Do Not Migrate

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

By Doug Harnsberger


The Muir Memorial Shelter research project grew from a youthful passion of Mr. Harnsberger’s, when he lived as a teen in the San Francisco Bay Area, and backpacked each summer in the Sierra Nevada. Some four decades later, in August 2013, he and his four grown children sauntered up the John Muir Trail to the 12,000 feet high Muir Pass and encountered the exotic looking “Muir Hut” for the first time. Many architectural design questions were raised by his unexpected encounter with the corbelled granite structure that resulted in the author pursuing another meandering path – of research. That research path has led today to a pending 2016 National Historic Landmark designation, cosponsored by the Sierra Club and the National Park Service for the heretofore unrecognized historic structure. Both organizations are planning to celebrate NHL designation for the Muir Memorial Shelter and its namesake John Muir, the “father of the national parks,” on August 25, 2016, the actual NPS Centennial Day.

The design origin of the Muir Memorial Shelter defies the usual NPS categories of park building types. It is truly an exceptional historic structure. It was not derived from the familiar NPS Parkitecture forms, or from CCC or WPA architects, or Art Deco, or other Arts-and-Crafts styles in vogue at the time. Surprisingly, it owes its form to the popular cultural influence of a February 1930 article in National Geographic Magazine that showcased the vernacular 18th-century Trullo Huts of southern Italy.

In the spring of 1930, Beaux-Arts trained San Francisco architect Henry Gutterson was hired by William Colby, Secretary of the Sierra Club, to create construction drawings for the shelter’s construction that summer. Gutterson was the key to the memorial project’s success. He transformed the Italian lowland tradition of dry-stacking fieldstones into a much stronger and more durable construction that could withstand the harsh Alpine zone climate at the crest of the Sierra Nevada.

Trullo Hut inspired architecture in the National Parks is not unique to the Muir Memorial Shelter. A second example of the high conical roof form, the Agnes Vaille Memorial Shelter on Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountains National Parks, preceded its California cousin by three years. It, too, warrants its own spotlight and historic account. What recommended the Trullo Hut form to these ultra-high elevation memorial shelters?

Mr. Harnsberger will conclude his presentation by proposing a possible explanation as to why these two exceptional Trullo Hut-derived forms appeared briefly in the National Park Service’s mountain shelter building tradition – within a three year span starting in the late 1920’s – and why the exotic architectural trullo form has not been replicated since. In this Centennial year of the National Park Service, it is time to place the significance of both the Muir and Vaille Memorial Shelters in the NPS building tradition storyline, and distinguish them for how they were conceived and constructed, and for what they symbolize.

Doug Harnsberger is a licensed historical architect and architectural historian whose career working in Virginia and Pennsylvania has focused on landmark restoration and rehabilitation projects in the mid-Atlantic region. His firm, Legacy Architecture, LLC, consults with the National Park Service on HABS/HAER/HALS projects and with GSA as a Historic Preservation National Peers. He is currently Project Director for the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation in Washington, D.C. where he manages several post-Mineral Earthquake restoration projects in the Daniel Burnham designed railroad station.

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