Mission 66

Last week, Henry and I took our second annual father-and-son trip to Mount Rainier. Last year, we did it mostly to give Kathy some quiet time alone to rest and relax. That she spent much of the day helping with our preschool’s clean-up day does nothing to diminish our good intentions. This year, the trip gave Henry the undivided attention of one parent, something that has been lacking since Charlie arrived. Unlike last year, we made this one an overnight trip (Henry’s first without Mom).

We had a great time (pictures are on flickr). The weather was just about perfect and the crowds small. We hiked at Sunrise, Ohanapekosh, and Paradise and just generally enjoyed ourselves. We stayed just outside the park at the Alta Crystal Resort. Our “one bedroom suite chalet” was a big hit with Henry, especially the fact that it had a kitchen. We made one of his favorites–mac & cheese–and watched Finding Nemo. We missed Kathy and Charlie, but it was pretty clear that our getaway was just what Henry needed.

Anyway, to get to the title of this entry, it turns out the park service is about to start building a new visitor center at Paradise. I’ve always kinda liked the current visitor center. It’s round, with a swooping conical roof that gives it a sort of flying saucer look. It’s unabashedly modern, which is pretty unusual in the great old parks. Unfortunately, it’s also horribly inefficient. Despite remaining open through the winter, the building can’t handle the enormous snowfall Paradise receives, so huge amounts of diesel fuel are needed to keep the roof snow-free. Inside, a lot of the space is taken up by wide charmless ramps from level to level. There’s remarkably little stuff in such a big building.

Nonetheless, I’ll miss it, so when I saw a book about park architecture in the gift shop, I bought a copy. Architectural Guidebook to the National Parks: California, Oregon, Washington, by Harvey H. Kaiser seemed like just the book I wanted. Back home, I discovered that the book should have been titled Guidebook to Some of the Architecture I Find Interesting in Some of the National Parks and Other Places: California, Oregon, Washington. The only mention of the Paradise Visitor Center is a fairly derisive swipe that points out that it was part of “Mission 66.”

Hmm. Mission 66? What’s Mission 66? No, not that… Google to the rescue. Mission 66 was a ten-year federal program to update the facilities at America’s National Parks. Begun in 1956 and ended in 1966, the program cost more that $1 billion and introduced the idea of unified visitor centers. Wow, cool. I visited a lot of national parks as a kid and it never quite dawned on me that a whole lot of the facilities were from the era shortly before I was born. Almost all of the Mission 66 buildings are modern, both because it was the prevailing architectural style of the era and because it allowed more facilities to be built for less money. It seems Mr. Kaiser isn’t fond of modern architecture, so he left the Mission 66 buildings out of his book. Oh, well, I’ll have to learn about the great Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center elsewhere.

As it turns out, the Paradise Visitor Center was the subject of immense public debate and political maneuvering. As I understand it, park management didn’t particularly want a new visitor center at Paradise. The plan was to move primary visitor facilities to lower elevations, returning Paradise to lower-impact day uses (and perhaps allowing the road to Paradise to be closed in winter). At the time, Washington State had two particularly powerful Senators, Warren G. Magnuson and Henry M. Jackson. Therefore, logically, Paradise received a new visitor center. Not just any visitor center, mind you, but the most expensive building up to that time in any national park. The full story is covered in some detail in this chapter of the park’s administrative history.

Strange and impractical as it is, I’ll miss the ol’ saucer.