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The Rustic Style in Canada's National Parks

As part of Parks Canada's centennial celebrations, the Canadian Register of Historic Places (CRHP) is pleased to celebrate the centennial by presenting articles relating to past achievements at Parks Canada, and to convey to Canadians the important leadership role it plays in the conservation of natural and cultural heritage across the country. The theme for July is National Parks and therefore the focus of this article is the picturesque Rustic architecture that emerged as a style for recreational and administrative buildings within the National Parks. The buildings featured in this article are designated federal heritage buildings and/or National Historic Sites.  More information on these buildings is available on the CRHP.

Balancing the romance of the Canadian wilderness with the amenities of modern living, the visually distinctive Rustic style architecture in the National Parks is an attractive building form closely associated with recreational areas in Canada. Rustic style architecture covers a wide range of structures and construction methods. From its Romantic roots in the backwoods of Canada, the Rustic style emerged as a building style in the National Parks soon after our first protected area, Banff National Park, was established in 1885. East Gate Registration Complex, Riding Mountain National Park, 1934, Parks Canada / Centre-d'Inscription-de-l'Entrée-Est-du-Parc-du-Mont-Riding, 1934, Parcs Canada

The Rustic style's roots stem from the simple log buildings constructed by trappers, railway workers and prospectors. Often reminiscent of the log structures of early settlers, the Rustic style was an appropriate style sympathetic to the wilderness setting of the National Parks remote environment. In Canada, Rustic style log bathhouses and CPR stations at Banff were first constructed between 1886 and 1888. George Stewart, the park's first superintendent, introduced the Rustic style to Banff, which he thought most appropriate for the natural surroundings.  In time, this style was adopted by the National Parks system in order to project a distinctive image associated with new parks.

What were the origins of this distinct style? There were many. It was partly influenced by traditional Swiss chalets that had been introduced to North America by Andrew Jackson Downing in the 1850s. Log construction techniques had been popularized by French architect Calvert Vaux, in his 1857 pattern book Villas and Cottages.  An embrace of folk architecture by architects also influenced the style.  These influences remained as Rustic style architecture developed in the late 19th century. It manifested itself in the National Parks in the form of vernacular log structures with shingles, prominent rough stonework, deep eaves, rough board siding and verandahs, and also as a deliberate Swiss quality, supported by rectilinear or diagonal bracing with deep eaves, was part of a conscious effort to promote tourism.

HooDoo Warden Cabin, Jasper National Park, Parks Canada / Chalet des gardes du parc de Hoodoo, Parc National Jasper, Parcs CanadaWhen first designated as National Parks, the lands often contained no permanent settlements. Increased tourism ushered in roads and recreational facilities that transformed the National Parks into destinations for tourists in automobiles. In 1909, a full-time warden system began, and after 1918, more wardens' cabins were prepared to standard plans. These usually small, one-room structures were sometimes adapted for permanent occupancy. Patrolling wardens used cabins for overnight accommodation along patrol trails established to enforce regulations within the park boundaries. Constructed from locally cut logs, these structures varied in size, proportion, corner notching, window and door displacement, and in their verandah support systems. The standard plan included a six-foot verandah roof overhang supported by the roof purlins, which was often modified by decorative supports. Examples of the type are Hoodoo Warden Cabin and Topaz Warden Patrol Cabin both in Jasper National Park of Canada. The National Park Warden Service constructed Warden's Cabins, fire towers, cabins, stables, and sheds for patrol purposes, often in a Rustic style. This network of service structures expanded over the years as the parks developed, enabling the enforcement of wildlife and forest protection regulations, and the control of tourism in Canada's National Parks. These modest and functional buildings were by no means impressive compared to the more substantial Rustic buildings in the National Parks' townsites. Twin Falls Tea House, Yoho National Park, Parks Canada / Salon de thé des chutes Twin, Parc National Yoho, Parcs Canada

Often designed by architects, there are many distinctive Rustic style buildings, such as the Banff Natural History Museum, Twin Falls Tea House, and Cave and Basin Hot Springs.  Commercial operators at resorts in the National Parks also used the Rustic style. Hotels, motels, and lodges embraced it; garages, restaurants, police stations, fire departments, tearooms and railway stations equally adopted the style. Most of the government-owned buildings, including picnic shelters, bandstands and parks administration buildings, were designed in this style. It was especially popular with the development of tourism, outdoor recreation, public and private ownership in parks and federal make-work projects during the Great Depression.

The popularity of the Rustic style was due to its apparent informality. Parks staff even built two log cabins to accommodate Archibald Belaney, popularily known as "Grey Owl" and his wife Anahareo. Grey Owl, a noted author and advocate of the wilderness, worked for the parks service as a naturalist. In 1931, Grey Owl and Anahareo occupied a log cabin in Riding Mountain National Park, and in 1932, they resettled at Ajawaan Lake in Prince Albert National Park.

Many of the wide ranging Rustic themes were first seen on tourist accommodation in the parks, which include Bungalow camps, townsite lodges, and resort hotel complexes. Examples include the log cabins provided as rest houses for Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies, an organization founded by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in the 1920s to provide horse riding through the park.  Another example is the two-story tea house used as a stopping place on a busy hiking trail in Yoho National Park of Canada. Tea houses also provided meals and shelter for hikers and trail riders taking back country excursions near the railway's network of hotels and bungalow camps.Abbot Pass Refuge Cabin, Banff National Park, Parks Canada / Refuge du col Abbot, Parc National Banff, Parcs Canada

The Canadian Pacific Railway, actively involved with tourism throughout the Rockies, promoted hiking and climbing and brought Swiss guides to Canada to lead climbing parties. Several buildings were constructed to support hikers and climbers of the Alpine Club of Canada. High altitude stone shelters, similar to those found in the Alps, were provided to accommodate climbing groups led by Swiss guides. Abbot Pass Refuge Cabin is perhaps the best example constructed of split stone at an altitude of 9,585 feet.

Though coming from humble roots, the Rustic style became much more refined and sophisticated. For example, the Banff Museum (1902-03) is a distinctive two-storey wood-frame building designed in a rustic Swiss style with a decorative crossed-log wall pattern, and is perhaps the largest, most elaborate example of this early phase of park design. In time, the alpen flavour of the Rustic style broadened to include Tudor, Queen Anne and Chateau style elements. To capitalize on the interest in wilderness recreation, tourist accommodations were constructed by railway and park operators. The railways exerted great influence on early design practice in Canada's National Parks. Large hotels formed an essential part of this form of tourism. Largest and best known of the resort hotels within the parks is the CPR's Banff Springs Hotel (1886) by Bruce Price. The hotel also has 20th-century additions by William Painter (1903-14) and J.W. Orrock (1926-28).

As the number of support buildings increased in the parks larger buildings were required. The structural limitations of traditional log building methods were solved by using decorative rustic elements over a substructure of reinforced concrete, a method used in the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, Banff. Other commercial buildings in Banff soon followed this modern method of wood cladding a concrete structure.

Before 1950, a fully developed and consistent Rustic style became the architectural character of National Parks townsites and remote parks buildings. Edward Mill's comprehensive report on Rustic style architecture in Prince Albert National Park describes the evolution of pre-1948 building stock in four distinct phases:

  • The first phase, from 1927 until 1930, followed soon after the establishment of the architectural division of the National Parks Branch, this division was given a mandate to develop distinctive architectural guidelines for buildings within the national parks system. A Rustic style was developed to harmonize with the natural surroundings; native materials and motifs from the Picturesque cottage tradition were used to express the building's character.
  • The second phase, from 1931-1936, developed with new architectural guidelines and a need to employ Canadians during the Great Depression. Labour-intensive building projects that might otherwise have been regarded as too expensive were built at many National Parks and National Historic Sites. This situation encouraged extensive building throughout the ever-growing Parks Service. An example from this phase is the South Gate Registration, Building 3, at Waskesiu in Prince Albert National Park. Tudor Rustic in design, the building is distinguished by the successful use of natural construction materials.
  • The third phase began in 1936 (when relief funding ended and with it the centralized architectural program in the national parks) and lasted until 1940, when the Second World War disrupted construction activity. After the disbanding of the architectural division in 1937, all design work for the National Parks was handled by Engineering and Construction Services, a branch of the newly formed Department of Mines and Resources. After 1937, economic restraint is seen in the use of milled-frame construction using manufactured lumber products. The rustic log cabin theme was interpreted through the use of cheaper log siding applied to the side of these frame structures.
  • During the fourth phase of construction, from 1945 through the 1950s, the rustic effect was achieved mainly through the continued use of half-log Skoki Ski Lodge, Banff National Park, Parks Canada / L'Auberge-de-Ski-Skoki, Parc National Banff, Parcs Canadasiding. Labour shortages and cost restraints meant the pursuit of distinctive rustic architecture was largely abandoned and stock plans borrowed from other government building programmes such as the Soldier Settlement Board and Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

By the 1970s there was an increased awareness and appreciation of early Rustic architecture as many buildings of this style from the early 20th century were now in need of restoration. In 1992, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recommended for designation as National Historic Sites several impressive intact Rustic style buildings within the National Parks. These included: Abbot Pass Refuge Cabin, Banff National Park; Twin Falls Tea House, Upper Yoho Valley, Yoho National Park; Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton Lakes National Park; Skoki Ski Lodge, Banff National Park; East Gate Registration Complex , Norgate Road, Riding Mountain National Park; and the Information  Centre (Former Administration Building), Jasper Information Centre, Jasper National Park, Parks Canada / Centre-d'Accueil-du-Parc-Jasper, Parcs CanadaTownsite, Jasper National Park.

Rooted in the Canadian vernacular, the Rustic style has become firmly established in the Canadian popular imagination. Today, the Rustic style's hand-hewn wood, robust stones, and a faint fairy tale charm help us to identify with the establishment of our vast network of National Parks. So if you decide to visit a National Park this summer, look for these picturesque buildings, and take a moment to ponder the distinctive craftsmanship of the Rustic style.


Edward Mills, Rustic building in Canada's National Parks, 1887-1950, HSMBC Paper, November 1992

W.F. Lothian, A Brief History of Canada's National Parks, Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1987

W.F. Lothian, A History of Canada's National parks, Vol. III, Ministry of Supply and Services Canada, 1979

Harold Kalman, A Concise History of Canadian Architecture, 2000

Interested in learning more about rustic architecture? Visit these other sites on the Canadian Register of Historic Places:

Prince of Wales Hotel National Historic Site of Canada,  Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta

Horse Barn, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Gazebo, Batterman's Point, Saint Lawrence Islands National Park of Canada, Ontario

Skoki Ski Lodge National Historic Site of Canada, Banff National Park, Alberta

Picnic Shelter, Jasper National Park, Alberta

Bandstand, Riding Mountain, Manitoba

Kitchen Shelter 7, Waterton Lakes, Alberta

East Gate Entrance Building, Riding Mountain, Manitoba

Warden's Headquarters/Visitor Information Building, Waskesiu, Saskatchewan

Superintendent's Residence, Building 22, Waskesiu, Saskatchewan

Fire Hall (B-3), Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba

Rustic Lookout Pavilion, Cascades of Time Garden, Banff National Park, Alberta

Golf Clubhouse, Riding Mountain, Manitoba

Municipal Library Building, Jasper National Park, Alberta

Former Canadian National Railway Station, Jasper National Park of Canada, Alberta

Lone Sheiling, Cape Breton National Park of Canada, (based on a rustic "bothran" or Scottish dwelling), Nova Scotia

Rescue Building, Jasper, Alberta

Information Centre, Jasper National Park of Canada, Alberta

Stanley Mitchell Alpine Hut, Yoho National Park of Canada, British Columbia

Administration Building, Fundy National Park of Canada, New Brunswick

Arthur O. Wheeler Hut, Glacier National Park of Canada, British Columbia

Abbot Pass Refuge Cabin, Banff National Park of Canada, Alberta

Assembly Hall, former Dance Hall, Waskesiu, Saskatchewan

Brazeau Warden Cabin, Jasper National Park of Canada, Alberta

Hoodoo Warden Cabin, Jasper National Park of Canada, Alberta

Isaac Creek Warden Cabin, Jasper National Park, Alberta

Floe Lake Warden Patrol Cabin, Kootenay National Park of Canada, British Columbia

Whirlpool Wardens' Residence, Riding Mountain Park East Gate Registration Complex, Manitoba