Painted Desert Community Complex's Return To Its Modernist Roots
Visiting the windswept high desert of northern Arizona can be an exercise in time travel. Parts of Route 66, the emblematic highway that once stretched from Chicago to Los Angeles, survive here, still dotted with motels dating from the 1950s and ’60s. The highway is popular with proudly retro Harley riders, retired couples chugging along in RVs, and drivers in classic cars. Combine all that with a landscape captured in a thousand old Westerns, and you can feel like you’ve stumbled into a piece of Americana trapped in amber.
Driving through the region recently, I found myself contemplating the persistent nostalgia for the ’50s and early ’60s embodied by Route 66. It was an age of relative innocence. More significantly for many, I think, it was an age of newfound possibility, a time when the American experience seemed to grow larger and brighter every year.
The Painted Desert Community Complex at Petrified Forest National Park, built in the 1960s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, represents that era just as much as the stretch of Route 66 that crosses the park’s northern section. The National Park Service constructed the complex as part of its Mission 66 program, an ambitious 10-year effort to bring modern facilities to national parks as visitorship exploded in the prosperous decades following World War II. (Mission 66 was named for its goal of completing these upgrades by 1966, not for any Route 66 connection.)
Designed by acclaimed Modernist Richard Neutra, along with Robert Alexander, the 22-acre Painted Desert site was a self-contained park community. It provided not only a place for visitors to stop, shop, eat, and learn about the petrified forest, but also meeting spaces, staff housing, a maintenance facility, and even a school for the children of park employees.
Neutra did all this with a design that captured the inherent optimism of Midcentury Modern architecture while also acknowledging the regional tradition of Puebloan Native American buildings. The former shows in the complex’s horizontal lines, flat roofs, and use of steel and glass. The bold white, red, silver, and turquoise colors Neutra chose for the visitor center, one of the site’s most prominent buildings, also stand as an emphatic declaration of Modernism.
The Puebloan influence may be subtler. Puebloan communities are compact, with shared walls and interior courtyards sheltered from the wind and sun. John Rollow, an architect who worked with Neutra, says the Austrian-born, Los Angeles-based Modernist embraced the wisdom of those ideas. “The buildings of the indigenous peoples in the area showed really appropriate designs consistently over hundreds of years,” says Rollow. “So he created a modern version for the Painted Desert complex.”
The community complex succeeded on both levels, but in the half-century since construction was completed in 1965, it has faced the inevitable ravages of time. Structural issues that caused cracks in the walls and foundational problems have plagued it from the beginning, outpacing the park’s modest maintenance budget.
Over the years, key elements of Neutra’s innovative design were lost or obscured through alterations. Roofs were added over the distinctive spiderleg beams on the main administration building. Some of the complex’s open exterior walkways were walled off. Perhaps most importantly, the glass storefront that distinguished the building holding the Oasis restaurant and gift shop was replaced with a plywood wall. Also, many of Neutra’s original colors were painted over with the Park Service’s traditional tan and brown shades.
In 1993, the down-at-the-heels facility was even slated for demolition. That decision was rescinded in 2004, but the Painted Desert complex—once hailed as a flagship Mission 66 facility—remained in need of major repairs. In 2014, the National Trust identified the site as one of the country’s endangered National Treasures.But today, a determined park superintendent, local supporters, and the National Trust have undertaken restoration at the Painted Desert Community Complex, giving visitors a new chance to experience Neutra’s original vision and to recapture the optimistic spirit of Mission 66.
Interstate 40 runs west to east across Arizona, just south of the Navajo Nation on the Colorado Plateau—high desert with a base elevation of about 5,000 feet. This is red rock country, a harsh, barren, yet stunningly beautiful landscape.
The Painted Desert, off I-40 and 25 miles east of the town of Holbrook, is a badlands distinguished by the vivid colors of its buttes and valleys: reds, pinks, even shades of lavender. I don’t think there was a tree in sight as I drove down I-40, but 225 million years ago a rain forest existed here, and the petrified remains of trees are scattered throughout the area. The Park Service must have thought the public would find this aspect more interesting than another pretty desert, because they named the park after it.
The desert would have to be satisfied with serving as the namesake for Neutra’s complex. Yet that seems appropriate somehow, given that the design was so clearly shaped by the environment dominating earth and sky here. Neutra made an early visit to scout the site in 1958, according to Brad Traver, the park superintendent. “[It] must have been blowing a gale,” Traver says, “because he really paid attention to the wind.”
As near as I could tell, the wind is always blowing a gale on the Colorado Plateau. I’m pretty sure half the local residents would fall over in surprise if it stopped. But it’s true that the design is carefully planned to shield visitors from both the wind and the merciless summer sun. The central public and administrative buildings are gathered around a courtyard that blocks the strongest breezes. They include covered walkways and limited windows and doors on sides exposed to the elements.
At the same time, Neutra opened the buildings to the outdoors with his signature expanses of glass. His design cleverly folds the various uses of the complex together so the maintenance facility and other service-oriented areas are hidden from visitors while still being integrated into a relatively small footprint. As Traver led me on a tour, I was repeatedly surprised to find the staff apartment building or the old school artfully tucked around a corner.
Traver’s delight in the complex was apparent at every turn. Tall, with a square chin, old-fashioned mustache, and relaxed smile, he looks like someone you would cast as a park ranger in a public service ad. But within his outdoorsy exterior lurks a historic preservation enthusiast. When he was first assigned to Petrified Forest National Park on a temporary basis in 2007, the facility captured his attention. “I just thought this was a really cool place,” he says, “and I thought it was something we should protect.”
After spending time in the Park Service’s Phoenix office, Traver returned as Petrified Forest’s superintendent in May of 2011, largely because he wanted to see the Painted Desert complex saved. He has been working to see Neutra’s original vision renewed ever since. “Superintendent Traver has been driving this restoration, bit by bit, with a number of projects he’s been able to get through the Park Service budget process,” says Christina Morris, field director of the National Trust’s Los Angeles office.
Traver, for his part, believes the National Trust’s support has made a significant difference in the effort. “Making it a National Treasure raised the profile, not just in the preservation community, but in the Park Service, as well,” he says. “I think it had a direct effect on our ability to get some things done.”
Morris and her team helped to line up the experts necessary for the visitor center’s ongoing restoration. Historic Resources Group, a preservation consulting firm based in Pasadena, California, was brought in to analyze the paint and restore the original color scheme, and provided technical advice on smaller restoration projects on the site. “They have very sleek designs,” Morris says of the Neutra buildings. “You have to be very careful in the way you treat those details and respect the purity of them, and that’s where we’ve been able to assist.” Participants in the National Trust’s HOPE Crew program, which trains young people in historic preservation skills, worked on the repainting project in September of 2015, under the guidance of David Charlebois, a Los Angeles–area preservation specialist.
Problems existed from the beginning with the complex’s foundation, which did not include sufficient support in the site’s sandy soil. (Opinions vary as to whether the fault lies with Neutra’s design or the original contractor’s work.) Underground piers have been installed to stabilize two of the buildings. The National Trust secured a $150,000 grant from American Express that helped fund the restoration of the Oasis building’s original glass storefront, scheduled for completion this spring. And the Park Service plans to spend $5.5 million to rehabilitate some of the buildings around the central plaza in 2021 and 2022.
Farther away from the plaza—the part of the complex most directly experienced by visitors—it gets harder to attract money for new projects, Traver admits. Many of these buildings are visibly dilapidated. As of press time, the site was being considered for National Historic Landmark status, which would help focus more attention on it. And a nonprofit group called Friends of Petrified Forest formed in 2014. The complex has also drawn the support of National Trust Advisors and preservation leaders all over Arizona, including Alison King, founder of the Midcentury Modernism advocacy group Modern Phoenix; Demion Clinco, CEO of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation; and Jim McPherson, president of the Arizona Preservation Foundation.
Ironically, Painted Desert’s relative disrepair might be an indirect result of the optimism that led to Mission 66. In the 1950s, national parks’ popularity skyrocketed as an increasingly affluent nation discovered the joys of the road trip. But park amenities remained primitive. “The parks were still operating with facilities built in the 1920s,” says architectural historian Christine Madrid French.
In response, Congress authorized Mission 66, a massive infrastructure upgrade scheduled to conclude on the Park Service’s 50th anniversary in 1966. The future seemed ever bigger, and the Painted Desert complex was built under the assumption that the Petrified Forest National Park staff would need to grow to 41 employees, serving 1.35 million annual visitors. “We never got those numbers,” Traver says.
Last year, the park had almost 800,000 visitors and 35 full-time employees. (Some staffers live on site in the Neutra-designed housing.) The facility’s size has been part of the challenge of maintaining it.
Still, Madrid French says Mission 66 was about more than just serving a growing number of visitors—it was about reflecting contemporary America. “The point was to show the parks were up to date,” she says. Neutra’s architecture powerfully expresses the Modernist idea that a community could serve both visitors and staff while interacting with the haunting landscape around it.
The complex also captures a moment when the nation was looking forward with confidence, taking the best from the past, but unafraid of the future. As I contemplate the timeless design of the visitor center on a bright desert morning, its restoration in the face of so many hurdles feels like an enduring validation of that faith.