Painted Desert Visitor Center
The Painted Desert Visitor Center was listed to the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing building in the Painted Desert Community Complex Historic District in 2005.The Painted Desert Community Complex was listed as a National Treasure in 2014.
The Painted Desert Visitor Center, part of the Painted Desert Community Complex, is located within the Petrified Forest National Park. The Complex includes administration offices, maintenance facilities, visitor services, and employee housing. The twenty-four acre complex was designed by Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander, as part of the National Park Service’s Mission 66 initiative. The goal of Mission 66 was to revitalize the National Parks and to provide services for the increased number of visitors arriving at the parks after World War II. The program included park improvements such as widened roads and enhanced visitor amenities, as well as a new building typology, the visitor center. Visitor centers centralized a wide range of park services in one location. Interpretation, visitor information, park offices, and service facilities were consolidated under one roof, with the intention of controlling what, how and when visitors experienced park resources. Mission 66 visitor centers utilized mid-century modern architectural styles, a drastic departure from the rustic park architecture of previous decades. The modern designs were meant to symbolize progress and change within the National Parks. The simple, low lines of Mission 66 visitor centers were designed to visually recede, revealing the natural or historic landscape of the park. The location of the visitor center within the park created a deliberate flow of visitors and a specific interpretation experience, where the visitor center was the “viewing platform” from which the park resource was first encountered.
The Park Service commissioned Neutra and Alexander to design the Painted Desert Community Complex. Neutra and Alexander divided the complex into four main areas, the Commercial Area, the Industrial Area, Recreation Area, and Residential Area (National Register of Historic Places 3). The design focused on the use of modern materials, climate considerations, and the integration of the landscape into the interior of the buildings (Low 75). The Visitor Center was located in the Commercial Area. For the Visitor Center, Neutra and Alexander designed a specific, sequential visitor experience, which began as the visitor entered the lobby. Large glass windows provided views to the central plaza, encouraging visitors to go out and explore the landscape. Visitor information and services were located at a central information desk with restrooms adjacent. Next, visitors followed a specific interpretation path, which began with exhibits in the lobby, then continued out into the plaza, with outdoor exhibits. This, again, was intended to draw the visitor out into the park landscape (Kinsley 58).
The Painted Desert Visitor Center is one of twenty-three structures within the Painted Desert Community Complex. The Complex is surrounded by the flat, expansive landscape of the Painted Desert. It is isolated along the park road, with no other nearby structures. The Visitor Center is a two-story, concrete block building, which was meant to be public’s first point of contact with the park. The rectangular shape of the building and the original flat roof contributed to the low, horizontal feeling of the entire Painted Desert Complex. The exterior of the building is characterized by long expanses of concrete block. The building has two primary facades, one oriented west toward the parking lot, and the north façade, facing the central plaza. The west façade, the first that visitors encounter, includes a large storefront window wall and covered walkway. A cantilevered terrace visually separates the first and second levels. On the second level, a band of aluminum frame windows faces the parking lot. The terrace wraps around the building to the north. On the north elevation, a large glass window wall on the first floor creates a view from the lobby to the central plaza. The plaza is the focal point of the Painted Desert Complex. Neutra designed the Visitor Center to define the southern edge of the plaza (National Register of Historic Places 16). The large windows draw visitors out onto the plaza, encouraging them to interact with the landscape. On the second floor, the terrace and band of aluminum frame windows continue, although with fixed transoms. Neutra’s iconic “spider legs” support the roof and project down to the first floor (National Register of Historic Places 17). The terrace originally continued to the east elevation, but was enclosed in 1986. The east elevation adjoins the Complex residence building, which also frames the central plaza. The south façade is a long expanse of concrete block, punctured by three doors to the restrooms and administration offices. On the interior, visitors enter the first floor lobby from the main entrance on the west elevation. The open plan includes an information desk and exhibits. A theater was added to the east end of the lobby in 1975. Public restrooms are accessed from the south façade entrances only. In addition to the lobby and public restrooms, the first floor includes storage and administration spaces. A stair from the lobby leads to the second floor, which is comprised of a double-loaded corridor of administration offices.
The Painted Desert Community Complex had structural issues even before construction
was completed. Cracks began appearing in concrete block walls throughout the complex during the construction period. A soil investigation revealed inadequate footings and incorrectly compacted fill. In addition, steel reinforcing was inaccurately placed. These errors were likely the result of unclear documents from Neutra and Alexander, as well as careless work by the contractor. Repairs were made shortly after construction was completed in 1962 (National Register of Historic Places 13-14).
The Painted Desert Visitor Center is located in the Petrified Forest National Park, 93,533 acres of semi-desert and badlands located in northeastern Arizona, on the Colorado Plateau. The Visitor Center is one of twenty-three buildings within the Painted Desert Community Complex. The Complex includes administration offices, maintenance facilities, visitor services, and employee housing. The Visitor Center borders the central plaza, the focal point of the Complex (National Register of Historic Places 15). The Complex is isolated, situated along the park road with no other nearby structures.
The Painted Desert Visitor Center is constructed of modern materials and material systems typical of mid-century modern designs and a hallmark of the Mission 66 program. The building materials include concrete block, stucco, some steel framing, aluminum frame windows, and commercial storefronts on a concrete slab foundation. “Spider leg” i-beam supports, iconic in Neutra’s designs, are located on the north elevation (National Register of Historic Places 17).
The Painted Desert Visitor Center was constructed as part of the National Park Service’s Mission 66 program. The program was designed to revitalize and modernize the park system by 1966, the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service. In the years following World War II, increased visitation coupled with decreased funding had left the parks in poor condition. Visitors faced traffic jams, congested attractions, long lines, and deteriorating buildings. The ten-year program began in 1956, with a number of initiatives aimed at alleviating overcrowding and modernizing the National Parks. The most notable result of these initiatives was a new building typology, the visitor center. The Mission 66 program constructed over one hundred new visitor centers, which revolutionized the way visitors experienced a park. Visitor centers centralized a wide range of park services in one location. Interpretation, visitor information, park offices, and service facilities were consolidated under one roof, with the intention of controlling what, how and when visitors experienced park resources.
The Painted Desert Visitor Center is a representative example of Nuetra’s public work, and the last remaining Neutra designed building in the National Park System. Like all Mission 66 visitor centers, the design emphasizes a relationship between the building and the landscape, attempting to disappear, with simple, low horizontal lines. This is a drastic departure from previous National Park rustic architectural styles, which were meant to blend, rather and fade, from the landscape. National Park rustic architecture drew on its surroundings to suggest a specific idea, like pueblos in the southwest or hewn log buildings in the mountains. Mission 66 modern architecture rejected this idea, instead focusing on disappearing within the landscape, rather than attempting to add to it. This was accomplished with simple, sparse modern materials such as stucco and concrete block. The buildings were a tool for the park service to control the flow of visitors and their interpretive experience, a viewing platform from which the park was first encountered and understood.
The Painted Desert Visitor Center has historical significance as part of the larger Mission 66 program, but did not obtain canonical status or architectural notoriety in its own right. It is not a well-known Neutra design, although it is a rarer example of his public work.
The Painted Desert Visitor Center is significant for its association with the Mission 66 program and as a representation of the work of Neutra and Alexander. The complex was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 as a nationally significant work of architecture. The complex is one of only two Mission 66 projects Neutra and Alexander designed. It is illustrative of Neutra’s neighborhood planning theories, which groups buildings of different functions around a central plaza. The complex also embodies Neutra’s ideas about modern architecture in the landscape. Neutra believed that man-made objects could never compete with nature, and should therefore be completely different, and stand out in the landscape. This aligned with the Mission 66 program theory that park architecture should not try to blend with the surroundings. The Painted Desert Visitor Center contributes to the overall significance of the Painted Desert Community Complex, with many of Nuetra’s unique architectural elements, such as i-beam “spider leg” supports. In addition, the Painted Desert Visitor Center is an embodiment of a new building typology. Before Mission 66, visitor services and information were rarely centralized within National Parks. The design and location of the Painted Desert Visitor Center symbolizes the Park Service’s ideas about visitor experience and interpretation strategies during the Mission 66 era.
Gorski, Andrew, and Michael Lovato. Maintenance Guides for the Treatment of Historic Properties,
Petrified Forest National Park. The University of Arizona and National Park Service Desert
Southwest Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit, 2005.
Kinsley, Rebecca. “Mission 66: Where are we now? The Preservation and Re-use of Mission 66
Visitor Centers” M.S. Thesis, Columbia University, 2013.
Low, Sandy. Design Principles for Site Development in Our National Parks Based Upon Historic
Precedents and Current Needs. Las Vegas: University of Nevada, 2009.
National Register of Historic Places Report, Painted Desert Community Complex Historic District.
Petrified Forest National park, Apache County, Arizona, National Register #20050415.