Painted Desert and Petrified Forests National Monument Community and Visitors’ Center

Painted Desert and Petrified Forests National Monument Community and Visitors’ Center

This is a big open landscape with huge horizons and fiery sunsets, where “nature’s paintbrush ran amuck” as one old office postcard reads. According to Jack Rollo, a young architect of Neutra and Alexander’s office assigned to the project, when the firm was brought in Neutra was dismayed to see the preliminary design filled with free-standing little houses for the ranger personnel. Citing the massing of pueblo dwellings and Spanish plazas and sounding faintly Biblical, Neutra said, “Let us not scatter their homes wide like a suburban subdivision, because they need each other’s shelter; but they need patios and atria, just like human beings at all times who did not want to see their irrigation water blown away, but wanted to see the green grow. And so,” he said of the final design, “the houses were densely packed together surrounding their patios and other buildings adjacent around a plaza, protected by a two-story wing [the administration building] against a main wind attack.” The central part of the site also included conference rooms and a library, an elementary school, concession stands, and large, all-purpose rooms. (There was even a Fred Harvey restaurant, a beloved chain that catered to the car habits of middle-class Americans driving the open roads and the new ‘freeways’ in the 1950s and 1960s.) The school rooms were deftly designed to accommodate teaching multi-grades in one space: a huge room could be divided in half with a folding partition. One half of each “separate” classroom was devoted to movable tables and chairs, the other half to fixed seating. This area had space dividers hinged from the wall, with chalk board on one side and tack board on the other so that virtually any kind of classroom arrangement was possible. Beyond the schools and administration area are the facilities and storage buildings, placed to temper the strong southwest winds. Here the architecture becomes almost Miesian in flavor. The rhythm of the spare, low brick forms against the repetition of the articulated vertical spur walls look like the mesas and platforms of the surrounding national monument, and in plan their lines run deep into the landscape. The N/A office also did the signage, whose graphics are friendly and whimsical with their “petroglyph” font and idiosyncratic shapes. The buildings, however, are Modernist. Neutra, who was fascinated by the Petrified Forests whose stone remains of trees dated back 60 million years, speaks with the voice of his old friends, the Viennese Secessionists and Adolf Loos, when he concludes his project description: “The best in human beings is to be faithful to its time … the best of the old cannot be truly imitated … or made doubtful by our sham. Our paper baskets should not look like tree trunks made of cement …”

Project Detail

Year Built


Project Architect

Neutra & Alexander


Painted Desert, Arizona

Current Status

Protected, Public