This presentation was part of A Century of Design in the Parks Symposium, Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 21-23, 2016.


By Frank Matero and Alex Lim

The “Organic Act” that created the National Park Service in 1916 as the federal agency responsible for the protection and management of the then current and all future parks and monuments, also stipulated  “…by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”  Since the 1980s some critics have argued that the language contained in the preamble to the Organic Act is contradictory in its mandate to accommodate use while preserving resources “unimpaired” at the same time. Others have argued that the Organic Act is neither contradictory nor was Congress ignorant of the specific language used or its intended meaning. (Winks 1997, 2016)

In order to “promote and regulate” those parks and monuments as a national system of “scenic landscapes and natural and scientific curiosities” as well as “great educational enterprises,” the new agency quickly recognized the need to provide visitor amenities in the form of the visitor center.  Recent scholarship has begun to examine the rise of the National Park Service visitor center in terms of its planning and architectural design, as related to NPS expansion during the Work Projects Administration of the 1930s and 40s and later updating and modernizing through the post war Mission 66 Program.  Regional contextualism, defined as fitting into the natural or cultural setting, was fundamental to these efforts yet much research remains to understand the different approaches taken at individual parks. Often equated to ‘rustic’ design employing local materials and/or vernacular uses of those materials, occasionally more ambitious efforts were employed to design a visitor center to educate the public by displaying the very cultural traditions of the monument(s) it served.

The Visitor Center at Tumacácori is one such well documented example that involved a team of distinguished professionals who traveled to northern Mexico to survey the Sonoran Chain of missions, produce a remarkable folio of measured drawings, renderings, and photographs, and using traditional construction techniques, create a historical pastiche that was meant to compile the best examples of Sonoran Spanish Colonial design and details.  While other visitor centers attempted to reference local building traditions through their design and construction, few, if any, display the level of scholarship, intent, and integrity as at Tumacácori .

This paper will recount the early preservation history of Tumacácori National Historical Park beginning in 1908 including the significance of its enabling legislation to preserve the site as a ruin. This early precedent, so critical in defining the preservation ethos for many historical monuments in the region, allowed site stewards to consider a variety of novel approaches to the preservation and display of the mission church, culminating in the 1930s in the design and construction of a new Visitor Center that was as instructional for its regional colonial details and construction as it was functional for basic visitor needs.


Frank G. Matero is Professor of Architecture and former Chair of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. He is Director and founder of the Architectural Conservation Laboratory and a member of the Graduate Group in the Department of Art History and Research Associate of the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works and on editorial boards of The Getty Conservation Institute and the Journal of Architectural Conservation.  He is founder and editor-in-chief of Change Over Time, a new international journal on conservation and the built environment published by Penn Press.

National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
645 University Parkway
Natchitoches, LA 71457

Email: ncptt[at]
Phone: (318) 356-7444
Fax: (318) 356-9119