The Blue Ridge Parkway: Exemplifying the Evolution of the NPS Planning and Design

This presentation is part of the A Century of Design in the Parks: Preserving the Built Environment in National and State Parks, June 21-23, 2016, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Abstract and Presenters’ Bios

Liz Sargent, Liz Sargent HLA

Liz Sargent, Liz Sargent HLA

Liz Sargent: I just wanted to start by saying that this debate on whether engineering or landscape architecture should take the lead in the design of roads is very interesting to me. I think I was part of last generation of landscape architects who were trained in how to design roads. At the University of Virginia we had a professor named Will Riley who taught in the spirit of Stanley Abbott, who’s going to be featured in our presentation today. After his retirement I don’t think there’s been a single program in the country that teaches road design to landscape architects. And I think based on this conference that we need to reinstate that as a goal.

Bucolic view of Blue Ridge Parkway, milepost 217, September 1953. (Source: National Park Service, Blue Ridge Parkway, negative no. 248)

The Blue Ridge Parkway is perhaps the finest example of a recreational motorway in America. Construction of the 469 mile scenic parkway began as a New Deal project in 1935 with several missions: to connect the Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to highlight the unique culture of Appalachia, and to provide work for the unemployed during the Great Depression.

More than simply a ribbon of asphalt through the wilderness, the Blue Ridge Parkway is at once a unique blend of advanced engineering technology, innovative site planning, visionary design, and natural splendor that affords visitors the ultimate cinematic promenade. With regular expansion of the road to include large land reservations and a wide range of services and amenities for visitors, the parkway was also pioneering as a new park type, so this sort of ties in to what we’ve been talking about about parks versus roads.

The innovations expressed in the form and function of the Blue Ridge Parkway were also the result of multi-disciplinary teams working closely together to affect a vision. Landscape architect and lead designer Stanley Abbott is generally credited as the visionary.

The rustic Sharp Top Bus Shelter

The Mission 66-era Peaks of Otter Lodge

Other notable aspects of the parkway’s history include it’s prolonged 52 year construction history. Although conceived as a whole in the mid-1930s, rock blasting, tunneling, road grading, bridge and culvert construction, and the addition of visitor amenities and landscaping would continue for another five decades as funds, manpower, and engineering capabilities allowed. Over the course of the effort, design styles, as well as the needs of visitors changed, with architectural and engineering expressions and resource types evolving in response.  So here we have an example of the very rustic, and then the more modernist of the Mission 66 period.

An endeavor that began during the depths of the Great Depression in 1935 with civilian conservation core labor at the ready, ended with the construction of the Linn Cove Viaduct through five phases of construction which are illustrated here.

Parkway segments by period of construction. (Illustration by Kirsten Sparenborg)

The Linn Cove Viaduct was one of the world’s most complex concrete bridges, designed by Swiss engineers using computer technology, showing you how far we’ve come.

Throughout this 52 year period parkway designers strived to maintain a consistent vocabulary for architectural elements based in the rustic design style, and employing native materials that would both blend with the natural terrain, and reference regional Appalachian pioneer lifeways. They considered and designed every aspect of how and what motorists would see from the road and how the road would be perceived from outside. Although the rustic vision articulated in the 30s was generally followed, the powerful influence of contemporary design during the 1950s and 1960s resulted in the introduction of modernist architecture, as we’ve been talking about, during Mission 66, that added a sleek, contemporary character to the motorway. By the time it was completed, the parkway offered a union of Appalachian pioneer spirit, rustic heft, and modernist verve, and one of the worlds unique recreational motoring experiences.

So Mike Ford and I are here today to talk a bit about the internationally important designed historic landscape, through the lens of a parkway-wide historic structures inventory that we prepared in 2013 to 2015 for the park, which was funded by a scenic America grant. The project manager for this project, Steven Kidd considered to be the first survey of it’s kind, prepared for the National Park Service. Our team, which included co-author Deborah Slaton, who cannot be here today, and Lauren Knott, who is in the audience, documented more than 600 buildings and other structures, 99 bridges, 26 tunnels, and 275 overlooks, among other features. We used the survey as a springboard to assess every single parkway structure, while at the same time placing them into a broad framework of the parkway’s historical chronology of construction, the building typologies that we encountered, and several historic contexts.

The survey and assessment allowed for an understanding of the relative integrity of each resource and identified the best surviving examples of each resource type. This information is already being used by the National Parks Service to appropriately address the stewardship needs of each individual resource, and will serve as an essential tool for maintaining features that are threatened by the ravages of time, budgetary constraints, and the ongoing debate of the appropriateness of post-rustic design features.

The Blue Ridge Parkway was established as a unit of the National Park system by an act of Congress on June 30th, 1936. The act called for the National Park Service to create a scenic motor road that would provide a means for leisurely travel and recreation through southern Appalachia, while linking two relatively new national parks, Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains, one being in Virginia and the other in North Carolina and Tennessee.

Although the design of the road would prove novel in many ways, the idea for a Blue Ridge Parkway was not new. A scenic road through southern Appalachia was first proposed in 1909. It was referred to as the “crust of the Blue Ridge Highway,” and it was to extend between Marion, Virginia, and Tallulah Falls, Georgia following the upper reaches of the mountains through idyllic locals. American involvement in World War I, however, siphoned off funds and labor and brought the project to an end.

Then a second proposal to create a motorway through the scenic southern highlands emerged in 1930, when the eastern National Park to Park Highway Association, which was modeled on the western one that we saw earlier, recommended the connection of the two parks.

Throughout the 30s, the Great Depression played an important role in the development of the parkway. Following his 1933 inauguration, President Roosevelt advanced several programs and regulations known as the New Deal to help out of work Americans and stimulate the economy. Later that year, Congress enacted the National Industrial Recovery Act, which established the Public Works Administration and authorized the Public Works Administrator, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, to prepare a comprehensive program of public construction projects.

The proposed park to park highway in southern Appalachia was well-suited to this program and immediately added to Ickes list. The fact that the NIRA was also working to acquire land considered sub-marginal for agriculture, but potentially valuable for public recreation, provided an additional incentive to pursue the project as a way to improve the conditions of the impoverished southern highlands where severe soil erosion had resulted from poor farming practices.

Roosevelt encouraged Ikes to to pursue the project following his 1933 visit to Shenandoah National Park, where he saw the Skyline Drive emerging across the northern part of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. By December 1933 federal funding had been allotted to finance construction of the scenic park to park highway.

Planning, design, and construction of such an enormous undertaking would take a vision and a visionary. To find the project leader, Ickes convened a group of advisors that included Gilmore Clark of Westchester County Park Commission, which had established the nations first parkway system. The groups most important contribution was recommending the appointment of Stanley Abbott as resident landscape architect for the new parkway. Abbott had previously worked for the Westchester County Park Commission on the Bronx River Parkway, but he was only 26 when appointed. Abbott brought in Edward Abbuehl, a former landscape architecture professor at Cornell, and these two landscape architects would work closely with engineers of the North Carolina and Virginia State Highway Commissions and the Federal Bureau of Public Roads.

One of the North Carolina and Public Works Commission Engineers involved in planning the parkway was R. Getty Browning , who was instrumental in helping establish the far southern route for the road, which could pass through either Tennessee or North Carolina, and both states fought for the right for the road to travel through their area. An avid outdoorsman and locating engineer with many years of experience investigating and plotting highway locations, Browning successfully argued for the North Carolina route, noting that, “nowhere else in the United States so far as I know, could such an excellent location for a parkway be found.” It’s splendid scenery, high elevation, profusion of beautiful shrubbery, favorable climatic conditions, reasonable construction costs, and accessibility from all sections of the country are to be considered.

As many historians have suggested, the true mastermind behind the parkway was Stanley Abbott. Abbott immediately recognized that the Blue Ridge Parkway was to be a new amalgam of parkway and scenic park road. Once the routing decision had been made, Abbott and his team began to consider the specifics of the road alignment and what to feature along the way. Designers spent months flagging the route for the road in the field. Many credit Abbott for his conviction in guiding the vision.

While engineers from the Bureau of Public Roads and landscape architects from the Park Service were walking each mile of location, Stan Abbott was seeing the finished product. He had the imagination and ability to think big and make no small plans. While most of the innovations in the Blue Ridge Parkway are the product of the joint effort, to Stan must go the big share of credit for the vision, imagination, and enthusiasm necessary to make the dream come true.

Singecat Ridge Overlook (milepost 345.3) in 1953, as documented in Blue Ridge Parkway Final Construction Reports. (Source: National Park Service, Blue Ridge Parkway)

Abbott’s design vision for the parkway corridor was of a bucolic parkland, flanking a roadway of the most advanced design through it’s center. The route and it’s expression aimed at variety and an ever changing series of vistas. Engineered for low-driving speed, the road featured frequent overlooks to allow the safe enjoyment of scenery, and pauses for drivers to rest. The curvilinear nature of the road helped control the speed of motorists and made it actually more safer. Commercial vehicles were prohibited from driving on the road to enhance safety and distinguish the parkway from standard traffic arteries. In contrast to the skyline drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway was not planned as a ridge line route, even though extensive segments followed the crest of the mountains. Instead the designers introduced variety by routing the road to follow mountain streams and broad river valleys as well as mountain sides.

Abbot stressed the importance of an ever-changing road position for maintaining the interest and pleasure of motorists. He suggested that only intermittent sections will ride on or near the skyline in the manor of the Shenandoah Drive, reasoning that rugged topography served to deflect a continuous skyline location, and adding that the designers have deliberately chosen to avoid certain mountains in order to introduce other types of scenery.

I’m going to skip ahead a little bit, so Mike, I don’t take up all of Mike’s time. Basically the idea for the road was to travel through these different types of landscapes, and one of the most important ones was to retain the Appalachian flavor and so they actually designed sort of a pioneer, or romanticized image of an Appalachian pioneer landscape, and they kept and moved historic buildings that they found and made those part of the exhibit, or the experience.

One of the ways that Abbott described his work is, “I can’t imagine a more creative job that locating the Blue Ridge Parkway, because you worked with a ten league canvas and a brush of a comet’s tail. Moss and lichens collected on the shake roof of a Mayberry Mill, measured against the huge panoramas that look out forever,” and I thought that was a very poetic quote.

Abbott also explained, “All elements must compose so as to please, hence to take examples of stone masonry, we find the same extraordinary attention to detail in a small masonry retaining wall, designed to protect a roadside tree, as we find in the triple arched Linville River Bridge.”

Abbott and his team were responsible for many, many innovations including the idea of these recreation areas that expanded the road into sort of a series of parks, and he described those as “beads on a string on a necklace,” and I thought that was also a very poetic description. In addition they used these reservations or recreation areas to place service stations and hotel and other kinds of lodging, and amenities that the visitors would need so there wouldn’t be this impetus to construct those things along the edge of the parkway and affect the view.

There also incredible innovations in the way … This is one of the recreation areas. Innovations in the way the road was designed and the way that it was manipulated so that you could reduce the scarring on the landscape, because they really did have to blast and grade a whole lot, and how they actually affected blending the roadway back to the natural contour so that when you looked at it from below it also looked natural.

Next, Mike and I are going to talk about some of the resources that we documented along the way. This is showing how they designed different views from the road. And they looked at every inch of the road and designed short, mid, and long-range views.

Why’s that doing that … Okay, sorry.

One of the resources that we documented was overlooks, and there are 275 overlooks along the way, and each was designed to specifically relate to the actual vista that it was looking out to, and so a kit-of-parts of design elements were placed and replaced depending on the site that was available to the designers. Each of those overlooks was documented by our team, and Mike’s going to talk about some of the other resources.

Mike Ford: All right, thank you Liz. We’re good.

Now besides overlooks and other features, construction along the parkway included bridges … Here’s an example of an overlook. They included bridges, tunnels, retaining walls, all of which were used to facilitate passage over ravines, rivers, and other roadways, as well as through some of these beautiful yet impassable mountains. An early goal of parkway designers was to limit the number of at grade crossings at the public roads. To do this, they didn’t want to interfere with this idea of recreational motoring and the wonderful scenic views they had established, so to do this they … Bridges and viaducts were used in favor of wider road sections that might include double lanes or turn lanes. They were only used at major intersections and recreational areas.

The idea was to try to keep this nice two lane road free of any interferences. A testament of how these resources are really integrated into the landscape is really how difficult it was to survey some of these things. Not just because of the traffic by the parkway and the adjacent roads, but also because of the terrain.

I present you this image of us documenting some of these bridges, and as you can see we get a little creative, out on a limb there. In order for us to really document what the structure and the foundation of this … This, actually photo, the person taking this photo is taking this image. We had to do that kind of frequently, as well as go onto highways and navigate some of that traffic. It’s really just, from the road, you don’t perceive this danger, I can tell you that.

This was very similar to our documentation of the tunnels, which also required us not only to assess the entrance portals and the retaining walls and drainage systems, but also the roads themselves and the interior walls. As you see here, we’re actually in the middle of a tunnel and there’s no getting out of a tunnel when a car comes so you’ve just got to plan ahead.

As part of the original design, buildings and structures were primarily concentrated within the recreational areas. Parkway designers adopted the rustic design style, which we’ve heard a lot about today, as the overarching architectural vocabulary for these buildings. This style, while considered a Hallmark primarily of park structures in the western United States, was actually a natural fit for the Blue Ridge Parkway with this mountainous setting, and also accentuated the local architectural examples of Appalachian structures.

Now, Appalachian structures were already present on the parkway and they included log homes, let’s see … Yeah, there we go. Log homes, as well as farm buildings. We have a rustic mill down here. Various out buildings such as this blacksmith and this farm, or barn building there, as well as we had wood rail fences of various types. They’re all part of the parkway design. These buildings and resources were preserved and in some cases interpreted as evidence of the local pioneer culture. They were enhanced by views of working farms, fields, and orchards adjacent to the road corridor, although within the easements some of these structures were sometimes concealed in the landscape and situated on steep mountainous slopes or covered by vegetation on the outskirts of clearings.

This particular resource, the Caudel [sp?] House, was visible from an overlook about a few hundred feet up, right about where my cursor is right there, and you had to look down upon it. I find this resource very fascinating because really I felt was an excellent way of depicting what the Appalachian pioneer spirit is, of this kind of remoteness. You look down and all you see is this small little cabin in the middle of nowhere. That idea of remoteness and independence and just that strong spirit. Suffice to say, it involved us navigating some side roads, going to a state park, a three hour hike over forests and waterways to get this photo, but from atop, you really can get the image of what this is.

Other ways that the pioneer structures were incorporated are depicted here at Mayberry Mill, as well as at Humpback Rocks and other areas where the resources were relocated and arranged in exhibits to emphasize the lifeways of mountain communities. They’re interpreted to introduce regional practices of pioneer settlements, handicrafts, and folk traditions. The experience of the pioneer structures is enhanced by the design of the road. The approach of the road framed the views and the setting, also the arrangement of these structures within the site gives the park visitor the sense that they are discovering these, as I mentioned earlier it’s not … You don’t see a warning. It all of the sudden, you happen upon it, which is really exciting as a person driving along this to experience that for the first time as you pass it. The overall rustic style of vocabulary of the parkway further compliments the historic pioneer features of the roadside landscape.

Work on the parkway was performed in phases as funding and labor were made available. By 1935 the designers had divided the proposed road corridor into a series of sections identified by letter and a number code to manage planning and construction. You see these sections … These sections are labeled on the map here in purple, the sections were labeled one for Virginia and two for North Carolina, and then alphabetically within the state. The sections varied in length from 5.7 to 15.6 miles long. Construction on the road began in 1935, and for each section the designers prepared carefully drawn planned land use maps, or PLUMs they were called, to show the character of the roadside and intended views.  Liz showed one of those earlier.

About two thirds of the proposed route and five of the recreational areas were completed between 1935 and 1942. Work involved blasting and grading and construction of the road, as well as construction of walls, culverts, bridges, tunnels, overlooks, which … And this construction continued intermittently until America’s involvement in World War II siphoned off the labor and funding. As previously stated, buildings and structures in the rustic style.

Due to a shortage of funds and manpower, little work occurred in the parkway during World War II. Road construction focused on five sections which are identified in pink on this map. In addition, a few maintenance areas, two recreational areas, and the Groundhog Mountain Tower were constructed. Efforts also focused on making plans for resumption of construction and development when peace returned.

Efforts to complete the roadway began again after the war, but work was limited to five additional sections which are identified in orange on this map, or it appears more like yellow here. Due to lack of funds, there were few structures really constructed along the parkway during this time. Most of were associated with recreational uses, such as picnic and campground areas, and the establishment of pioneer farm exhibits and visitor’s centers. These features continued to reflect the proposed rustic design style, however the lack of New Deal Era manpower and craftsmen needed to build the the complicated stone and timber structures, coupled with the availability of new and pre-fabricated construction materials, led to modifications to this park rustic design style, called the modified rustic. Also during this time bridges and tunnel design began to increasingly incorporate concrete and updated safety features.

In 1955 the National Parks Service received authorization under Mission 66, again something we’ve head a lot about today. Funding generated by the Mission 66 program was integral to the completion of the Blue Ridge Parkway, including construction of approximately 1/3 of the remaining road corridor and expansion of the lodging and food services, park administration features, maintenance facilities, and recreational areas. Bridges were increasingly constructed of new material such as concrete and steel.

The visitor’s center was developed by the National Park Service as new building type and incorporated into the Blue Ridge Parkway architectural vocabulary through the construction of new visitor centers as well as the adaptive reuse of existing structures. Architecturally the resources constructed during Mission 66 … I’ll stay here … Were a departure from the rustic and employed the modernist principles. Mission 66 funds were used to complete all but 7.8 miles of the parkway. The unfinished section was to circumnavigate the lower regions of the Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, but work was impeded by the challenging terrain, the sensitive and rare natural plant communities, as well as ownership disputes.

The Linn Cove Viaduct as it weaves around Grandfather Mountain. (Source: Historic American Engineering Record)

By this time, environmental issues were becoming to the fore, and the federal government would soon pass the National Environmental Policy Act. This suggested special care be taken in solving the problem for routing the parkway over this sensitive terrain, and the final section of the parkway was finally completed … Oops … Yep. There we go. Finally completed in 1987 after a series of bridges and cantilever road sections developed by Swiss engineers using computers were carefully lowered into place to disturb as little of the terrain as possible, and protect the sensitive environment of the mountainside.

I will skip ahead to really … Through some of these slides. We had a wide range of structure that we surveyed as part of this project, and our first task was really just to understand from our field research how these could be grouped together, either by period of construction or this kind of kit-of-part of building types.

We also assessed all of these for integrity, whether it be vandalism, whether it be erosion or flooding, or just structural deterioration, and we put all this in a database which helped us really see this plan here, how the construction and the phasing of this work and how clear it is specifically on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Once completed, the Blue Ridge Parkway was immediately lauded as a premier example of the power of design in creating a building, a built form, that is thoughtful, meaningful, and sensitive to it’s environment. At the time of its earliest construction, it was the longest road in the United States ever to be planned as a single unit. The parkway, and its resources, exhibit a philosophy of connecting the motorist to the land.

Unity of form, materials, and quality was achieved by the consistent application of three basic principles throughout the design. Recognizing the preeminent importance of scenery, providing a safe and enjoyable driving experience, and protecting the natural environment by gently fitting the road and all other resources into the mountain setting, so that they looked as though they belonged. The design of the road was the through line by which these design principles were linked. Despite the several construction periods, the parkway continues to express a single, unified idea. The guiding principles were followed in the location and design of the road, and was continued in the design of the scenic corridor, the development of the recreational areas and associated park buildings, and through roadside exhibits and signs. Unity is also derived from the frequent repetition of structural typologies, and the consistent application of form and materials, layout, and character.

While presenting a unified design, variation was introduced through site specific implementation of the over-arching design principles. Project engineers, landscape architects, and architects were afforded latitude to develop their own solutions to particular problems and site specific needs by fitting the road to the land. The directive to meet each unique situation with a fresh eye resulted in a range of execution that offers constant interest and reminds motorists that the parkway was a result of a process of debate, experimentation, and compromise involving dozens if not hundreds of people over many years. It also confers a sense of individuality on each section of the parkway that serves as a part of the historical record. Today, the parkway offers the opportunity to experience and study the physical expression of the National Park Service ideals and values over a more than 50 yer period.

It also has much to teach us about innovation, teamwork, and the importance of creativity in addressing challenging problems, and is a model in many ways, as stewards of our National Park heritage. Thank you.

Mike Ford, Senior Associate, Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc.

Liz Sargent, ASLA, is Principal of Liz Sargent HLA, a historical landscape architecture practice based in Charlottesville, Virginia. Ms. Sargent works throughout the United States on projects involving cultural landscapes for varied clients, including the National Park Service. Ms. Sargent frequently collaborates with Ms. Slaton on cultural landscape projects for national parks. She is also active in several historic preservation organizations and serves as an advisor to a number of community-led projects. Her work on the Blue Ridge Parkway study recently received an award from the Virginia chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.