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Nature Lecture: Mission 66 and Mid-Century Modernism in Joshua Tree National Park

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Nature Lecture:

Mission 66 and Mid-Century Modernism in Joshua Tree National Park

Neutra Alexander Joshua Tree National Park

Presented by Jason Theuer

Join us on Wednesday, February 1st for a Nature Lecture with Jason Theuer, Anthropologist and Cultural Resource Chief at Joshua Tree National Park. The lecture will begin at 6:30 p.m. in The Learning Center (TLC). This program is presented in partnership with the Desert Institute at Joshua Tree National Park.

Learn the story of Mission 66 which 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.

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.

Jay TheuerJason Theuer's work focuses on the American Southwest. His dissertation research focused on the dynamics of migration and identity in the 14th century Pueblo world through geochemical analysis of glaze-painted pottery. He served as head Archaeologist for the Petrified Forest National Park from 2007-2011 when he left the position to finish his dissertation. His interest in preservation started while working as a carpenter restoring 18th century New England Whaling Era homes, which translated into positions with the National Park Service preserving both historic buildings and archaeological ruins. His research interests include migration, village formation, identity, and traditional knowledge. His time at Petrified Forest NP and collaborations with traditional elders from the communities of Hopi and Zuni are leading him to look for ways to incorporate traditional knowledge into reconstructing past settlement patterns and engaging Native American youths and traditional elders in public land management practices. Currently, Jay is the Cultural Resource Branch Chief at Joshua Tree National Park overseeing all of the cultural historic sites in the park which includes the prehistoric sites.

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