Book Review: Landscapes for the People, George Alexander Grant, First Chief Photographer of the National Park Service, Ren and Helen Davis, pp 254

Landscapes for the People, by Ren and Helen DavisWhile doing research for their 2011 guidebook to the Civilian Conservation Corps’ work in the nation’s parks, Our Mark on This Land, Ren and Helen Davis searched through thousands of historic photographs at the National Park Service’s photography archive in Charles Town, West Virginia. The collection included striking images of the parks during the 1930s. The photographs were simply credited “National Park Service,” leaving the Davises to wonder who had taken them.

The answer led them to more years of research, and ultimately to write the award-winning biography of George Alexander Grant, the first chief photographer for the National Park Service.

George Grant’s 25-year career as the Park Service’s official photographer resulted in more than 30,000 photographs of national parks. Like his much-heralded contemporaries Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Eliot Porter, Grant wielded medium- and large-format field cameras and weighty tripods through rugged country. Grant often processed his images in the back of a panel truck, dubbed “the hearse,” that served as his darkroom and home away from home while on assignment.

Grant’s job took him to more than a hundred national parks, monuments, historic sites, and battlefields. His dedication, stamina, and exacting standards produced images capable of persuading Congress to fund, and the public to support, the expanding National Park Service.

It’s ironic that the worst of times, the Great Depression, would come to be known as the golden age of parks. State and national parks were vastly expanded during the New Deal, developed largely with manpower provided by the CCC. Many of Grant’s photographs document life in the CCC camps and the men who built the roads, bridges, museums, and facilities that transformed the parks from playgrounds for the rich to places welcoming to all Americans.

Grant’s photographs continued to promote the parks into the early 1940s, portraying Americans camping, picnicking, and hiking amidst natural splendor. After World War II, Grant’s work extended to photographing the construction of dams on the upper Missouri River, including documenting archaeological sites soon to be under water.

Landscapes for the People, with more than 170 exquisitely reproduced photographs, is an invaluable record of the shaping of the national parks and the modernizing of a nation. As important, thanks the Davises, a forgotten elder of American landscape photography is finally getting his due.

A National Monument to the CCC

The Old Santa Fe Trail Building, 1937

National Park Service Southwest Hdq 1937
The Old Santa Fe Trail Building, 1937
Photo Credit: National Park Service

The Old Santa Fe Trail Building is considered a hallmark of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ many contributions to the national parks.

Built between 1937 and 1939, and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1987, the building on Museum Hill is the work of the young men who served in the CCC in New Mexico during the Great Depression. The Spanish/Pueblo Revival-style adobe building is a testament to their work and, in particular, to the Native American and Latino New Mexicans whose commitment and craft are manifest in this beautiful building.

The building was constructed largely by hand using local materials. Logs for the vigas and corbels came from the CCC camp in nearby Hyde Memorial State Park; the highly polished flagstone in the lobby, conference rooms, and portal came from a large ranch near Glorieta; posts supporting the roofs above the portales are peeled ponderosa pine logs. The CCC boys also produced many of the building’s furnishings.

Old Santa Fe Trail Building

Old Santa Fe Trail Building
National Park logo in the portico.  Source

The historic building served as the Southwest headquarters for the National Park Service from 1939 to 1995, when the NPS relocated its regional office to Denver. In tribute to the region’s history and multicultural heritage, the building had been managed as though it were a unit of the National Park System. Due to budget cuts it now has only limited public use.

There is no National Park dedicated to telling the story of the millions of people who got jobs and gained skills while carrying out projects of lasting public benefit through New Deal programs like the CCC and the Works Projects Administration.  A formidable coalition has mounted an effort to designate the Old Santa Fe Trail Building a National Monument—the National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Parks Conservation Association, National New Deal Preservation Association, Historic Santa Fe Foundation, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, and the Living New Deal among them. We are asking President Obama to use his authority to designate this historic building a national monument.

Old Santa Fe Trail Building Anniversary Poster

Old Santa Fe Trail Building Anniversary Poster
Poster commemorating the historic CCC-constructed building

We are seeking letters of support. Please email the President  and contact your elected representatives asking them to preserve the Old Santa Fe Trail Building as a national monument in honor of those whose labors during the hardest of hard times still inspire us today.