted Desert Visitor Center Balcony 2007

Painted Desert Visitor Center Balcony 2012

Painted Desert Diner 1963


Painted Desert Diner 2013