Thursday, March 10, 2011


The barren hills of Utah make the point as well as any site could that a building expressive of its purpose, responsive to--- and respectful of --- its surroundings, not only is no intrusion on the environment but can be a man-made part complementary to the whole. There are no trees and shrubs in this region to “blend the building with nature,” or behind which a building can be concealed; it must stand revealed for what it is.” (1)

Sitting over a fifty foot deep trench and between two closely spaced hills, the Quarry Visitor Center presented architectural design challenges because it was not just a visitor center, but a visitor center with a unique purpose and in a site that was very tightly constrained topographically.

 Anshen and Allen Architects were hired to design the QVC. They had previous experience with unusual building design in the Chapel of the Holy Cross, which was “a concrete and glass structure designed around a colossal cross, was built into dramatic red rock formations overlooking the town of Sedona [Arizona]. A serpentine concrete ramp leads the visitor out of the parking area and up to a courtyard in front of the chapel. Through the paned-glass entrance façade, the view extends to the concrete cross spanning the building’s opposite wall and to clouds outside that seem to float above the altar.” (2) The Chapel foreshadowed the design of the QVC at Dinosaur National monument.

When Anshen visited the future site of the QVC, he realized the importance of having a building that would be open and allow visitors to see both the fossil bones as well as the terrain and environment surrounding the quarry. From this visit the idea came of having a primarily glass structure around the fossil bearing sandstone. This, along with the gull-wing roof design and cylindrical rotunda was a radical, modernist departure from the traditional NPS shed-like visitor centers. However, the NPS had other ideas.

In July 1956 Anshen and Allen had submitted preliminary drawings to the NPS. NPS Director Wirth would not approve them. Both the NPS Division of Interpretation and Museum Services opposed the glass-walled exhibit structure, preferring an enclosed, windowless, and darkened exhibit space. This traditional type of museum space “an enclosed, darkened exhibition space would allow museum technicians to employ dramatic lighting effects without any external distractions, create a sense of mystery, and propel visitors back to the time of the dinosaurs.” (2)

Artist's rendition of inside of Quarry Visitor Center as originally designed by the NPS, with lights turned off.

However, the effect of such a space would be to totally isolate the visitors from the geological terrain and desert environment in which the quarry was located. Given the spectacular setting of the quarry, this isolation seems foolish and would result in visitors having less, rather than more, of an understanding of the quarry and the ancient Morrison ecosystem in which it was deposited. From Ashen and Allen’s perspective “… the park Service design, while being suited to the normal concepts of museum planning, was failing to recognize the unique aspects of this particular project.” (2)

Inside of 1958 Quarry Visitor Center as built following architects' concepts, with lights turned off.

Anshen and Allen felt quite strongly that if they followed the NPS desires for a more traditional approach the building would fail to realize the full potential of the Dinosaur site. They began reworking their plans and continued discussions with NPS staff. Fortunately, Anshen and Allen prevailed, and eventually “museum and park staff were arguing for a building as light and open as possible … with glass ends.” (2)  In November 1956 new drawings were submitted, although little really changed from those of July. With the building concepts now strongly supported by NPS staff and architects, Director Wirth approved them.

Anyone who had been to the (now defunct) Quarry Visitor Center could not fail to be impressed at the spectacular nature of the building, its use of ambient light, and the vast glass walls that lets one look at the quarry and follow it outside into the craggy hills and tilted rock layers extending into the distance. One can see, at the same time, both the specifics of a dinosaur quarry and its broad geological setting. So we really ducked a bullet. An enclosed box-like building would have been a terrible missed opportunity and an architectural failure. It is a testament to the success of the 1958 design plan that the new QVC will retain the glass wall enclosure around the dinosaur bones.

(1) Dewell, R. and McCullough, R.K. 1958. Recent Work of Anshen and Allen. Architectural Record, September 1958: 165-171.

(2) Allabach, S. 2000. Chapter 1. Quarry Visitor Center, Dinosaur National Monument, Jensen, Utah. in: Mission 66 Visitor Centers: The History of a Building Type. United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Cultural Resource Stewardship and Partnerships, Park Historic Structures and Cultural Landscapes Program, Washington, D.C.: pp. 39-66.

First QVC Photo: Deseret News; all other QVC photos: NPS
Chapel of the Holy Cross:

No comments:

Post a Comment