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National Park System in America.

The first national parks were conceived to preserve the natural wonders of a primeval American wilderness that served as inspiration for American painters and photographers. American landscape architecture and park design were central to the emergence of the National Park System at the end of the 19th century, and the permanent conservation of threatened areas of natural beauty. Photography and landscape painting strongly influenced the aesthetic appreciation of unspoiled nature. Photography informed the construction of pictorial spaces, distances, situated views in unexpected places, lighting, angle of view, framing of the view. The overwhelming experience of America’s natural places influenced painters, such as Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, and naturalists, such as John Muir, whose emphasis on the transcendental vision of wilderness began to shape a desire to conserve these places as national symbols of America. Moran’s paintings of Yellowstone Park were influential in designating Yellowstone as America’s first national park on 1 March 1872. Designation of other natural areas as national parks followed: Sequoia and General Grant (1890), Mount Rainier (1899) and Carter Lake (1902), with Wind Cave, Sully’s Hill, Platt and Mesa Verde parks established between 1902 and 1906.

Romantic 19th-century attitudes influenced an open appreciation and depiction of naturalistic landscapes. Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful and later writings on the picturesque experience became natural references in the development of the national parks. American landscape painters from the Hudson River school depicted the experience of discerning the divine essence and spirit of God through the creation of unspoiled and uncivilized natural wilderness. Such artists, and later landscape architects, shaped the visual experience through the organization and structure of the view in order to enhance the perception of irregularity, roughness and variety of wilderness areas. Photography served as a preliminary method to study the natural scene and to evaluate its aesthetic and scenic qualities for transcription to landscape paintings.

Thomas Cole’s 1844 paintings of Maine’s coastline inspired the development of Acadia National Park, preserving for the American public in perpetuity the natural beauty of an area captured previously by artists. Thomas Moran’s painting of the Grand Canyon in 1873 from the northern rim became an iconic image and national symbol of America’s wilderness. Bierstadt painted Mount Rainer in 1863, Kings Canyon and Sequoia in 1868 and the Sierra Nevada in 1872, all of which aided in the establishment of these national parks.

In the early 19th century, national park designers advanced a rustic design approach to preserve the landscape’s natural character and scenic values while simultaneously developing harmonious built features such as road, trails and buildings. Such rustic design built upon a naturalistic tradition of landscape gardening which valued scenic views, varied topography and natural features such as streams and rock outcroppings. Naturalistic principles applied equally to the design of built structures, roads, trails and scenery, encouraging a blending of constructed and natural features in the parks. Designed landscapes were conceived to guide visitors to certain areas and construct a sequence of views. Scenic overlooks and all designed portions of a park conspire to shape the overall perception and pattern of the larger park scenery and serve to choreograph a visitor’s movements and to define the pace and sequence of much of their experience. National parks represented picturesque scenic value, recreational revenue potential, and wilderness and heritage, and landscape design created the viewer experiences and aesthetic appreciation of vast wilderness areas and natural features.

In 1927 American photographer Ansel Adams produced the first photographs of the national parks, under the patronage of Albert M. Bender. Adams’s photographs followed the Romantic tradition and pictorial aesthetic style of 19th-century American landscape paintings and similarly focused on the spiritual–emotional aspects of parks and wilderness. Adams frequently argued against the overdevelopment of the national parks by the park service and also fought for the development of new parks in Alaska and along the Big Sur Coast of Central California.

The National Park Service was formally created on 25 August 1916 by Congress through the National Park Service’s Organic Act to manage the already assembled collection of 17 national parks and 22 national monuments. The Antiquities Act of 1906 enabled a number of national monuments to be added. The first director of the National Park Service was Stephen Mather (1917), who was also active in promoting the state park movement during the 1920s.

Beginning in 1918 the National Park Service began to hire landscape architects to plan and design park villages, campgrounds, roads and trails and facilities to provide advice on issues affecting the scenery of the parks. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. served on Yosemite’s expert advisory committee (1928–56) and prepared numerous preliminary reports which set out a philosophical and practical framework for the development of natural areas of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove. Roads and trails were fundamental to park planning and were to be laid out to connect sequential points of scenic interest and, by their design, engage the visitor in a pleasant experience. Henry Hubbard also exerted widespread influence on the practice and character of park design in national and state parks and was instrumental in defining the master planning process behind the Park Service’s program of landscape protection and harmonization. This latter concept of harmonization encouraged the design of architectural features using native materials and contextual principles and the reestablishment of compromised natural settings through the planting of native species.

Other landscape architects advised on landscape design, including Myron Hunt (1868–1952) of Los Angeles, who developed a new plan for Yosemite Valley. James L. Greenleaf was a commission member for landscape architecture (1918–27), and in 1928 he was succeeded by Ferruccio Vitale. Gilmore D. Clarke developed parkways around Washington, DC, during his time on the Commission of Fine Arts (1932–50). Clarke also trained landscape architect Stanley W. Abbott (1908–75), who was the designer of the Blue Ridge Parkway for the National Park Service. The establishment of scenic reserves along highways was first established by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who played an important role in the development of Yosemite Park. The National Park Service also called upon members of the Federal Commission of Fine Arts to review issues and designs

The national park system aimed to illustrate and interpret the natural or cultural themes of the nation’s heritage for the general American public. Many parks exhibit scenic and historic places, natural curiosities, as well as archaeological, geothermal and other scientific sites. The recreational merit of parks and scenic reserves was valued in terms of how representative they were of scenic ecology, aesthetic, iconic and emotional relationships toward the landscapes.

The park system also included unusual natural features such as Devil’s Tower, Petrified Forest and Glacier National Park (added in 1910), Rocky Mountain (added in 1915) and Hawaii and Lassen (both added in 1916). The Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks were established in 1919.

Throughout its history, the movement to create state and national historic parks and park systems was advanced by a number of regional organizations founded to identify areas of significant scenic and historic interest and to promote their protection by local, state and national government. The National Park System classification of heritage includes national military parks, battlefields, battlefield sites, lakeshores, parks and parkways. In addition, nature preserves and reserves, recreational areas, wilderness, rivers, scenic rivers and waterways, trails and seashores, national memorials and monuments, archaeological sites and significant historic urban landscapes, such as the White House and the National Mall, are included as National Parks. Increasingly, emphasis is placed on protecting America’s natural ecological habitats.


National Parks and the American Landscape Exhibition (exh. cat., Washington, DC, N. Col. F.A., 1972) ( OPENURL )

L. F. McClelland: Building the National Parks (Baltimore, 1998) ( OPENURL )

E. Carr: Wilderness by Design: Landscape Architecture and the National Park Service (Lincoln, NE, 1999) ( OPENURL )

Deborah A. Middleton

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