Herbert Maier is not a name commonly associated with Yellowstone National Park, but it should be, given his contributions to the park experience.
Indeed, any visitor to Norris Geyser Basin or Fishing Bridge or Madison Junction has seen firsthand Maier’s impact on the park: the museum and visitor center complexes that, to this day, exemplify “parkitecture.” You can see “Herb” Maier above (right), standing next to an in-progress Norris Museum.
Outside of Yellowstone, you might know him for a few different things. Along with a group of influential National Park Service architects and landscape architects, Maier helped design the South Rim complex in Grand Canyon National Park. Further, Maier designed the NPS arrowhead logo, still in use today.
Birth and Beginnings
Born January 2, 1893, Herbert Maier grew up in San Francisco and attended the University of California–Berkeley. As a young man, he became acquainted with National Park Service interpreter Ansel F. Hall, who he provided with sketches for a museum in the Yosemite Valley.
Maier’s NPS career took off swiftly soon after; indeed, the South Rim complex was one of Maier’s first projects, along with the Bear Mountain museum in New York’s Palisades Interstate Park.
Maier’s work in Grand Canyon and Palisades, later perfected in Yellowstone, were among the first examples of the “rustic” NPS style. Indeed, the Service, still a fledgling agency, was seeking to define itself not only in Yellowstone but also across the whole park system. The NPS inherited some practices from the U.S. Army, who were the previous authority figures in Yellowstone National Park, but they had to, in a manner of speaking, justify their existence.
What made Maier’s work so essential to the NPS (in many ways helping define the NPS aesthetic for the early to mid-20th century) was how it balanced architectural order with “natural” qualities.
In their landmark history of administrative development in Yellowstone—Managing the “Matchless Wonders”—historians Kiki Leigh Rydell and Mary Shivers Culpin explore what made Maier’s Yellowstone work so exciting to the NPS—and to visitors:
Maier’s museums were, according to Laura Soulliere Harrison, architectural historian and author of Architecture in the Parks, significant contributions to national park architecture for two reasons: “First, the buildings are the best structures of rustic design in the national park system,” and second, “because of their exaggerated architectural features and organic forms, the buildings served as models for hundreds of other buildings constructed throughout the nation in state, county, and local parks under the auspices of the NPS during the work relief programs of the 1930s.” Harrison contended that “Maier’s buildings were perfect solutions for an architecture appropriate to the outdoors: informal, through their use of natural materials and horizontal lines, but loaded with a strength of design and heavy-handed expression that subconsciously suggested the smallness of man in relation to nature.
As mentioned, Maier designed three “trailside” museums for Yellowstone National Park that are still standing today. Each was dedicated to a particular theme initially. Norris got geology and mineralogy, Madison Junction got history, and Fishing Bridge got fauna.
There was, however, a fourth museum Maier designed that, at least looking at the pictures, outpaced the other three in terms of appearance and function. Indeed, between 1929 and 1971, visitors to Old Faithful could gather at the Museum of Thermal Activity to learn more about Yellowstone’s geysers, chat up rangers at the help desk, and peruse a spectacular courtyard full of native flora.
For whatever reason, the Old Faithful museum was torn down and replaced with a new visitor center, which itself was replaced in 2010. While the current visitor center is world-class, the loss of a piece of property like the Museum of Thermal Activity is much lamented.
Today, the three remaining museums are listed on the National Register for Historic Places as landmarks. They are still a delight to visit.
Maier stayed with the NPS all his professional life, becoming an administrator in 1933 and collaborating with the Civilian Conservation Corps for state park building design. Several of his CCC buildings, most notably those in Texas’ Bastrop State Park, are listed on the NRHP.
Maier was also one of the first people to push for a National Seashore at Padre Island, Texas, which was established April 6, 1968.
In 1961, Maier was awarded the Distinguished Service Citation by Interior Secretary Stewart Udall for his work with the NPS. He retired in 1962 and passed away February 23, 1969 in Oakland, California. He was survived by his wife Susan Eleanore Maier and three daughters (Margot M. Young, Phyllis M. Zagone and Barbara M. Cheatham).
Other Notable Works
Besides the buildings above, here are some of Maier’s most noteworthy contributions to NPS architecture and state buildings:
• Administration Building, South Mountain Park, Phoenix, Arizona.
• Glacier Point Lookout, Yosemite National Park.
• Yavapai Geology Museum, Grand Canyon National Park.
• Lodge building, Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas.