The Rocky Mountain National Park Administration Building, also known as the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, is one of the most historically and architecturally significant National Park Service buildings in the country. It was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 2001. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentices at Taliesin Associated Architects, the building received widespread attention when it opened in 1967 and became a showpiece for the park service’s Mission 66 development program. In addition to elegantly combining visitor services with administrative offices, the building also helped usher in a new era of modernist architecture in the national parks.
In the decade after World War II, visitation to national parks in the US soared. To deal with the growing tide of tourists, in 1956 National Park Service director Conrad Wirth launched the Mission 66 program, an ambitious development campaign aimed at making the parks capable of handling larger crowds by the National Park Service’s fiftieth anniversary in 1966.
One important outcome of the Mission 66 program was the development of the modern park visitor center. Earlier models of park interpretation and education had relied on personal interactions between rangers and visitors, but the new scale of park visitation required new methods of interpreting the parks for the masses. The park visitor center solved this problem in the years after World War II by combining interpretive exhibits, restrooms, shops, and food in one centralized location, usually near park entrances. Visitors could stop on their way in, get oriented and learn a little about the park, and then drive through in a day. Mission 66 focused on adding new visitor centers that could handle a heavy influx of automobiles and tourists.
Between 1941 and 1951, the number of visitors at Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) more than doubled, going from 663,000 to 1.33 million. As part of Mission 66, RMNP opened three new centers to cope with the increasing number of tourists: one at Beaver Meadows, on a new eastern entrance road to the park; another at Grand Lake on the west side of the park; and a third along Trail Ridge Road in the middle of the park. The Beaver Meadows Visitor Center was not the first to open—the Alpine Visitor Center on Trail Ridge Road opened in 1965—but it was easily the most significant. It doubled as the park’s headquarters, and it was designed in a striking modern style that helped sanction a shift away from Rustic architecture in the national parks to a new style known as Park Service Modern.
When Mission 66 started in the mid-1950s, RMNP was laying the groundwork for a new eastern entrance. The park acquired 320 acres of land on its eastern border and laid out a new entrance road across Beaver Meadows, where it planned to build a visitor center and park headquarters. The road opened in 1959, but at that point park staff was still considering different options for the exact location of the visitor center and headquarters. As RMNP officials searched for a site, National Park Service architect Cecil Doty and staff began to sketch preliminary designs for the prospective building at Beaver Meadows.
By 1964, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall contacted Taliesin Associated Architects, a firm made up of Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentices, to see if it was interested in consulting on the building. Udall sought out Taliesin because, like Wright, the firm’s architects paid special attention to the local landscape in their designs. The firm asked about the RMNP building’s site, but an exact location still had not been chosen. That summer, two of the firm’s architects, William Wesley Peters and Edmund Thomas Casey, traveled to the park to inspect potential sites. They focused on the south side of the new entrance road, which had a south-facing slope that would facilitate the separation of the building into distinct visitor and administration areas, and picked a site about a mile outside the park’s gate, where it would be easily accessible without having to pay an entrance fee.
On July 1, 1964, Taliesin officially received the commission for the RMNP Administration Building. Finished in spring 1965, the building plan resembled some aspects of early National Park Service designs and called for a large visitor lobby attached to an auditorium and a long hallway with administrative offices.
Ground was broken on July 16, 1965. Construction proved to be a long and complicated process, in part because the building required unusual materials and building techniques. The exterior walls, for example, were built of precast concrete panels in sixty-four different sizes. The panels were made by pouring concrete around large stones and then sprinkling the concrete with pebbles to create a material that bridged the gap between natural and industrial and between rustic and modern.
By January 1966 the building was halfway done. Construction slowed briefly because of union protests, but by October the building was finished, and in November park staff started to move in. Final repairs and alterations were completed over the next few months, and the building was officially dedicated on June 24, 1967.
Despite opening one year after Mission 66 officially ended, the RMNP Administration Building became one of the program’s most influential architectural legacies because of how it artfully blended a modernist building into the natural landscape. The building was a long, narrow rectangular structure running roughly east to west, with a large auditorium at the eastern end. It was built on a south-facing slope, which allowed it to maintain a low, one-story profile for visitors entering from the north while containing plenty of space in the two-story southern section for administrative offices and meeting rooms.
Visitors encounter some of the building’s most distinctive features before they enter. In addition to the precast concrete panels that include local stones, the building’s exterior includes a Corten steel framework arranged in an abstract triangular design based on Native American rock art. The triangular pattern recurs throughout the building.
After passing through a low entryway, visitors walk into a large, high-ceilinged lobby with an information desk, a large relief map of the park, and a bank of windows facing the mountains. The alcove to the right used to hold a stone fireplace but has since been converted into a store. To the left is a set of stairs leading down to the auditorium entrance, where visitors can watch a short film about the park. Inspired by the design of Native American kivas, the auditorium was the largest of any built during the Mission 66 program because it was originally intended to double as a meeting space for the town of Estes Park. A balcony around the upper level of the auditorium passes through to the building’s exterior, where visitors are treated to a panoramic view of Longs Peak.
The RMNP Administration Building has seen a few minor changes in the decades since it opened. The main changes have been the conversion of part of the lobby into a store run by the Rocky Mountain Nature Association, which has reduced the area available to visitors, and the closure of parts of the original circuit around the upper level of the auditorium and the exterior balcony, which has prevented visitors from flowing through the building as the architects intended. Otherwise, the building remains the same as when it opened in 1967, and it continues to fulfill the same functions of interpretation, education, and administration.