The controversy of Clingmans Dome, the observation tower that weathered the media storm

The once described "flashy and conspicuous" Clingmans Dome is now one of the most beloved destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The once described "flashy and conspicuous" Clingmans Dome is now one of the most beloved destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (stock photo)

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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. Say what?

That’s right. The organization entrusted to be the voice of the National Parks and the group charged with caring for the parks went to war – or at the least waged a fairly nasty media campaign – over a beloved spot in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

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 and people in the ’50s were very, very serious about the design of things. Coming off the heels of a depression and a second World War, the ‘50s 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 killing Nazis, saving metal and trying to survive by eating bowls of dust, the hobby market was lax. 

Fads Sprang up everywhere. Hula-Hoops, pogo sticks.  

These are the people that invented panty raids and telephone booth stuffing. If God had any sense of mercy he would have sped up the advance of television and given all these people PlayStations and told them to calm the hell down.  

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Instead they threw themselves into design and fashion with gusto heretofore reserved for the French. 

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. 

These people needed valium more than any generation that ever lived. 

Into that world sprang Mission 66, an ambitious 10-year plan to expand and improve national park infrastructure in time for the Parks Service 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 and, 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 but park officials determined the cylinder was unnecessary and removed it, leaving the now familiar mushroom cap design.

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Now, in the history of designing things, I can’t say that I’ve ever heard the phrase mushroom cap design employed in a positive manner. 

“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?”

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 the design didn’t fit well with the surrounding landscape and wasn’t in keeping with the values of the National Park Service. 

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, maybe going so far as to call it a concrete nightmare. But, the dome tower is functional and would be a hell of a thing if they let skateboarders ride it.

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The NPA’s objections got picked up in magazines and newspapers around the country and was something of a national controversy at a time when maybe everyone might have been better served addressing things like racial inequality, sexism, the burgeoning Cold War with Russia and maybe come up with a better plan for the end of the Korean Conflict than “Hey, let’s just split this up and do our best to keep an uneasy ceasefire for the next eight decades or so.”

Eventually, things calmed down and cooler heads prevailed – on the dome not in the Koreas – thanks in no small part to the fact that Bebb’s design was functional and it was apparently popular with locals. Ground was broken in December 1958 and the thing was finished in October of 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 a 100 miles. Unfortunately, air pollution often limits viewing distances to under 20 miles.

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  1. I feel sure that WWII veterans will appreciate the comment that they had hobbies like killing Nazis. I’m sure the families of those who died will also be amusesd.

  2. Oh my, a Confederate General? Whatever will we do now? I swear you all aren’t journalists anymore, you’re a bunch of worthless idiots

  3. It doesn’t seem idiotic to mention Clingman was a Confederate General, because he was…?

  4. The most distressing thing I see in this article, is that the view is obstructed by pollution. I would think that is something the neighboring areas would like to do something about. I’m just remembering how Chattanooga was in the 1960’s and what they did to fix that.

  5. I can’t express how much I enjoyed reading this article!!! BRAVO!! The humor was obvious and thoroughly enjoyable, it’s too bad not everyone enjoys reading fun and informative articles.

  6. David I totally agree with you, Brent is a dick. Amber my sentiments exactly, well put!

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