Renovation of Harpers Ferry Interpretive Design Center


Peter Dessauer, AIA


National Park Service


Newsletter, Preservation, historic preservation, modern architecture, docomomo, National Park Service
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Despite the many threats facing modern architecture today, I wish to share some recent news about what the National Park Service is doing and has accomplished to date to preserve the 1968 Interpretive Design center (IDC), also known as the Harpers Ferry Center building (HAFC), in Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.


The IDC was designed by architect Ulrich Franzen in 1968 and built in 1969. It has been occupied by the NPS office for media planning, design, and development since 1970. With the recent help of many scholars, academics, historians, and Congress, the National Park Service is recognizing the significance of its mid-century modern resources; specifically, Mission 66, visitor centers, and design centers. It is because of these efforts this 1968 building has a bright future.

Perched on the west side of Camp Hill overlooking a breathtaking view of the Shenandoah River Valley, the idea for Harpers Ferry Center dates back to the early years of George Hartzog's tenure as director of the National Park Service. Hartzog became director in January 1964 and one month later named Bill Everhart chief of a new Division of Interpretation and Visitor Services. The new division's job was to bring together the various interpretive functions – audiovisual, publications, museums – and coordinate their activities. With the construction work of Mission 66 nearing completion and the success of this national initiative, Bill Everhardt was granted permission to establish a center for interpretive media wherein the talents of the NPS for publications, museums, and AV would work together under one roof. Everhart was able to persuade Hartzog of the Center's viability and the initial funds were requested in the FY67 budget. The cost for the Center was estimated to be between $1,000,000 and $1,250,000. The first funds, $600,000, were appropriated July 1, 1966. West Virginia Senators Jennings Randolph and Robert Byrd, who had supported the founding of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, adopted the project proposal. The site on West Camp Hill, Harpers Ferry upper town, was chosen for the new Interpretive Design Center.


The National Park Service chose Architect Ulrich Franzen to design the new center. Franzen persuaded his NPS client that by using brick he could tie his contemporary building to the historic structures of the town, and that by employing arches on the river front he would echo those found in the Armory and John Brown's Fort. Design was completed in 1967, construction began in April 1968, construction was completed in December 1969 at a cost of $905,000, and on March 2, 1970, the Harpers Ferry Center was occupied and in business. Franzen’s success with the IDC would lead to other design and construction commissions with the NPS, most notably the Visitor Center for Independence National Park in Philadelphia as part of the 1976 Bicentennial Commemoration.

As the building began to show wear and tear, it became necessary to either renovation or start fresh. Tearing down the IDC for a full building replacement would have cost 4 times as much in lieu of a full renovation. Besides, the concrete and brick foundations, structure, and walls of the IDC 1969 construction were and are in excellent condition - justification and relevant for a renovation rather than a tear down. The WV SHPO supported the preservation effort, and we are extremely proud they chose to identify the IDC Building as an icon and example of the best 20th century modernism architecture in the state. By accomplishing the project in multi contract stages over a 10-year period, beginning in 2007, the renovation was accomplished without any major disruption of employees performing their assigned duties at their work stations.


The work that took place included new replacements in kind, to match and update code standards for roofs, windows, doors, ADA/ABAAS, restrooms, lights, HVAC, mechanical, electrical, signs, masonry repairs and cleaning, interior and exterior painting. LAN telephone lines, Life Safety, carpets, floor plan and office layout rearrangements, elevator, and office furnishings were also updated to meet GREEN and LEED 21st century standards while matching the original 1968-69 aesthetics and with no changes to the 1968 exterior. Work is still ongoing with plans to design and install new ADA walkways on the south side of the IDC overlooking the Shenandoah River.


By 2020 this modernist building will be ready for its 50th birthday and introduction on the National Register, and with this will come its designation in the park as an historic structure. All the improvements benefit the 90 employees and numerous professional visitors every day. Though much has been accomplished concerning this particular building, at this point the NPS actions for direct preservation are selective, and there is a lot more documentation and renovation work to be done. I encourage Docomomo US and their membership to continue to support the NPS and their efforts.


About the Author

Peter F. Dessauer is a licensed Architect and 41 year veteran with the National Park Service.