Gilbert Stanley Underwood presenting his design for Ahwahnee Hotel around 1926

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” –Thomas Jefferson, 1816

Much like the diversity that knits the fabric of America, the architecture of the National Parks is wonderfully varied. It seems impossible to discuss the centennial of the National parks without thinking of some of the structures built there. These buildings document our history – some the actual places of historic significance and others as memorials, while many mark the wonders of our nations landscape –  exploding out of rock or perched in stately magnificence while they harmoniously sit within the lands they occupy. From coast to coast we have iconic buildings for people to enjoy.


“Liberty Enlightening the World”, a reflection of the power of two countries love of democracy and freedom, is France’s gift to the United States.  It is a monument that has welcomed millions and is in many ways the first national park many immigrants have ever experienced and one that many still visit today. Envisioned and designed by the French team of Edouard De Laboulaye, sculptor Auguste Bartholdi, architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc and engineer Alexander-Gustave Eiffel, this monument has become an international symbol of liberty, justice and democracy.  The base, an architectural monument in its own right, was designed by the American architect Richard Morris Hunt, who was the first American to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Nearby, Ellis Island and its collection of buildings have become another part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument.  They mark a time and place that define what it meant to come to this country for many, and today tell the stories of families histories.


Ellis Island great hall

Not far away, in Philadelphia, the birth of our country is documented in Independence National Historic Park, spanning an area of over 55 acres on 20 city blocks that include Independence Hall, the Franklin Memorial, the Liberty Bell and over twenty additional monuments within the city.

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Inspired by the American concept of wilderness around the turn of the century–and promoted by painting, essays, and later photography–the idea took hold that our wilderness should be protected, treasured, and explored. Yellowstone is arguably one of the most dramatic of the national parks and its buildings–and the ghost of buildings–are equally grand. The Yellowstone Canyon Hotel was rebuilt several times and designed by Architect Robert Reamer. It opened in 1911 and ran until 1958 when it closed. It burned in 1960 while being demolished.


Yellowstone’s North Gate, the iconic Roosevelt Arch, 1903

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Canyon Hotel fire, photographed at 2:00 am; Photographer unknown; 1960 Possibly Michael Turner, Haynes Photo Shop at Canyon, See Yellowstone Science, Sum 2005, Pg 34.

Canyon Hotel fire

Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park is located opposite the more famous Old Faithful Inn, facing Old Faithful geyser. The Lodge was originally built as a series of detached buildings but was redesigned by architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood into one complex around 1927.

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A Colonial Revival building equally at home on the lake’s edge is the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, completed in 1891. Beginning in 1903, it was re-designed and expanded by architect Robert Reamer. His design included a clapboarded structure and three porticoes that overlook the lake.

Yellowstone Lake Hotel exterior.

Yellowstone Lake Hotel exterior


Equally famous Yosemite contains the Ahwahnee Hotel (renamed The Majestic Yosemite Hotel). The Majestic Yosemite Hotel is considered the premier lodge in the Yosemite area has a striking granite facade with log-beamed ceilings and massive stone hearths. Unique to the property from 1927 is its unique blend of design influences including Art Deco, Native American, Middle Eastern and Arts & Crafts Movement.


Also at Yosemite, the sprawling Rangers’ Club blends into forest scenery and style seems perfectly at ease with its setting.


Ranger building


Yosemite Valley Chapel built in 1879, services were held here in 1887 for President Grant

Small in stature but made of rough-shaped granite in Yosemite National Park is The Sierra Club-run LeConte Memorial Lodge. Designed by the architect John White, he was highly influence by his bother-in-law, Bernard Maybeck. The rustic tudor revival lodge, reflecting the textures, colors,  local materiality and verticality of the surrounding valley, was built by the Sierra Club around 1904.  In the 1920’s, this would provide a summer residence for Ansel Adams for several years.


LeConte Memorial Lodge

Buildings like these led to a movement that became known as National Parks Rustic, where the scenery is the primary focus and the built structures supporting out interaction in these places should use local, natural materials used to create an architecture that seems and though it harmoniously grew out of the landscape, and in fact, have become synonymous with the landscapes in which they were built.  These are some of the many architectural treasures to be found in smaller park structures that came out of this movement.


The summit of Mt. Cammerer (originally White Rock) in Smoky Mountains Nat’l Park.


A great vantage in the Smoky Mountains Nat’l Park.


Camp Muir at Mt. Rainer


Crater Lake superintendent residence in Oregon


The Stephen Frazee house, an early brick house in Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley

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Shadow Mountain Fire Lookout in Rocky Mountain National Park


Harney Peak Fire Lookout in the Black Hills

The Grand Canyon is a classic example of a park building educated by the landscape. Designed by one of the first female architects and designers in the west, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter designed many iconic buildings of the park.

Desert View Watch Towerc Mike Koopsen

Desert View Watch Tower, 1932


Hermit’s Rest, 1914


Lookout Studio, 1914

Hopi House

Hopi House, 1905

Far from the majesty of the Yellowstone or the rusticity of the Grand Canyon, is Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas. Hot Springs became a National Park in 1921, and now holds the title as the oldest protected area in the National Park System. Here a collection of eclectic buildings in styles from neoclassical to various period revivals – Renaissance, Spanish and Italianate, dating from the turn of the 19th century illustrate the popularity of the spa movement in this period.

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Bath house row

In a city of monuments, one stands out as a crowning architectural marvel–fitting for one of our founders – The Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC.  Here John Russell Pope drew from Jefferson’s own influences with this neoclassical adaptation modeled on the Pantheon of Rome, creating a memorial whose lineage can be connected to the designs of Jefferson himself and the age of enlightenment.


Thomas Jefferson Memorial


Interior of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial

We will end this tour closer to home in Texas, in the Guadalupe Mountain and Big Bend National Park. Here, the landscape once again is the focus, and historic structures nestle within the broader panoramas of the surrounding natural beauty.


Williams Ranch at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Former General Store at Hot Springs in Big Bend National Park; Chihuahuan Desert; Texas in summer.

Former General Store at Hot Springs in Big Bend near the hot springs

“There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and the wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of the great human principle.” –FDR

Looking at the architecture of the National Parks, one cannot help to realize the way the “parkitecture” reflects the diverse character of our country–the amazing variety of styles inspired by our landscapes and ideas beyond the land itself– an exploration of the human principle.