U.S. Department of the Interior
Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina
A National Historic Landmark
Although it could not provide adequate funding for the museum, the Park Service entered into the planning process in earnest, producing revised plans and specifications in August 1952. NPS Director Conrad Wirth looked "forward with enthusiasm to the full realization of the . . . program," and promised that the Park Service would operate and maintain the facility once constructed. He even included cost estimates for the buildings, structures, grounds, exhibits, furnishings, roads, and walks. During the summer, word of a potential commission spread and several regional architects notified Stick of their design services. Despite much effort, however, the committee was unable to raise funds for the million dollar complex, which was originally slated for completion by the fiftieth anniversary. However, several smaller goals were achieved in time for the December 1953 celebration: the monument was renamed the Wright Brothers National Memorial, new entrance and historical markers were established, and reconstructions of the Wrights' living quarters, hanger, and wooden tracks completed. Though disappointed at the lack of financial backing for the museum, the committee "strongly felt that the original plans for the construction of a Memorial Museum at the scene of the first flight should remain an objective of the Memorial Society." The establishment of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, also in 1953, may have contributed to their continued optimism.
For the park's visitor center, the Park Service sought a smaller, less expensive, more compact structure with distinct components: restrooms (preferably entered from the outside), a lobby, exhibit space, offices, and a room for airplane displays and ranger programs (in place of the standard audio-visual room or auditorium). As designers of the new building, the Park Service chose a new architectural firm based in Philadelphia: Mitchell, Cunningham, Giurgola, Associates, which was soon known as Mitchell/Giurgola, Architects. With its symbolism of innovation, experimentation and evolving genius, the building was an ideal commission for the fledgling firm. When Mitchell questioned the Chief Architect about his choice of virtually unknown architects for the prestigious commission, Cabot said that the recent recession in the Eisenhower administration affected his decision: "We got a directive to get every project on the street. We had eight projects and seven architects." If Mitchell/Giurgola obtained the Wright Brothers Visitor Center contract by being in the right place at the right time, the results they achieved far surpassed the Park Service's expectations. The publicity the building would receive in popular architectural journals over the next decade resulted not from the architects' reputation as accomplished modernist architects, but from the design of their building.
The Wright Brothers Visitor Center project not only inspired Mitchell and Giurgola, but, more importantly, proved a challenging design problem worthy of national recognition. Like a handful of other park sites, the Wright Brothers Memorial was a monument to scientific and technological achievement. For the architects, as for the public, its value lay both in its significance to the history of aviation and to the more personal story of perseverance and experimentation leading to scientific progress. The architects approached the Wright Brothers Visitor Center project as a "natural response to conditions of the program" and were motivated by "the quest for modern design." The overwhelming challenge was to portray the idea of flight in a static form.
During his speech at the 1957 First Flight Anniversary ceremony, Conrad Wirth described "major developments" scheduled for Wright Brothers Memorial over the next two years. The Park Service planned to proceed immediately with construction of a new entrance road and parking lot for the visitor center. Actual construction of the visitor center would begin during the next fiscal year. The new building would "accommodate visitors in large numbers . . . provide for their physical comforts . . . and present the story of the Wright Brothers at Kill Devil Hill in the most effective way graphic arts and modern museum practice can do it." Wirth's remarks seem innocent enough, but the new building transformed the visitor experience at Wright Brothers. As historian Andrew Hewes pointed out in 1967, the focus of site interpretation shifted from the monument to the visitor center. The interior of the memorial tower and a stairway to the top of the monument had been open to visitors since its creation, but in 1960 access was closed. During an August 1958 committee meeting, members agreed that "special consideration be given to directing people to the first flight area rather than to the memorial feature."
As the National Park Service guidelines for the park project emphasized, the visitor center was to be "within the Memorial near the camp buildings" and a trail would lead from the facility to the first flight area. The Park Service wanted the public to stand under the dome and be able to see the monument and first flight markers from inside the building. And throughout their artistic experiments, Mitchell and Giurgola considered the location of the building in relation to the hilltop monument and the first flight area. The preliminary plans submitted by Mitchell/Giurgola at the end of the summer were visually pleasing as well as instantly readable.
National Park Service architect Donald Benson remembers the prospect of a modernist visitor center on the Outer Banks of North Carolina as controversial. The visitor center was expected to be functional, dignified, and a public building for the local community. If the Park Service was now familiar with the Mitchell/Giurgola design, local contractors must have been surprised when sets of plans and specifications were sent out for bidding in January 1959. Modern architecture was not part of the design vocabulary of the region, nor were modernist buildings prevalent in the state of North Carolina. Bids were opened on February 4, 1959, and the contract was awarded to Hunt Contracting Company of Norfolk, Virginia, for their offer of $257,203.
Construction of the visitor center began in March 1959, and foundation piles had been driven by the end of the month. In early spring, the beam forms were at grade level. Concrete columns and piers were erected in June and most of the floor slabs poured. By the end of the summer, the east elevation had begun to take shape. The next month, contractors were laying the ribbed ceiling forms for the corrugated concrete overhang around the perimeter of the assembly room. The major concrete portions had been cast by late September. Form work for the patterned wall at the north entry terrace was well underway by October. The general shape became visible in November; a plywood shell framed the central half sphere, and intricate interior scaffolding supported the dome framework throughout this construction. National Park Service Engineer Don Nutt witnessed the "dome pour" later in the month. A December 1959 photograph of the assembly room interior shows the completed dome and semi-circular windows, and the supportive scaffolding removed.
Despite colder temperatures, contractors were able to pour the steps of the visitor center in January 1960. Interior framing was still exposed in February, but the dome, overhang, and exhibition area roof were considered complete. Roofing compound was applied to the lobby section of the visitor center the next month, although glass sections of the building remained empty. Wall panels and windows were not installed until April. The final inspection of the visitor center took place on June 20, 1960. Evidently no major changes were required, and specialists from the museum division were busy installing the twenty-two museum exhibits during the first weeks of July, when work also began on the surrounding landscaping. Progress was interrupted by Hurricane Donna, which struck September 11.
The Wright Brothers Memorial Visitor Center was officially opened to the public on July 15, 1960. By September the walks from the visitor center to the camp buildings and the main entrance gate were complete. The information desk for the lobby was delivered and installed, and planning for a permanent display of a Wright glider replica continued.
The Wright Brothers Memorial Visitor Center was dedicated on December 17, 1960, the 57th anniversary of the first flight. According to one news account, a "slim audience saddened by Friday's airliner collision over New York and Saturday's crash at Munich" attended. The most memorable moment in Mitchell's recollection of the event was a speech by Maj. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois, who actually watched the Wright brothers test their early planes and flew the country's first army aircraft. Local papers covering the dedication had only compliments for the new visitor center building, and by early December over one hundred thousand visitors had already passed through its doors.
If the Wright Brothers' legacy was the main focus of dedication day, over the next few years the visitor center building would become the subject of its own articles and press releases. Progressive Architecture had given notice of the design in 1959 and, in 1961, included a floor plan, photograph of the finished building, and close-ups of the concrete wall and terrace design in its profile of "the Philadelphia School." The building received praise for its orientation and planning of interior spaces that "make visiting this national park an aesthetic as well as an instructive experience." Washington Post architectural critic Wolf Von Eckardt called the visitor center a "simple, but all the more eloquent, architectural statement that honors the past precisely because it does not ape it." The fact that Mitchell/Giurgola was hardly a household name in the early sixties, even in professional circles, speaks eloquently of the building's enthusiastic reception by the popular media.
Subsequent modifications over the next 30 years altered the aesthetics of the building; however, none compromised its overall form, affected visitor circulation nor jeopardized the integrity of the structure.
Professional photographs of the Wright Brothers Visitor Center tend to exaggerate its modern features by emphasizing the shell roof. With the barren site as a backdrop, all sense of proportion is lost. Drawings are equally deceptive. Even written descriptions distort the building's image by focusing on its relationship to contemporary airport facilities. In fact, the Wright Brothers Visitor Center is a small, relatively understated building. Despite the elevating concrete platform, it sits low in the landscape, allowing the hilltop monument to take center stage. Wright Brothers Visitor Center satisfied Director Wirth's mandate of protection and use. The building focuses on experience leading visitors into the building, introducing a few facts, and then pushing them out to the site. The Wright Brothers Visitor Center was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in February 1998 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in January, 3, 2001.
The Wright Brothers Visitor Center not only commemorates the achievement visitors come to marvel at, but does so without destroying what remains of the historic scene. The launching of the first flight is easy to imagine from the ceremonial terrace or high atop Kill Devil Hill.
Writing in 1997, Romaldo Giurgola recognized that the Wright Brothers Visitor Center might be considered "thoroughly insufficient" for the Park Service's current needs and visitor load. He also insisted that "the design reflected the particular period of American architecture of the early 1960s in which the rigidity of modernism evolved into more articulated solutions integrating internal and external spaces." If architects and architectural historians celebrate the building's role during this period of transition in the design profession, the visitor center's greater importance lies in its status within the history of National Park Service planning. Few buildings speak so eloquently about the goals of the Mission 66 program the effort to bring the public into the action without damaging park resources, the importance of a modern architectural style representative of new technology, and the need for a functional visitor facility suitable for the next generation.
Credits: Sarah Allaback, Ph.D., Mission 66 Visitor Centers, The History of a Building Type; 2000