A History of the Architecture of the USDA Forest Service

Chapter 2
Building Types (continued)

Recreation Buildings

The category of buildings with the second greatest number and diversity of types is recreation buildings. In a 1940 supplement to the "Acceptable Plans" book, Groben writes:

All recreation structures should be designed to serve their intended purpose, be of architectural and engineering soundness, and harmonize with the forest environment of recreation areas as much as possible, consistent with utility, good structural design, and reasonable cost of construction and maintenance.

The very fact that recreation structures should harmonize with the environment precludes definite standardization of design. Functional requirements also vary somewhat with locality and are likewise difficult to standardize in definite pattern. [1]

Foresters became aware of the demand for recreation well before the creation of the National Park Service in 1916. The 1913 annual report stated, "Recreation use of the Forest is growing very rapidly, especially on Forests near cities of considerable size." [2] The creation of the National Park Service in 1916 touched off an interagency land struggle that spurred limited Forest Service development of a variety of recreational sites and buildings, including campgrounds, trails, shelters, and toilets, as well as encouragement of summer home sites and structures, throughout the 1920's. Americans visited the national forests in record numbers, due in part to greater access to automobiles and the development of roads within the forests. In 1925, somewhat more than 5 percent of the amount spent on new buildings supported campground development.

One writer summarized the influence of roads on the growth of recreational use in the national forests:

Although it was not their original purpose, the 'fire roads' did much to open the forests to recreational use by hunters and hikers who still gratefully use them today. The development, especially after World War II, of four-wheel-drive vehicles such as jeeps made these trails even more popular. CCC men also built trails for hiking, especially short ones to spots of particular natural beauty of interest, often providing bridges and steps for visitors also.

Since road building and automobile ownership were making the forests accessible for recreation, the Forest Service put some of the CCC boys to work building campgrounds. A campground might include shelters, toilet facilities, picnic tables, fireplaces, parking lots, and water supply systems. . . . Bathhouses were built at some good swimming areas. [3]

The Forest Service had good reasons for welcoming recreation use of the forests. One reason was to obtain broad-based political support for the development of the forests. Public demand for access to the forests translated into Federal dollars for road construction, which in turn increased the value of all other natural resources the forests possessed. Americans were visiting the national forests in increasing numbers, mainly because automobiles gave them unprecedented ease of access. But the values that drew them to the forests ran deep. To the dismay of many, the United States was becoming an urban nation; the 1920 census revealed that for the first time a majority of U.S. citizens lived in communities with populations greater than 2,500. Americans were adjusting rather nervously to a faster pace of life. The first areas of greatest concentration of summer visitors were on the Angeles National Forest of southern California, the Mt. Hood National Forest in northern Oregon, and the Pike and San Isabel National Forests in central Colorado, all in mountains near cities. [4] Forest Service management plans for recreation aimed first at preserving scenery: belts of timber were left uncut along highways, around lakes and campgrounds, and in settings that were attractive for summer homes.

Having closed the Columbia River Gorge Park to the development of summer cabins or private resorts, the Forest Service found itself forced to assume greater responsibility for the recreational facility development it had done in other areas of high recreational potential. During the summer of 1916, the Mt. Hood National Forest developed the Eagle Creek Campground within the Columbia River Gorge Park. Apparently for the first time, the Forest Service undertook the construction of a public campground in the modern sense. Facilities included camp tables, toilets (figure 2-75), a check-in station, and a ranger station. [5] Ranger Albert Weisendanger and his wife welcomed many visitors to the campground, which provided a convenient place to stop along the now historic (but then under construction) Columbia Gorge Highway.

Figure 2-75. First substantial toilet building, Mt. Hood National Forest, Region 6 (1916)

Construction of recreational improvements accelerated during the 1930's. CCC enrollees nationwide constructed numerous campground structures. The next acceleration of recreation development came in 1957 under the "Operation Outdoors" program, which expanded recreation in the national forests. Today the national forests are the public's number one recreational destination point.

The "Campground Improvement Manual" from Region 5, dated March 1, 1933, states: "The most important feature on a campground, both from the viewpoint of the camper and sanitation, is the latrine." [6] This manual includes six latrine types as regional standards (for example, figure 2-76 shows the design for localities of heavy snowfall). These designs were developed over a 10-year period. The manual includes a bill of materials for all designs. Flush toilets were rare during this time.

Figure 2-76. Double latrine design from Region 5 Campground Improvement Manual (1933)

In the Improvements section of the Region 6 Recreation Handbook, dated February 23, 1935, under Registry Booths, it states: ". . . suggested types of special registry booths . . . used at class A camps . . . should be places near natural gathering places." [7] The designs are quite rustic (figure 2-77).

Figure 2-77. Design for a registry booth from the Region 6 Recreation Handbook (1935)

In the Eastern Region's "Handbook of Administration—Recreation," dated March 15, 1935, under Forest Camp Facilities, it states: "Comfort stations will be provided throughout Forest Camps at convenient locations to accommodate the people in that vicinity. The structures themselves will be designed to give efficient service for the use and will be of pleasing proportions and finish" (figure 2-78).

Figure 2-78. Design for a comfort station from the Eastern Region's Recreation Handbook (1933)

In a foreword to a report in 1936 by consulting landscape architect A.D. Taylor, Acting Chief of the Forest Service C.M. Granger noted:

. . . that the increasing social use of our National Forests places a great responsibility on us to preserve the natural aspects of the forests, and at the same time to provide areas and accompanying facilities for the many kinds of recreation activities for which so many millions of people enter the National Forests each year. [8]

In the 1960's, Congress passed a bill funding construction of campgrounds at new and existing reservoirs and lakes in the Nation; these had a considerable impact on the Forest Service recreation design and construction program. This increased funding started a trend toward campgrounds with larger capacity in the more urban forests.

Almost all Regions publish a catalog of standard recreation structures that is edited at least every 5 years. The most prevalent single type of building for the recreation public is the toilet structure. These range from screened backcountry (wilderness) toilets to one-hole pit toilets for remote campgrounds to the flush comfort station for urban-type campgrounds. Because most new architects start out with a toilet design or redesign, there are as many different designs as there are designers. See figures 2-79 through 2-92 for additional examples of toilet buildings, including modern vault and flush toilets.

Figure 2-79. Comfort station with separate multiple toilets, Region 6 (1936)

Toilet Buildings of the 1930's

Figure 2-80. Combination toilet and registration building, Rogue River National Forest, Region 6 (1936)

Figure 2-81. Toilet building and bathhouse, Kaniksu National Forest, Region 1 (1936)

Figure 2-82. Toilet building, White Mountain National Forest, Region 7 (1936)

Figure 2-83. Toilet building, Chelan National Forest, Region 6 (1936)

Figure 2-84. Seedhouse Campground toilet, Routt National Forest, REgion 2 (1935)

Figure 2-85. Region 4 standard two-unit comfort station (1934)

Modern Vault Toilets—Designs of the 1960's

Figure 2-86. Two-hole vault, southern California, Region 5

Figure 2-87. Mountaintop vault structure, Region 5

Flush Toilets

Figure 2-88. Flush toilet, San Bernardino National Forest, Region 5 (1960)

Figure 2-89. Flush toilet, Plumas National Forest, Region 5 (1960)

Figure 2-90. Combination flush toilet, Region 6

Figure 2-91. Modern flush toilet, Region 8 (1980)

Figure 2-92. Portage Glacier restroom, Chugach National Forest, Region 10 (1962)

A continuing concern with vault and pit toilet buildings was, and still is, the venting of the holding tank for the human waste. Odor and insects have made these structures less attractive to the national forest recreational visitor. Over the years, the designs of toilet buildings with holding tanks or pits have employed any number of inventive solutions; these have included fans, solar heaters, wind diverters, and other devices to increase the flow of air upward out of the vault to decrease odors in the building. Briar Cook, a research engineer at the Forest Service's San Dimas Equipment Development Center in California, spent the last years of his career attempting to devise a "sweet smelling toilet." One year he spent many hours down in the tanks doing an inventory of all items deposited there (his list was several pages long). His final "gift" to the agency was a series of toilet buildings with technical innovations to properly vent the vaults to keep unwanted odors and insects out of the interiors of these buildings. These were shown to perform well in laboratory tests, but if the buildings were constructed in the wrong location or orientation in the field, the venting did not work.

Looking at the styles of the various recreation structures of the Forest Service shows that the predominate character of these buildings in the rural areas is rustic—labor intensive with logs, wood shakes or shingles, rough planks, and stone. In urban areas, the buildings are more finished, with plywood siding or concrete blocks and flat roofs, and are more visible to the public. The variety of building types and design styles can be seen in figures 2-93 through 2-102 on pages 119 to 124.

Special Structures

Figure 2-93. Mono Hot Springs bathhouse, Sierra National Forest, Region 5 (1963)

Figure 2-94. Change pavilion, June Lake, Inyo National Forest, Region 5 (1964)

Figure 2-95. Amphitheater with rear-projection building, Lake Tahoe Visitor Center, Region 5 (1964)

Figure 2-96. Standard Region 4 campground shelter (1934)

Figure 2-97. Picnic shelter, Cibola National Forest, Region 3 (1936)

Figure 2-98. Interior detail of picnic shelter, Cibola National Forest, Region 3 (1936)

Figure 2-99. Picnic shelter, Snoqualmie National Forest, Region 6 (1936)

Figure 2-100. Picnic shelter, Longdale Recreation Area, George Washington National Forest, Region 8

Figure 2-101. Messhall, Organization Camp, Wyoming National Forest, Region 4

Figure 2-102. Bath house and pavilion, Region 8

In the early 1990's, recreation became the number one use of the national forests as well as the greatest money maker for the U.S. Treasury from receipts. Since the mid 1990's, more and more programs have focused on the recreational needs within the national forests, including refurbishing, rebuilding, and adding to the recreational structures.


1. USDA Forest Service, "Recreation Structures," Acceptable Plans, p. 2.

2. USDA Forest Service, "A History of Outdoor Recreation Development in National Forests, 1891-1942," p. 2.

3. USDA Forest Service, Mountains and Rangers: A History of Federal Forest Management in the Southern Appalachians, 1900-91, p. 78.

4. USDA Forest Service, "A History of Outdoor Recreation," p. 3.

5. Ibid., p. 4.

6. USDA Forest Service, Campground Improvement Manual, p. 9.

7. USDA Forest Service, Recreation Plans—North Pacific Region.

8. Taylor, Problems in Landscape Architecture in the National Forests, Foreword.

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Last Updated: 08-Jun-2008