Nature by Design
The CCC used native materials and thoughtful design to create iconic features in state parks.
By Russell Roe
For generations, Texans have danced on the graceful, well-worn patio at Garner State Park, walked under elegant archways on the way to subterranean Longhorn Cavern, picnicked on rustic stone tables at Palo Duro and held family gatherings at the rising-out-of-the-ground refectory at Palmetto.
The Civilian Conservation Corps-built structures have served as a gateway for Texans’ interactions with the outdoors for decades. Though many visitors might not give a second thought to a park’s architecture, the CCC buildings are the product of an architectural vision of people and nature and how they interact.
The rustic structures, built in the 1930s and 1940s by the government work corps, were designed to be accessories to nature — complementing the landscape instead of competing with it.
I’ve always appreciated the rough-hewn structures at Texas state parks. I love the rock buildings and rock tables at a place like Lake Brownwood, and I’m delighted when I stumble across some unexpected rock-and-timber feature at Bastrop or some other CCC park. I marvel at Indian Lodge’s lobby. In addition to enjoying the scenery at a park, I make it a point to admire the CCC craftsmanship. If I drive over a CCC-built bridge, I’ll sometimes get out to appreciate the handiwork. Even a well-built culvert might draw an approving nod.
The architectural style, with direct ties to the National Park Service and the great national parks of the West, is known as “NPS rustic,” and it aims to have buildings harmonize with their surroundings and to reflect the landscape through the use of local, natural materials such as stone and timber.
“These were plans specifically for parks so that the buildings weren’t an intrusion on the natural landscape but rather blended all the natural features with the man-made,” says Angela Reed, who served until recently as coordinator for the CCC Legacy Parks initiative in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Historic Sites and Structures Program.
Bastrop, Lake Brownwood, Garner and Palo Duro state parks have some of the best and most extensive examples of CCC work.
The rustic approach to architecture grew out of the development of national parks in the early part of the 20th century. The National Park Service wanted the scenery to be the main attraction, not the buildings, and it decided that buildings should take their natural settings into account.
A carefully formulated design policy was laid out, influenced by the park designs of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. In the 1920s, the rustic style was developed and refined through lodges, museums and other structures at Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, Grand Canyon and other national parks. Buildings such as Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn and Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel carried out this rustic design ethic.
When the CCC was formed in the 1930s and workers began building parks in Texas and across the nation, national park architects oversaw the CCC’s work and extended the reach of the NPS rustic style.
CCC-constructed cabin at Palo Duro.
In Texas, the result is a collection of structures of rare and distinctive beauty: cabins in Bastrop that sprout up in the pine forest, rocky buildings at Palo Duro that sit on the edge of the canyon wall, rugged rock-and-timber pioneer-style lodging at Caddo Lake.
One of the real successes of the rustic style is its ability to combine nature and people’s needs in a beautiful way.
“The style is rooted in the belief that nature is restorative to the soul,” Reed says. “I personally believe that nature is restorative, but I’m also a buildings person. That’s the part that excites me: to see a building that blends into the landscape and to know that it was intentionally designed that way. It was designed to give me a notion of the beauty of nature and how that might restore my soul.”
The style has several essential elements: low silhouettes and horizontal orientation; hand-tooled finishes with logs and quarried stone; use of native materials; avoidance of rigid, straight lines; adaptation of frontier methods of construction; use of colors that blend with the natural surroundings; and, sometimes, the elimination of lines of demarcation between the land and the structure. Most important, each building was to be designed for its particular site and to blend with the landscape.
The book Park Structures and Facilities says, “Successfully handled, [rustic] is a style which, through the use of native materials in proper scale, and through the avoidance of rigid, straight lines, and over-sophistication, gives the feeling of having been executed by pioneer craftsmen with limited hand tools. It thus achieves sympathy with natural surroundings, and with the past.”
The buildings may look informal, with their use of natural materials, but they are loaded with a strength of design. A rustic rock wall is at once simple and natural but also very sophisticated and full of high-level craftsmanship, says architectural historian James Wright Steely, author of the book Parks for Texas.
Overseeing the work in Texas and a handful of other states was noted architect Herbert Maier, who had designed buildings at Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon and was influential in developing the park service’s signature architectural style.
He trained Texas state park architects in the rustic sensibility and showed how it could be applied to entrance portals, picnic tables, culverts, drinking fountains and concession buildings. Even latrines were designed to be beautiful, functional and nonintrusive. Maier didn’t want the designs to be copied; he expected architects to carry out the vision based on a site’s unique natural and cultural history.
The result is that the buildings give each park a real sense of place — the story of the land is told through the parks. Park developers intentionally chose parks scattered throughout the state “to reflect what Texas is made up of geographically,” Reed says. And they made sure the geographic diversity was reflected in the park design.
The park designers experimented with natural materials to see how they could be made into structures that seemed to belong in the natural setting.
Workers quarried local rock and harvested local timber. At Bastrop, in the Lost Pines, it’s sandstone, pine and hardwoods. At Blanco, in the Hill Country, it’s limestone, echoing the region’s rocky hills and German architectural heritage.
“There’s such a sense of balance and scale,” says Cynthia Brandimarte, director of the Historic Sites and Structures Program. “It’s like you’re walking into nature and you don’t want to intrude, but you want to be part of it. Somehow, people who built those parks built them the same way. The buildings show you how to be in the parks.”
The rustic style was a perfect fit for the CCC: The buildings required intensive amounts of time and labor, and the CCC had thousands of young men it needed to put to work.
The enduring craftsmanship and design are evident today.
“I can go back to my first experiences with state parks,” Steely says. “What I can describe now is the comfortable scale of the buildings. I felt drawn to them as a kid; I feel drawn to them as an adult because of this combination of natural materials and simple finishes and a low, small scale, which are all part of the formula. They are attractive. I feel it, and I watch other people around me feel it. You probably feel it. It appeals to something in our human nature to not be cooped up, to be outside and yet have some kind of facility that makes being outside easier than being in the wilderness.”
The refectory at Palmetto State Park features a handmade quality to its appearance, using the “horizontal key” for its stonework and roofline so that the building visually hugs the earth. Boulders laid at the foundation ensure there is no clear demarcation between the structure and the ground. The original roof of the refectory was thatched with palmetto fronds.
Palo Duro cabins
The CCC used materials from the region, in this case local stone, so that structures appeared “one with nature.” Some stone cabins at Palo Duro are perched on the canyon walls; others appear to grow up from the ground.
Balmorhea poolside pergola
Where there is a CCC-built pool, there is a pergola. The small shaded structure at Balmorhea blends seamlessly with the poolside. Abilene and Bastrop state parks also have poolside pergolas that provide shaded seating.
Tyler bath house
Influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style of architecture, structures on relatively flat parkland that featured long vistas across smooth lakes were often designed to appear long and horizontal, smooth and low to the ground so as not to compete with the landscape and to enhance the verticality of the tall trees.
Mother Neff water tower
Stylized designs for water towers are often features of CCC parks. Park design philosophy called for even the most functional objects to be embellished with naturalistic facades.
Lake Corpus Christi refectory
This building is constructed of cast caliche blocks, made by mixing cement and the caliche that is abundant in this coastal area. The design of the building is typical of CCC architecture influenced by Henry Hobson Richardson, who favored heavy stone facades rendered more delicate by grand arches, sweeping stairwells and lookout towers. The refectories at Longhorn Cavern and Abilene state parks are two other excellent examples of this style.
One of the tasks of the CCC was to reflect the culture and history of a region through architectural design. This hotel in the Davis Mountains was constructed of adobe, a material used in vernacular architecture of the region. The hotel’s layout, as well as its interior furnishings built by the CCC, referenced Native Americans of the Southwest.
CCC Hidden Features
Retaining wall and culvert, Bastrop: This retaining wall beneath Park Road 1A is visible from the trail that leads to the Boy Scout camp and overlook. The wall, which had been obscured by foliage for years, was uncovered by the September 2011 fire. Foliage is already growing back.
Stone benches and fire pits, Lake Brownwood: Stone furniture, including benches, tables and fire pits, can be found along the park’s trails, much of it in disrepair and some of it covered by foliage.
Stone mosaic on the floor of the entrance portals, Bastrop: The CCC often added whimsical details to its work, even in places where the details might get overlooked.
Lake Springfield dam, Fort Parker: Although lakes are what attract visitors to many state parks, the CCC-constructed dams that created them often go unnoticed.
Rock stairway, Davis Mountains: Unless climbers watch their feet as they walk the trail to this Skyline Drive picnic area, they may miss the craftsmanship of this winding stairway the CCC built into the side of the mountain.
Fireplace, Mission Tejas: Pieces of petrified wood are set in a stylized pattern in this bit of CCC handiwork, one of the decorative touches found throughout CCC parks.
CCC Legacy Parks
In an effort to promote and preserve state parks built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and 1940s, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department launched the CCC Legacy Parks initiative in 2011.
“We believe these are important parks and significant to the history of state parks as a whole,” says Angela Reed, who served as the first coordinator of the CCC initiative. “We want people to be aware of that history and why state parks exist as they do today. We believe these parks are icons of the system.”
The initiative seeks to link the 29 CCC-built parks in a more cohesive manner, obtain funding for the parks for restoration and serve as a clearinghouse for CCC history.
The CCC parks — from Palo Duro to Lake Corpus Christi and from Balmorhea to Daingerfield — contain many architectural treasures, and TPWD wants to make sure those buildings receive specialized care as historical structures. Some structures have been restored, but others are in great need of repair.
TPWD historical architect Dennis Gerow and others compiled an assessments book that outlines repair needs at the CCC parks and puts a dollar figure on those repairs. They distributed the books to TPWD leaders and hope to get them in the hands of state legislators to request money for needed restoration.
The initiative’s branding effort includes establishing imagery for CCC parks and working with the park system’s interpretive staff to present the CCC parks in a consistent manner.
A TPWD website tells the story of the CCC parks with photos, videos, interactive programs and park profiles, at www.texascccparks.org. A CCC Facebook page allows TPWD to share pictures, news and state park history.
TPWD fields a lot of public inquiries on the CCC, Reed says, “and we saw a need to make this history accessible to the public — to put it all in one place.”
TPWD’s renewed focus on CCC work began in the 1980s, when the CCC-built structures were turning 50 and therefore becoming eligible for historical status. TPWD started recording oral histories from CCC veterans to preserve their stories and to find out how the buildings were built so they could be repaired properly.
The Rich History of the CCC
A new book about the CCC, coming out in January, outlines the history of CCC parks and uses oral histories to tell the stories of CCC workers. Texas State Parks and the CCC: The Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps was written by Cynthia Brandimarte, director of TPWD’s Historic Sites and Structures Program, with Angela Reed. It is being published by Texas A&M University Press.
The book provides a comprehensive look at the CCC in Texas, from formation of the work corps to current preservation efforts. Twenty-nine parks are profiled.
For more articles on state parks, see TP&W magazine's State Parks page