Tennessee Modernism: Mission 66 (feat. Clingmans Dome Observation Tower)

The National Park Service (NPS) had a problem. When the NPS was created (in 1916), travel was primarily done by train. In fact, some railroad companies were responsible for the building and operation of national park visitor centers. But with the rise in popularity of the car (and the advent of the US highway system), travelers could now access parks that previously weren’t accessible. This brought about a need for new visitor centers in new places.

So, in 1955, NPS Director Conrad Wirth proposed a program (funded by the federal government) to create new visitor centers (among other facilities) all across the national parks. The goal was to have the various structures and improvements done by 1966 (the 50th anniversary of the NPS). The program was dubbed Mission 66.

A decision was made by Thomas Chalmers Vint (the director of design and construction) to design these new structures in the modernist style, reflecting the modernity of not only the NPS but also the park visitors.

Let’s take a whirlwind tour of some of the amazing visitor centers that were built all across the US.

Quarry Visitor Center by Anshen & Allen (Jensen, Utah). The circular portion has been demolished.
Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center by Rogers & Poor (Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina)

Painted Desert Community by Richard Neutra & Robert Alexander (Apache County, Arizona)

Sunset Crater Visitor Center by Cecil Doty (in Flagstaff, Arizona)

Alright. Enough non Tennessee structures, let’s talk about the two Mission 66 structures here in the Volunteer state.

Structure: Sugarlands Visitor Center
Location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Architect: Eastern Office of Design and Construction (EODC)
Date: 1960
Tidbit: The structure was just restored in 2013 and is in really great shape. That’s it. That’s the tidbit.

Structure: Clingmans Dome Observation Tower
Location: Sevier County, Tennessee (35°33′46″N 83°29′55″W)
Architect: Bebb & Olsen
Date: 1959
Tidbit: Built as a part of Mission 66, the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower caused quite a stir when its design was revealed in 1958. Apparently Hubert Bebb and Raymond Olsen’s design was a bit too modern for the national audience. However, it was very popular with locals and, a year later the tower was built.

Of note, the Shark Valley Observation Tower (designed by architect Edward M. Ghezzi in 1964) bears a striking resemblance to the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower. Great artists, I suppose?

Tennessee Modernism: Fiser House by Hubert Bebb

Structure: Fiser House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Hubert Bebb
Date: 1961
Tidbit: In the early 1960s, Knoxville, Tennessee had a prominent home builder named John Fiser. Joe had always wanted a lake house, so when the time came, he turned to notable Gatlinburg architect Hubert Bebb and had him design a gargantuan 4,600, tri-level, hexagonal-shaped house overlooking Fort Loudon Lake (later additions would bring the house’s square footage up to around 10,000 sq ft). Sparing no expense, John hired Jim Cleveland (an architect-designer) to design + decorate the interior with imported fixtures from Spain, wool carpets, and a Robert R. Bushong screenprint (for the focal point of the main room). The ink wasn’t even dry on Bebb + Cleveland’s plans before John began building the house (he was a builder, after all). The stonework alone took 6 months! Unfortunately, the house didn’t transition well into the modern era. The house itself was neat but, according to the Fisers, didn’t have all of the amenities one would want from a modern house. Although they put time and energy into seeing whether a rehab was feasible, they decided that it would have been too costly, and the house was demolished in 2012. The good news, though, is that much of the original house’s materials were used in a new build on the site. That said, we bid you RIP, hexagonal house.

Google Satellite view 2010
Google Satellite view 2013