National Park Lodging: Who's Taking Care Of These Buildings? Part I

As part of its lease for running concessions at Lake Crescent in Olympic National Park, ARAMARK Parks & Destinations was required to substantially renovate the four Roosevelt Fireplace Cottages. Photo courtesy of ARAMARK Parks & Destinations.

Editor's note: While many national park lodges are on the National Register of Historic Places, not all lodges reflect the preservation and well-maintained appearance you might expect for such properties. In a two-part series, the Traveler looks at the highs and lows of upkeep in the National Park System.

Rusting fixtures, cracked tiles, wood rot in advanced stages, beams warped and rotting, mortar around fireplace hearths and chimneys cracked or missing. If you found some of these maintenance needs around your home, you'd likely tackle them right away.

After all, better to get your hands dirty, wield a hammer, spill a little paint, or do some plumbing to fix a small problem now rather than be overwhelmed by a massive, and expensive, repair job later, right?

But if you spend any time in the national parks, you'll find weary structures that need attention ranging from a coat or two of fresh paint to more substantial structural fixes.

Why is that so?

More than a few of these taxpayer-owned lodges are on the National Register of Historic Places, which, by definition, is "the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation." Yet there are places in the National Park System, unfortunately, where the preservation seems to be falling behind.

The reasons behind these needs are many: More than a few lodges and associated facilities are located in areas with relatively harsh climates, many are quite old and built at a time when building standards were less stringent than today's, and, of course, many of these facilities have seen a lot of use since they first opened their doors. They are indeed old and weary.

Plus, with the short operating seasons in some national parks, there's very little profit margin.

“How in the world can you recoup a million-dollar investment in three months?" said Shenandoah National Park Superintendent Martha Bogle. “It's a risky business operating concessions in national parks where you get snow or hurricane-force winds and you have to evacuate people off mountains."

In short, the weary state of some historic lodges in the system can be traced back to the National Park Service and to concessionaires and the folks they hire to manage these facilities. In some cases, maintenance to-do items accrue as parks change concessionaires; the outgoing business might not have had the incentive to stay atop of deteriorating needs, and as a result the incoming concessionaire is handed a sometimes substantial construction punch list to tackle.

Too, a problem faced at some locations is management turnover. New managers might spend a great deal of their time learning the ropes and taking care of personnel matters, and thus have little time to uncover and correct all but major maintenance problems.

Dick Ring, who ended his Park Service career as associate director for administration and business programs with oversight of concessions, says many lodges suffer from being old, from the paperwork that runs the concessions system, and from the performance of some concessionaires.

“Almost all of them (the lodges) are run as a commercial operation, which is great. Almost all of them are historic, which adds about 20 pounds more of process and clearance if you’re going to do anything significant, aside from day-to-day maintenance," said Mr. Ring, who now works for the National Park Trust. "And the needs that they are in, almost all of them have reached an advanced stage where the needs are far beyond just a coat of paint and a new screen door.

“And part of that may be due to not holding the concessionaires’ feet to the fire well enough over the years," he added. "But part of that is also due to buildings having a useful life expectancy when they’re being heavily used."

A 59-Page Punch List

Go into most any of the park system's historic lodges -- the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone, the Ahwahnee in Yosemite, the Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier, the Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier -- and you're likey to find nagging maintenance items.

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At the Paradise Inn, the lobby fireplace needed to be stablized during a two-year renovation project. NPS photo.

Things got so bad at the Paradise Inn that it was shut down for two years while substantial repairs were made to the very foundation of the lodge as well as to the wiring and plumbing and even the rock fireplaces, which were deemed unstable. Despite extensive repairs made during the two-year closing, a shortage of funds available for the project means much remains to be done at the inn.

The Ahwahnee Inn early this year came out from a substantial refurbishing effort undertaken by Delaware North Parks & Resorts that included an upgrade of the fire and life safety equipment, brand new beds, linens and throw blankets, carpeting in the guest rooms and hallways, drapes and woven-wood window shades, the completion of HDTV installation for the flat-screen televisions, new public men’s and women’s restrooms on the main and Mezzanine floors, restored flooring in the lobby, and new and restored furniture and original artwork in the Great Lounge and throughout the common spaces and corridor landing areas.

Many Glacier is still going through the throes of renovations that actually began more than a decade ago. The first several phases of work focused on the building exterior and structural stabilization. In the fall of 2010, Montana-based construction company, Swank Enterprises, began interior work in the north annex and dining room of the hotel.

Life-safety issues that were addressed included seismic stabilization and replacing of electrical, plumbing, mechanical, fire alarm and fire suppression systems, according to park officials.

Things are not so gleaming or finely polished at Shenandoah. In that park, where a new concessionaire takes over January 1, the deferred maintenance punch list is staggering, running to 59 pages (attached). Items needing attention range from pesky things like torn screens, missing hardware, and failing window caulk to more substantial projects that involve rotting porch rafters, corroded copper gutters, and detached chimney flashing.

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Rusting light fixture at Big Meadows Lodge in Shenandoah. The ceiling above it is poorly maintained plywood. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Dry rot seems rampant, as does poorly caulked windows and bathroom showers. More than a few doors are poorly hung, hardware on windows and doors are missing, there is cracked and missing mortar in chimneys, fireplace hearths, and rock walls, the list notes.

Now, the good news is the list was compiled a few years ago, and some of the most serious problems, such as leaking roofs and structural issues, have been taken care of, notes Superintendent Bogle. Still, an October visit to Big Meadows Lodge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, found rooms with rusting light fixtures, cracked bathroom tiles with makeshift fixes, and poorly painted walls and ceilings -- and those problems were just in one room.

“I would say a lot of those really minor things have been taken care of. But I’m sure a lot of other things have come up," said Superintendent Bogle, referring to the 59-page list. And yet, she added, “Believe me, I’ve had conversations, and I won’t make excuses.”

Tomorrow: How things got so bad.

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