Yosemite National Park officials hope to learn in June whether they'll have the money needed to strengthen The Ahwahnee Hotel against earthquakes, a project that could shutter the iconic lodge for two years.
For quite a few years Yosemite officials have wanted to bolster the grand hotel, which opened in 1927 with the intention of attracting the elite and politically powerful. Earthquakes in the Sierra are not unusual, and they have in the past shaken the national park.
Earlier this week Yosemite officials asked their Interior Department bosses for $137 million in stimulus funding to perform the seismic strengthening work. Park spokesman Scott Gediman told the Mercury News that if the money is forthcoming, the work would take a year to get under way -- that time would be spent obtaining the necessary construction permits and allowing the hotel to honor its current reservations.
The story did not address the scope of work that might be involved, though it could be quite substantial, given the hotel's 150,000-square-foot footprint. Unlike many national park lodges, The Ahwahnee is not exactly as it appears. Gilbert Stanley Underwood, the renowned architect who, along with his colleagues of the day, gave us "Parkitecture," designed the hotel at the request of then-National Park Service Director Stephen Mather. In drawing up his plans, the architect used slight-of-hand, figuratively speaking.
Underwood, who never graduated from high school yet wound up with an undergraduate degree from Yale University and a master’s degree from Harvard, wasn’t tightly wedded to “Parkitecture.” He could ably design charming park lodges imbued with rustic touches of logs and rock and arts-and-crafts flourishes while also creating coldly efficient federal buildings. His federal courthouse in Seattle came to define “federal Art Deco,” while the poured-in-place concrete that went into the Anchorage federal courthouse was dubbed “New Deal Concrete.”
And, from time to time, the architect found good use for concrete in the national parks. When he designed the massive and breathtaking Ahwahnee Lodge, Underwood used weathered granite for the exterior walls and concrete in place of timbers and planks. By pouring concrete into wood-lined forms and then staining it so it would appear to be redwood in both texture and color he created “shadowood,” a technique that he returned to a quarter-century later when he designed Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park.
Here's how National Park Service architects described the Ahwahnee in 1985:
The building is massed into several enormous blocks with a six-story central block and wings of three stories. The multiple hip and gable roofs are finished with green slate and further break up the building's form, making it appear as rough and textured as the surrounding landscape. The building has balconies and terraces at several different levels that add a spatial interest not only to the exterior but also to the visitor experiencing the interior of the building. The building contains approximately 95 guest rooms, various public spaces and meeting rooms, an enormous dining room, and utility spaces. The principal entrance to the building is through a porte-cochere on the north side of the building. The log and wood entrance contains painted decorations in Indian patterns, setting a tone for the interior. This entrance serves mainly as a utilitarian space to funnel the visitor to the building's interior, and to the views of the grassy meadow to the south and the impressive vistas, seen from most of the rooms. The main entrance is more subdued than noteworthy; the most impressive views of the hotel are from the southern meadows.
The north wing of the hotel contains the lobby, decorated with floor mosaics of Indian designs executed in brightly colored rubber tiles. The cornice is stenciled with Indian-design paintings. The elevator lobby continues the Indian designs with sawn-wood reliefs on the elevator doors and an abstract mural based on Indian basket patterns over the fireplace in that room. The Great Lounge's 24-foot-high ceiling has exposed girders and beams painted with bands of Indian designs. The exposure of the ceiling's structure gives the spatial impression of a coffered ceiling. The enormous fireplaces at opposite ends of the Lounge are cut sandstone. The wrought-iron chandeliers, Persian rugs hanging on the walls, and the wood furnishings are original. Their worth and delicate condition resulted in their conservation and placement in enclosed cases on the walls. Other oriental rugs, primarily replacements, are on the polished wooden floor of the Great Lounge. The floor-to-ceiling windows in the Great Lounge have 5x6-foot stained glass panels at the top, with handsome designs based on Indian patterns, but like many of the other interior elements done with a flatness found in Art Deco architecture.
Directly off the Lounge are the California Room, the Writing Room, and the solarium that overlooks the southern meadow. The California room contains decorations of memorabilia from the Gold Rush days. The Writing Room's principal feature is an oil painting on linen by Robert Boardman Howard that runs the length of one wall and depicts local flora and fauna in a style reminiscent of medieval tapestries.
The large dining room (6,630 square feet) has a gable-roofed ceiling 34 feet high at the ridge. The walls are massive granite piers interspersed with 11 floor-to-ceiling windows with the exception of the partition wall between the kitchen and dining room which has a six-foot wainscotting of wood panelling with plaster above. The sugar-pine roof trusses are supported by concrete "logs" again painted in imitation of the real thing. Original wooden furniture and wrought-iron chandeliers remain in use.