Rustic to Utilitarian: The Modernization of Park Architecture

Cecil John Doty is responsible for influencing the design of visitor centers throughout the national park system.
Katherine RivardNPF Blog
Visitor center with a totem pole and an American flag in front and mountains in the background.
Sitka National Historical Park Visitor Center, typical of Mission 66 architectural style - NPS Photo

1966 marked the 50th anniversary of the National Park Service. Creating new buildings in preparation for the milestone, Cecil John Doty, a park architect trained using the park rustic manuals of Herbert Maier, pioneered a new style of architecture. Mission 66, the last of the parks-wide architectural styles, would become ubiquitous among visitor centers throughout the country and the basis for future buildings in the park system.

In preparation for the park system’s anniversary and in response to the growing number of people visiting the parks each year, the new Park Service Director, Colin Wirth, proposed a 10-year plan for the parks whose end would coincide with the park’s birthday, while providing new buildings, repairs, improved maintenance, and increased staff. The project was named Mission 66, and by its completion, 110 new visitor centers would be constructed. Mission 66 architecture, as the design techniques incorporated during this period came to be called, was a modern style, preferring clean lines and bold looks that reflected the cultural climate of the period. 

Lodge buildings are connected by boardwalks

Glacier Bay Lodge at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve was part of the Mission 66 project

NPS Photo

Rather than the park rustic emphasis on “living history,” the new modernist approach largely focused on standardization in order to ensure that all parks throughout the system had adequate visitor services. The materials used for construction during this period also changed. While still incorporating traditional materials like stone and wood, other products such as steel, concrete, and glass were also used to harmonize the landscape and old materials with the modern approach. When questioned about the change in architecture during this period, a time when the Empire State Building and Radio City were also being engineered, Doty responded: “How could you help but go away from that board-and-batten stuff?” 

Cecil John Doty was born in 1907. He grew up on a farm in May, Oklahoma and in 1928, he graduated with a degree in architectural engineering from present-day Oklahoma State. Throughout the Great Depression, Doty received occasional work from a local architectural firm, and taught drawing and architectural history, but was unable to open a private practice. He then worked as a file clerk for the CCC state parks program before signing on as an architect. Selected by Director Herbert Maier to finish plans for a museum at Glacier National Park, Doty was encouraged to use Maier’s work and style as a guide for future projects.

Cecil John Doty

Cecil John Doty

NPS Photo

In 1936, Doty became regional architect in Oklahoma, before moving to the new regional office in Santa Fe with Maier. This shift mirrored his switch in work from state parks to national parks. In 1940, Doty transferred to the San Francisco Region Four Office and helped with a slew of new projects before the start of the war. He designed various park buildings, including the administration building at Joshua Tree National Park, and he continued to be promoted. After the war, he was responsible for designing many of the buildings for the Mission 66 plan as the park architect.

Unlike many of the other architects of his time who had been trained in the art of architecture, Doty’s background was on in architectural engineering and manual art. His buildings, though prolific, are not those best known for the Mission 66 character or for modern architecture. Rather, they appear somewhat utilitarian, meant to stand subordinate to the park landscape, as requested by Director Wirth. Still, it is perhaps the modesty and simplicity of his works that have allowed them to remain timeless.

Doty’s visitor centers differ given their locations across the country and in varying climates, as he continually attempted to create a relationship between the structure and its surrounding landscape. The visitor center at Tonto National Monument in Arizona, the Montezuma Castle National Monument Visitor Center in Arizona, and the Flamingo Visitor Center in Everglades National Park are just a few examples of his work. 

In 1966, the Mission 66 plan ended and Doty received the Department of the Interior’s distinguished service award. He then transferred to the Eastern Office of Design and construction, assisting with the fountains at the National Mall before retiring.  

In his 35-year career with the National Park Service, Cecil John Doty had influenced almost every visitor center built. While Herbert Maier had created the works that would influence Doty, Doty’s own works became the basis for future National Park Service architects.

Want to explore more National Park Service architecture? Check out our blog post on Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, whose late 19th century architectural style blended the park's natural surroundings with local traditions.

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