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National Parks Need Design Leadership and Creative Support

March 20, 2018

Architects and other design professionals can help the U.S. National Park Service through a time of unprecedented change and challenge

Recent experience by Page & Turnbull and other firms confirms architects and other design professionals can help the U.S. National Park Service through this challenging and evolutionary period in time. Among the biggest needs are finding creative ways to better accommodate increasing volumes of visitors, protecting historic structures used as amenities, and supporting concessioners—the private companies that operate most of the visitor services and accommodations—all while continuing their stewardship of America’s great resources for future generations.

Established in 1916, the National Park Service (NPS) has grown to an agency of roughly 27,000 employees running about 417 properties, including 59 designated national parks. Its mission is two-pronged: preserve the ecological and historical integrity of those wonderful places while also keeping them available and accessible for public enjoyment. In the last year, however, budgetary and leadership issues have arisen along with sharp reductions in protected federal land area.

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In January 2018, for example, most of the seats on the U.S. National Park Service advisory board suddenly became vacant following a coordinated resignation. The board, established in 1935, included members like former Alaska Governor Tony Knowles serving as “citizen advisors” to help the service. They resigned due to lack of support, among other concerns, and were unable to secure a meeting with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

Federal budgets and shrinking park lands also present difficulties for the NPS. Regarding the latter, in late 2017 the boundaries were re-drawn for Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah and the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, reducing the parks’ land areas by about 85 percent and 45 percent, respectively. On the budgetary side, the pace of funding and hiring has slowed significantly, leaving NPS staff spread very thin just to take care of their remaining resources.

These difficulties for NPS translate into challenges for everyday visitors. A government shutdown (or the threat of one) affects travel plans for thousands, including people who have made reservations months in advance. Maintenance affects visitors, too: Shuttered facilities and closed access routes also potentially limit visitation and enjoyment.

The strain on NPS also means that essential work by concessioners is slowing down. These service managers are companies like Xanterra, Delaware North Corp., Aramark, and Forever Resorts, and they operate in facilities—many of them historic landmarks—to serve tourists and other park users. Under long-term contracts, the concessioners run and maintain hotels and cabins, food-service venues, mule rentals, and the like. Some of their services are essential to park access and public safety such as providing warmth and shelter from the snow and winds in Glacier National Park. They also provide repairs and upgrades for hundreds of park buildings and historic structures throughout the system.

Increased Popularity of National Parks

The concessioners’ services are needed more than ever. National parks are hitting record popularity, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior, with 331 million visitors in 2016—almost 8 percent more than the year prior. (Numbers for 2017, not yet released, could beat the record.)

One reason for booming attendance is obvious: These are amazing places that Americans and foreign tourists alike love to visit. Also, compared to commercial venues, the costs for visiting a national park are a relative bargain. As the 2010 census confirmed, with more people moving into urban areas, the increased parks use represents a general shift in the mindset of the population: It is a special opportunity to change one’s surroundings and experience a different perspective on life. With that said, NPS revenues are growing steadily.

The budgets for NPS cover a lot of things, including the growing need for guides, rangers, and other parks operations personnel to handle steadily increasing visitor rates. At peak times of year, the rapid influx of visitors in some parks requires a quick jump in seasonal employees and other resources. Some concessioners privately worry about the increasing number of federal government shutdowns as the private concession operators must continue paying employees and utility bills, for example, even if park gates are closed.

Employees of the National Park Service are committed to their mission, however. With creativity and conviction, they have been finding new ways to enhance visitor experience and even cushion their amenities against the vagaries of political tides. Some have recently used “soft openings” or state funding as stopgap measures.

Design and architecture have a role in this also. From evaluating and documenting built resources in the parks to imagining new ways to accommodate people and needed services, A+D efforts can help to advance the NPS mission while protecting parks against the impacts of unexpected change. Following are a few examples of how design work is an important asset for NPS.

Lookout Studio, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Have you ever bought a postcard in the Grand Canyon? If so, you probably experienced a work by one of America’s most influential female architects, Mary Colter (1869-1958). Her buildings embody the vernacular of rustic park architecture while merging the stacked stone aesthetic with Native American motifs and pastoral elements. Colter’s 1914 Lookout Studio, nestled high on a precipice west of El Tovar and near the historic Bright Angel Lodge, is a much-photographed historic highlight of the Grand Canyon experience.

With that, the eclectic rim landmark was heavily trafficked and worn by retail and commercial use. Coupled with deferred maintenance, the building suffered from deterioration of its character-defining elements. Lack of documentation regarding original construction also impacted planning efforts. The NPS goal? Restore the structure back to its original intention.

Working with Chuck Easton of Xanterra, Page & Turnbull used appropriate technology—including high-definition laser scanning—to create as-built drawings. Then the project team came up with a new plan to restore the landmark structure to its original character while still maintaining its vital retail function. The integrated treatment approach also included accessibility and sustainability upgrades, bringing it up to the modern standards desired by the NPS.

Badger Pass Ski Lodge, Yosemite National Park, California

For one of the earliest downhill ski lodges built in California and a rare example of a ski lodge operated within a national park, Page & Turnbull served as architect and historic preservation consultant for the rehabilitation of the 1935 Badger Pass Ski Lodge. Built in the NPS rustic style, the building has Swiss chalet influences revealed in the sloped roofline, bracketed overhangs, divided-lite windows, and natural wood finishes.

The project team completed a Historic Structure Report, or HSR, as well as a Determination of Eligibility and Cultural Landscape Report, known as a CLR, to understand fully the historic significance of the building and site. Historic research conducted at the Yosemite National Park archives and other local repositories led to a new narrative chronology of how the location was developed.

One essential task: Because the lodge had been altered and expanded over the years, the team had to identify what portions of the structure dated to its period of significance. This discovery informs treatment recommendations and the study of rehabilitation alternatives. Completed according to NPS guidelines, California Office of Historic Preservation approved the project as a California Register-eligible historic site.

The historic research also unveiled valuable details on the birth of winter tourism in Yosemite and the rising popularity of downhill skiing in the United States. Once the location for intercollegiate ski championships and considered a potential venue for the Winter Olympics, Badger Pass now hosts families and day skiers.

North Rim Cabins & Lodge, Grand Canyon, Arizona

Another major challenge for many NPS facilities is to provide full ADA-compliant access while maintaining the historic integrity of landmark structures. This is especially tricky for highly popular locations subject to extreme weather conditions.

This was the focus of work by a team led by Page & Turnbull to rehabilitate nine historic guest log cabins in a National Historic Landmark district on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim designed by renowned park architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood and built in 1928.

Work on the exteriors and site as well as access modifications—including full path-of-travel from designated parking, entry, and fully compliant toilet facilities—were designed to be consistent with the historic landscape of this unique historic area.

To help NPS and the lodgings operator meet their goals for accommodating visitors, the design and construction work was extremely fast paced. Within a month, the project team completed a conditions survey, reviewed interior layouts, and developed working drawings. Due to the area’s popularity and extreme weather conditions, all construction work on the lodging units had to take place between about mid-April, when the roads open, though May 15, when the rooms are booked for the season. The project resumed when the lodges close on October 15 but before the roads are shut down due to snow, usually around mid-November.

Grand Canyon Cultural Resources Maintenance Plan

The South Rim at the Grand Canyon includes many structures, more than one might assume for a National Park. They include buildings that anyone can visit, such as Lookout Studio, while others such as single-family houses help support the employees that live within the park. The challenge for NPS and their concessioners is how to track the conditions and maintenance guidelines for every historic structure. This is where architects such as Page & Turnbull have been involved by creating Cultural Resource Maintenance Plans.

Page & Turnbull is currently working closely with the NPS and one concessioner to gather information on all historic structures at the South Rim. The information gathered ranges from original construction techniques—to help preserve methods of construction—to evaluations of current conditions. Together, these findings will be combined into a single database to help guide NPS and the concessioner not only on what structures should be considered historic but also when and how to perform preventive maintenance.

Cultural Resources Maintenance Plans are integral in keeping historic structures up to date for changing populations. This work at the South Rim serves as a valuable model for any parks lacking maintenance plans by offering them a way to protect their park assets for generations to come.

More Parks, More People

There are other NPS facilities that deserve attention today, including important landmarks of American history, such as the Desert View Watchtower at Grand Canyon, another work by Mary Colter that Page & Turnbull had the honor to help rehabilitate and preserve. Additional projects include the Presidio in San Francisco and St. Louis’ Gateway Arch and Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which celebrates a reopening this year.

As the NPS continues to weather recent challenges and change, most Americans will continue to see much promise in the nation’s greatest parks. For some citizens, the parks have represented their most memorable opportunities to explore the country’s grandeur. Seeing photographs of relatives who visited the parks over many decades is a defining part of our collective memory.

Since the NPS celebrated its 100th birthday in 2016, many people including architects and other design professionals are thinking of ways to ensure the next 100 years are just as successful. With its committed employees and concessioners, along with hundreds of active volunteers and everyday people, it seems certain the NPS will continue to prevail.

How You Can Help

The NPS has a wide range of volunteer opportunities, from artists-in-residence to acting as a “citizen scientist.” For more information on how to volunteer, visit nps.gov/getinvolved/volunteer.htm.

Tom Dufurrena, AIA, LEED AP, is principal and president at Page & Turnbull, a leading national architecture and preservation firm with offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sacramento. As principal in charge of all parks work including the National Park Service and California State Parks, he has successfully designed and overseen construction of plans to conserve, rehabilitate, and reinterpret historic structures within their park context. Dufurrena holds a BA in Architecture from University of Oregon and is a licensed architect in California. In addition to his formal architectural training, Tom is a skilled carpenter and stonemason, complementary skills that elaborate on his intimate knowledge of materials and process.

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