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: Livingston House by Richard Neutra

Structure: Philip Livingston House
Location: Chattanooga, Tennessee
Architect: Richard Neutra
Date: 1955
Story: Sometimes, when you see a marvelous mid-century house, your heart starts to flutter. If it flutters too much, you’ll need to go see a cardiologist. Now, as luck would have it, the owner of the house we’re featuring in this blog was indeed a cardiologist, his name was Dr. Philip Livingston.

Now Dr. Livingston (I presume) was one of Chattanooga’s best doctors. His wife, Jean, was a big player in state politics. So, being the power couple they were, they decided to build a custom house. They turned to the man, the myth, the legend Frank Lloyd Wright. Eventually, however, things with Wright didn’t work out. One wonders if, like the owners of the Shaw House, the Livingston’s found their conversation with Wright to be “considerably one-sided”?

In any event, they ended up deciding to work with architect Richard Neutra. Many, many words have been written about architect Richard Neutra. He was a Viennese architect who worked for master architects in Europe before coming to the U.S., doing a stint with Frank Lloyd Wright, and then making his way to Los Angeles. He would go on to design some of the most iconic mid-century houses of the era, many of which you’ve probably seen. If you want a good introduction to Neutra, read the Los Angeles Conservancy’s write-up on him.

Neutra’s works were focused in-and-around Southern California. Outside of California, Neutra only designed a handful of houses. Very few are in the south, and this is his only Tennessee design. The original budget for the house was $30,000 (~$288k today), but the final cost ended up being closer to $100,000 (~$961k today). That exorbitant amount of investment got the Livingston house some very special attention from Neutra.

The house itself was chock full of unique features such as a darkroom (Dr. Livingston was an amateur photographer) and an ahead-of-its-time floating TV stand.

Neutra was a talented watercolor artist, and he often sketched + painted the houses he designed. At some point, he painted two watercolors of the Livingston House.

Unfortunately, as often happens, the house decomposed for many years until a developer bought + razed it in 2015.

If you want to read more about this fantastic space, the late Gavin Townsend spent copious amounts of time researching + writing about it, read about it over on the SAH Archipedia. This post (and this blog, probably) owes its existence to Gavin and the amazing work he did during his lifetime.