Park architecture: The Everglades National Park and Mission 66 ‘Parkitecture’

Flamingo Visitors Center Everglades FloridaToday, a special report by reader Heidi Swank
on ‘Parkitecture’, Mission 66, and the
Flamingo Visitors Center in the Everglades National Park

Special edition — This story was written by Heidi Swank:

Heidi writes:

One of the benefits of our 2005 move from Chicago to Las Vegas has been the proximity of our new home to many state and national parks. Over the past six or so years my husband Scott and I have become avid national park goers. We have visited a number of national parks from the large and famous, like Yosemite, to lesser-known ones, like Guadalupe Mountains. About four years ago we took a three-week road trip visiting many national parks from California to Texas. As we traveled through the first several national parks on our trip, we began to notice that many of the park buildings not only seemed to come from the same theme but also had clearly been built in the 1950s and 1960s.

When we got to Big Bend National Park in Texas (#4 on our tour), we happened to meet a park ranger who knew all about these beautiful midcentury buildings. In fact, he was so ecstatic that we were interested in this era of “parkitecture” then he took us all through the back offices with Scott and I Oooing and Ahhing over pristine wood paneling, vintage linoleum, and original doorknobs. The ranger, whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten, told us that the buildings in Big Bend and many national parks were part of the Mission 66 project.

He went on to tell us that Mission 66 began in 1956 and was intended to pick up where post-Depression New Deal park development had been cut short when the United States entered World War II. Inaugurated by President Eisenhower, the aim was to rehabilitate and expand the parks that had received little attention during the war and thus had fallen into disrepair. we got to Big Bend National Park in Texas (#4 on the tour), we happened to meet a park ranger who knew all about these beautiful midcentury buildings. In fact, he was so ecstatic that we were interested in this era of “parkitecture” then he took us all through the back offices with Scott and I Oooing and Ahhing over pristine wood paneling, vintage linoleum, and original doorknobs. The ranger, whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten, told us that the buildings in Big Bend and many national parks were part of the Mission 66 project.

Flamingo Visitors Center Everglades Florida

Post-War America was a time of prosperity and increased leisure for many. And Americans were flocking to their national parks. However, the existing roads, parking lots, and facilities in many of the parks were too dilapidated and inadequate for such large numbers of visitors. Mission 66 brought in new facilities including what became the hub of park activity: the visitor center. It was dubbed Mission 66 because it came to a close in 1966, the 50th anniversary of the National Park Service. For us, this tour marked our start as Mission 66 activists (in addition to being general national park geeks). Once we returned home, we bought the Mission 66 book — Mission 66: Modernism and the National Park Dilemma* — the park ranger had shown us. We were sold on Mission 66!  (*Pam disclosure: Links to book are affiliate links to Amazon. If you buy the book via my links, I get a little spiff.)

With this new knowledge, it seemed to my husband and I that we could bring together our enthusiasm for midcentury style and the national parks in Mission 66. We began to seek out Mission 66 buildings at every national park we visited. Sadly, we found that often park rangers were unhappy with these “old buildings” and hoped to update (gasp!) them before they turned fifty and became protected historic structures. Hearing these stories, we started talking to park rangers about the beauty and historical significance of their buildings, seeing ourselves as Mission 66 activists.

Flamingo Visitors Center Everglades FloridaFlamingo Visitors Center Everglades FloridaA few weeks ago, we were vacationing in Florida with plans to camp in Everglades National Park. We knew there were some Mission 66 buildings in the Everglades, but we also knew that hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005 had taken their toll on the park and its buildings. So you can imagine our surprise when we arrived at Flamingo, the central area for activity in the Everglades, to find what was clearly a 1950s gas station, not in use but in excellent condition and newly painted pink! (Mamie would be sooooo proud!) 

Flamingo Visitors Center Everglades FloridaJust beyond this adorable gas station is the Flamingo visitor center, a remarkable Mission 66 structure. It’s made up of two midcentury modern buildings attached by a breezeway and framing the view out to Florida Bay. And like the gas station, it is painted a wonderful Mamie pink! It looked to us like the Flamingo visitor center was not just being tolerated but loved and cared for. We were so excited because this visitor center is among the oldest in the entire Mission 66 project.

Ahwahnee Lodge YosemiteBefore we had left on vacation, we had, of course, consulted our Mission 66 book for any information on the Everglades buildings. So we knew that the Flamingo visitor center was one of eight that comprised the first phase of Mission 66. Thus, it was one of the first National Park Service visitor centers built in the new modernist style of architecture that became the hallmark of Mission 66. Prior to World War II, the National Park Service buildings were built in a rustic style, like the Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite (above).

And while beautiful, we had read that the Mission 66 project was given only limited funds for buildings, which meant that National Park Service architects needed to use materials and designs that were very economical. They looked to the modern architecture that was emerging in the 1950s, even bringing in consultants like Richard Neutra to assist.

hurrigane wilma damageFrom when I first saw the Flamingo visitor center, a passage from our Mission 66 book stuck in my head: Under Mission 66, visitor centers were no longer meant to be the park’s focus. In fact, they were intended to be viewing platforms, “to be seen from, not to be seen.” That fit the Flamingo visitor center to a T! Later that same day, while getting a tour of the visitor center from Ranger Tim Taylor we learned that this building, made from concrete, seems to be almost transparent because of its use of certain architectural features:

  • the beautiful second floor breezeway and two buildings flanking the view of the bay
  • a recessed ground-floor that originally held (and hid) administrative offices
  • a ramped entrance and horizontal windows that emphasize the  building’s long and low lines
  • the elevating of the information area and restaurant on the second floor

Originally, although the restaurant in the western building always had air-conditioning, the breezeway and the entrance to the information area were enclosed only by screens. (August must’ve been uncomfortable to say the least!) In 1962, just five years after Flamingo opened, Hurricane Andrew made short work of these screens. Apart from this rather minor damage by Andrew, Flamingo weathered Florida’s hurricanes rather well over the following almost 40 years.

hurricane wilma effects everglades park hurrican wilma damageIn 2005, Flamingo remained intact – though it did not keep its original pink exterior – and was about to be assessed for its historical significance when Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma struck. Fortunately, and despite an almost eight-foot storm surge after Wilma, most of the damage was only cosmetic. The roof had leaked horribly in the restaurant, leaving its interior beyond repair. Some of the exterior concrete had fallen away but none of the damage was structural. Regrettably, the nearby Flamingo Lodge, which was not raised on columns, did not fare so well and had to be demolished.

When I spoke with the Everglades’ Chief of Cultural Resources, Melissa Memory – great name for a historian! – the restoration of Flamingo was moving along, although at a slow pace due to a lack of Federal funds. The visitor center and gas station are back to their original Mamie pink, last year windows were replaced – making the sticky Everglades summers more bearable – and the information center, complete with midcentury handrail got a facelift.

Flaminga Visitors Center

Flamingo Visitors Center Everglades Florida restaurant

Flamingo Visitors Center

pink tile in gas station bathroom floor

Flamingo Visitors Center Everglades National Park

shark taxidermy There still remains much to do. The original and tiny information area, museum, and gift shop currently in the eastern building will take over the expansive western building that previously housed the restaurant. The eastern building will then be occupied by additional offices, a conference room, and a bit more public space. When I asked about plans for the two buildings’ interiors, Melissa told me about the Park Service’s plan to merge green, sustainable design with midcentury style.

Vintage Flaminto Lodge

Flamingo Lodge
This is the proposed new Flamingo Lodge building — drawing provided to Retro Renovation courtesy the National Park Service

There are also plans to rebuild Flamingo Lodge and re-create a permanent restaurant, replacing the current temporary café that is housed in a screen-enclosed area under the visitor center. From what I’ve read these new additions will also draw upon midcentury design, even including some butterfly rooflines!

At the end of our wonderful Everglades vacation, Scott and I drove past the Flamingo visitor center and charming little gas station on our way to Miami. We felt relieved and happy in the knowledge that there are many rangers in the National Park Service, like Melissa Memory and Tim Taylor, who are also Mission 66 activists. Because of folk like Melissa and Tim, we can rest assured that these amazing Mission 66 buildings will remain for our and everyone’s future National Park adventures!


Pam writes: Thank you, Heidi, for this amazing report. I really learned a lot — and now, I have a big idea for where to go when I retire and buy and refurbish a vintage canned ham trailer. To all the Mission 66 locations, yes!

Thanks, also, to Melissa Memory of the National Park Service for providing the vintage photography shown here.

Heidi Swank for Assembly Las VegasReaders, Heidi is a woman on the go. She recently announced that she is running for the Nevada State Assembly in Las Vegas. Did her mid mod butterfly-roofed logo. Go, Heidi, Go!

  1. Joe says:

    Heidi, I am with you on preserving history. But these Mission 66 buildings just are not very attractive. I personally wish that any new Flamingo Lodge would be built in a rustic style, not modernism. Modernism is just too plain and boring.

  2. mark says:

    You missed one of the best Mission 66 structures at Everglades – the Shark Valley observation tower. Looks like something out of the NY Worlds Fair plunked down in the middle of the river of grass. The employee housing areas of Mission 66 parks also contain some great examples of this architecture.

  3. Jan says:

    There is a great book about the Mission 66 project. It’s called “Mission 66 Visitor Centers: The History of a Building Type,” written by Sarah Allaback and published by the National Park Service in 2000, 296 pages. In some places you might even be able to access is electronically.

  4. Kersten says:

    Wow! Great article! I too have noticed the mid century feel of park buildings (and signs!), but had no idea about Mission 66. Heidi, I read this article this morning, and an hour later was deep into my new Atomic Ranch— so I giggled when I saw your letter in the Modern Wisdom section. You are such a committed gal! Love it all!

    1. Heidi Swank says:

      How funny is that! I had no idea it was in there! My Atomic Ranch was sitting unopened on the dining room table until I read your post! Like I said in my note: this is what happens when one is an unemployed social scientist!

  5. Martha says:

    Thanks Heidi for a very informative post. Just one correction, Hurricane Andrew came through South Florida in August 24, 1992. It did devastate the southern part of the state, however, the lodge and other buildings at Flamingo in the Everglades were able to recover and continued open until the devastation of Katrina and then Wilma in 2005. As a life-long Floridian I can’t believe how lucky I am to have such a wonderful national park as the Everglades right at my door step. I visit the park every chance I get and am thrilled every time I see the progress being made in restoring these wonderful mid-century icons. Thank you for your interest and good luck in your endeavors.

    1. Heidi Swank says:

      Thanks for the correction. I had great difficulty finding the name of the 1962 hurricane. One source named it Andrew, while others gave it no name. There was also hurricane Donna in 1960 and, of course, Andrew of 1992. And yes, the lodge and visitor center did just fine until 2005. Thanks again!

  6. karen says:

    I moved to Florida two yrs ago and the everglades is at the very top of my “must see” list. After reading this informative post, i’m making it a priority! Thank you Pam, for passing along Heidi’s email; please wish her good luck from me in the upcoming election!

  7. Jay says:

    They are fighting a new civil war in Gettysburg over the fate of the old visitor center/cyclorama designed by Neutra under the Mission 66 program. The park service already opened its replacement some time ago at the edge of the park and they want it out of there. The rational being that it obscures the sightlines for the pivotal battles. NPS has gone to a lot of trouble to aquire land to preserve the vista and undo modern obstructions sp that visitors can see the countryside the way it was during the battle.

    1. Jan says:

      As a lover of all (or almost all) things mid-century, I’ve been saddened for some time about the Neutra Cyclorama – not only the fight the National Park Service is waging to destroy it, but even more the state the NPS is allowing it to be in. I visited it in September 2005, two months before it closed in November, and was awed by the structure, both inside and out, and even the MCM furnishings that were still in the lobby! I’ve seen photos taken of it from 2008, and am appalled that the NPS is allowing it to literally disintegrate – rusting beams, peeling cement-work, etc. along with a vast amount of growth really close to the building. Hopefully, the NPS will lose, and will then need to restore it or move it to a “better” place.
      As a Civil War historian, I understand the idea that it is on a key part of the battlefield (just like all of the the cheesy hotels and tourist traps up and down Steinwehr Avenue!). But the Cyclorama building is also quite historic: 1) it is located on the very spot where the artist of the original Cyclorama painting took his viewpoint; 2) it was designed by Richard Neutra; and 3) it was built to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle and is now quite an historic building in its own right!
      Sorry to rant, but I love the Mission 66 structures, and it’s so sad to see this happen.

  8. Ann-Marie Meyers says:

    Thanks, Heidi! Let’s hope your political career takes you all the way up to the national level where you can help to save our national parks!
    I am glad to see some of them being restored to their mid century glory.
    We have a duty as Americans to visit and support these treasures or we will lose them. And we ARE losing them. Funding from the restoration programs are being cut at the federal level and they depend more and more on private donations.
    Visit and donate. Find the Mission 66 Parks near you!

  9. Lauryn says:

    Thanks for this amazing information, Heidi. The National Parks are a real treasure in this country and it’s fabulous to learn more about the architecture in the parks. Good luck with your political aspirations!

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