Painted Desert Community Complex Apartment

photo by: Beinlich Studios

March 15, 2017

What It's Like To Live And Work At The Painted Desert Community Complex

  • By: Lauren Walser

I felt like I hit the jackpot when I was assigned to work on the Painted Desert Community Complex story in the Winter 2017 issue of Preservation magazine. It combined two of my favorite things: National Parks and Modernist architecture.

The complex, located in Petrified Forest National Park, was designed by famed Modernist architect Richard Neutra and built in the early 1960s. Years of deferred maintenance have left it looking a little downtrodden, and in 2014, the National Trust named it a National Treasure. Its restoration is in full swing.

While working on the story, I learned Neutra’s design for the park included housing for the park rangers who worked there. Today, some of the park’s 35 staff members are lucky enough to call the complex their home.

To work in a national park and live in a Neutra-designed building? I could barely contain my jealousy. I had to learn more.

Painted Desert Community Complex Apartment

photo by: Lauren Carter

The housing blocks at Painted Desert Community Complex.

So I sat down and talked with Lauren Carter. She has lived and worked at Petrified Forest National Park for six years. She started out in law enforcement, but today she holds the title of education program coordinator. That means she wrangles groups of students who come to the park on field trips and oversees the park’s junior ranger program, among many other things. But mostly, she educates visitors about the park—its history, its ecology, you name it.

And when she’s done with her day’s work, she retreats to her home at the park’s grounds. Here’s what I learned about what it’s like living and working at the Painted Desert Community Complex.

On her accommodations:

There’s a lot of variation within the park’s housing options. When she first came to the park, Carter lived in one of the smaller apartments typically earmarked for seasonal employees. Today, she lives in one of the housing units. “I’m in one of the houses with my husband [a law enforcement ranger at the park], so we have a nice yard and three bedrooms,” she says. “It’s one of the bigger units.”

Her kitchen features a big window looking out into the yard. “The yard has a big cinderblock wall around it, which gives a lot of privacy,” Carter says.

Her unit has been renovated, “so we don’t have any of the historic cabinetry inside,” she says. But other housing units around the park do have the original fixtures. “They’re so cool-looking,” she says.

Painted Desert Community Complex Apartment Kitchen

photo by: Beinlich Studios

The kitchen of one of the complex's housing units, as seen in the 1960s.

On her initial feelings of living in housing designed by Richard Neutra:

“Honestly I had never heard of him before,” she says. “And I know that Modernism and all its straight lines is not everybody’s cup of tea. It’s not generally mine, either. But I have seen all the old photos of the complex, and it’s amazing. You see those old photos and what it’s supposed to look like, and it’s amazing. I get it now.”

To her, Neutra’s design for a 22-acre, self-contained community works. “I know Neutra was intending to make it like a modern pueblo,” Carter says. “And that really is what it’s like.”

On how it feels to live in such an iconic park building by such an iconic architect:

“By now I’m so used to it that it doesn’t really affect me,” she admits. “But it’s still so interesting. I notice new things about the building all the time.”

On living and working in a building that’s undergoing a major renovation:

Carter is thrilled by all the work happening at the Painted Desert Community Complex. “They’re doing so much to bring it back to what it was like originally,” she says.

Buildings have been stabilized and repainted, and a number of changes and alterations made throughout the years are in the process of being reversed.

“That’s one of the cool things about living here,” she says. “When I first came here, nothing was happening. And then watching all these changes over the last few years—like when they painted the visitors center. It made the whole building stand out.”

She says she purposely avoids looking at some of the in-progress renovations, like around the gift shop area, where the wall of windows is being brought back to its original design.

“I’m waiting for the giant reveal at the end of the work,” she says. “I want it to be like, ‘Ahh! It’s done!’ I know it will be amazing.”

Painted Desert Community Complex Apartment

photo by: Lauren Carter

Outside Housing Block 2.

Painted Desert Community Complex Apartment, from west

photo by: Lauren Carter

Housing Block 1, facing west.

On her life at the park after hours:

Living where you work and working where you live might sound a little confining. But Carter says she doesn’t mind.

“Having walls around our yard does kind of allow us to mentally escape a bit,” she says.

But for her, living at the park means endless opportunities for exploration and recreation: “I love being able to just walk outside and be in the park.”

Neutra created plenty of space for employees to unwind. There’s a rec room that’s perfecting for lounging. And the staff has access to the community building, where community events and trainings are held. “It has a big projector and a screen, so we can have movie nights,” she says. “We’ve done Halloween parties there before. And Thanksgiving dinners, for staff who can’t go home for the holiday.”

Painted Desert Community Complex Auditorium

photo by: Beinlich Studios

The auditorium in the 1960s.

Painted Desert Community Complex Auditorium, today

photo by: Lauren Carter

The auditorium today, where staff will occasionally watch movies in their downtime.

On the park at night—and one of her favorite elements of living there:

Petrified Forest National Park is working to become a certified International Dark Sky Park—meaning, a park that minimizes light pollution and protects the view of the night sky. But, of course, there still needs to be some amount of lighting outside the Painted Desert Community Complex for the safety of park employees at night.

“There used to be these gigantic white poles with those horrible, buzzing lights in them,” she says.

Carter was part of a team that helped locate light fixtures for the outside of the complex that were both Dark Sky-compliant and in keeping with Neutra’s design for the building.

“That was an interesting adventure,” she says. “We needed something square, something silver- or metal-colored, something like that. But nothing too bright.” The team eventually located unobtrusive sidewalk lights that blend perfectly with Neutra’s design.

“They light up just as much as you need to find your way around, and you’re still able to see the stars,” she says. “I think that’s one of the best things out here: We can lay in our backyard and see the Milky Way.”

Lauren Walser headshot

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

Announcing the 2024 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

See the List