A Smoky Mountain local recalls the tale of the tower that was almost canceled
The Hatfields and the McCoys. The Jets and the Sharks. The Capulets and the Montagues. The National Park Service and the National Park Association. Queue freeze frame, quizzical look and record scratch. What? That’s right. The organization that was to be the voice of the National Parks and the group charged with caring for the parks went to war. More specifically, they waged a fairly nasty media campaign over a beloved spot in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
So what was the hubbub? The design of the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower. Yep. First of all, let’s start things off by saying it was the 50s.
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Setting the stage, America in the 1950s
People in the 50s were very serious about the design of things. Coming off the heels of the depression and a Second World War, this era had a booming economy and no idea what to do with their free time. People had time for hobbies. But because their previous hobbies were dispatching Nazis, saving metal and trying to survive by eating bowls of dust, the hobby market was lax.
So fads sprang up everywhere. Hula-hoops, pogo sticks, etc. These are the people who invented panty raids and telephone booth stuffing. Modern and futuristic were the buzzwords of the day. Anything space race, aerospace, sleek metal or chrome colors were the rage. Even the cars had massive, aerodynamic pastel-colored shark fins. Into that world sprang Mission 66, an ambitious 10-year plan to expand and improve national park infrastructure in time for the Parks Service’s 50th anniversary in 1966.
The design of Clingmans Dome
This brings us to Clingmans Dome. The highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains, the dome – named after a Confederate general – had been home to a wooden observation tower built in the 30s. That tower resembled a fire tower, but park experts had discovered that despite its great height, the spot wasn’t ideal for fire spotting. A general observation tower would serve the public much better.
According to the book “Blue Ridge Fire Towers” by Robert Sorrell, they hired a Gatlinburg architectural firm operated by Hubert Bebb and Raymond Olson to design the 45-foot high tower. Bebb’s original design included a cylinder that made the tower look more like a silo. However, park officials determined the cylinder was unnecessary and removed it, leaving the now-familiar mushroom cap design.
Now, in the history of designing things, I can’t say that I’ve ever heard the phrase “mushroom cap design” employed positively. “Why Martha, that tower, out there in the distance, rising majestically through the mists in the morning sun, I say, doesn’t it remind you rather of nature’s most noble creation, the wondrous mushroom?”
The dome was called flashy and conspicuous
Not surprisingly, when the design was revealed in 1958, there were detractors. The NPA called it “flashy and conspicuous,” Sorrell said, and the organization published objections in the National Parks Magazine. The chief objections were that the design didn’t fit well with the surrounding landscape and also wasn’t in keeping with the values of the National Park Service. But had I penned the NPA’s objections, I might have gone with the more succinct: “It’s fugly.”
Certainly, with the hindsight of nigh 70 years, it’s easy to look at the mushroom connected to a long, wide ramp and be critical. But, the dome tower is functional and would be a heck of a thing if they let skateboarders ride it.
The Clingmans Dome controversy goes national
The NPA’s objections got picked up in magazines and newspapers around the country. As a result, it was something of a national controversy at the time. Eventually, things calmed down and cooler heads prevailed, thanks in no small part to the fact that Bebb’s design was functional, and it was also popular with locals. Ground was broken in December 1958 and the thing was finished in October 1959.
Today, at 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On clear days, views expand over 100 miles. Unfortunately, air pollution often limits viewing distances to under 20 miles.
Have you been to Clingmans Dome? Did you know it was once controversial? If so, let us know in the comments. Click here to view the web story version of this article.