The Jackson Lake Lodge was Gilbert Stanley Underwood's last project, but was it his best?
Some years ago I wrote a magazine piece about Jackson Lake Lodge, the final national park creation of Gilbert Stanley Underwood. Underwood was a giant when it comes to national park lodges, having designed the Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite, Bryce Canyon Lodge, the Grand Canyon Lodge on the canyon's North Rim, and Zion Lodge, to name the most prominent structures in his parks portfolio.
Personally, I don't think the Jackson Lake Lodge, although it offers spectacular views of Grand Teton National Park, stands up to those other lodges. Of course, when this project took root in the mid-1950s, it marked a turning point in national park architecture. The agency was done with its romantic "arts and crafts" period and was moving into its Mission 66 phase, which placed an emphasis on handling large numbers of tourists as Americans were beginning to hit the road in large numbers to explore the country during their vacations.
Nestled among sagebrush, pines and aspen on a terrace above its namesake lake, Jackson Lake Lodge hugs the landscape. Its ponderous profile is laid low, as if its designer strived to minimize the hotel’s incongruity with the surrounding landscape of towering mountains and shimmering water.
Built from slabs of concrete and sweeping panes of glass in an emphatic declaration that the National Park Service’s romance with arts-and-crafts-influenced lodging was unquestionably over, Jackson Lake Lodge made an architectural statement when it opened for business on June 11, 1955. A stark contrast to the rustic mastery Gilbert Stanley Underwood wielded when he designed lodges in Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Zion national parks, the lodge marked a turning point for both the park service and the country.
And it wasn’t necessarily welcomed.
“What disturbs many modern visitors is the lodge’s utilitarian appearance and its poor relationship to the surroundings,” Joyce Zaitlin, a member of the American Institute of Architects, noted in her 1989 biography of Underwood, Gilbert Stanley Underwood; His Rustic, Art Deco and Federal Architecture.
“Admirers of Underwood’s earlier works are often shocked to see so little resemblance to his earlier romantic lodges,” she wrote.
These days, Paul Shea, curator of the Yellowstone Historic Center in West Yellowstone, Montana, is blunter in his assessment of Underwood’s final work.
“It’s probably his most bizarre creation,” Shea, who gives talks on Underwood’s career, says without hesitation. “The building itself looks like a giant bomb shelter.”
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Gilbert Stanley Underwood was one of the architectural titans of the first half of the 20th century. He was a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright and brothers Charles and Henry Greene, designers who integrated their creations into the environment as comfortably and unobtrusively as possible. For his part, Underwood helped define the “rustic style” that applied native rock, massive timbers, and steeply pitched roofs to many of the national park lodges built during the 1920s and 1930s.
Much of his guidance likely came from Stephen Mather, the park service’s first director who, Zaitlin notes, had “strong ideas about the types of structures to be built in areas under the agency’s jurisdiction. Deeply concerned with protecting the natural beauty of the lands, (Mather and his assistants) felt it vital that all construction be non-intrusive and in harmony with the natural surroundings.”
Between 1924, when Underwood designed both the dining hall at Cedar Breaks National Monument and the lodges at Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, and 1955, when Jackson Lake Lodge opened, he worked at an almost non-stop pace. He designed the Ahwahnee in Yosemite as well as the Union Pacific Railroad dining hall at West Yellowstone; the Grand Canyon Lodge on the park’s North Rim; the Timberline ski resort lodge in Oregon; the Sun Valley Lodge and the Challenger Inn in Sun Valley; the U.S. Mint in San Francisco; the Williamsburg Lodge and York House in colonial Williamsburg, Virginia; two post offices in Alaska; the War Department and State Department Building in Washington; the Defense Workers’ Housing Development in California; the Seattle courthouse; resident halls for women in Washington, and at least 10 railroad station depots.
Not to be overlooked was employee housing Underwood designed for Alcatraz Island when it housed its namesake prison, a project Zaitlin hints at in her dissection of Jackson Lake Lodge.
“From today’s vantage point, it is clear that many decisions were made both before and during construction that contributed to some of the lodge’s problems, and it is not so apparent on whose head the blame rests,” she wrote. “Many have charged the architect with choosing urban materials and techniques, of creating prison-like architecture for an area of spectacular beauty. If the lodge is seen as a structure characteristic of 1950s design and as an attempt to provide a fireproof building on a site with a spectacular view, then the building may be seen more advantageously.
“Those seeking Underwood’s Art Deco and rustic elements, however, are certain to be disappointed.”
Clearly, 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,” as his national park projects later came to be described. 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, Underwood found good use for concrete in the national parks. When he designed the massive and breathtaking Ahwahnee Lodge that opened in Yosemite in 1927, 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 resurfaced at Jackson Lake Lodge.
So it shouldn’t have been too surprising that Underwood would employ concrete in designing Jackson Lake Lodge. What is surprising is the extent of its use and the “basic rectangular boxes with shed roofs” that the architect created. Whereas the Ahwahnee fits smoothly into the rockscape of Yosemite and the Grand Canyon Lodge seems almost part of the canyon, Jackson Lake Lodge stands out abruptly and, for the most part, lacks the “rusticism” that defined Underwood’s earlier park lodges.
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Today’s Grand Teton National Park is a testament to John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s determination and philanthropy. The New York blueblood was introduced to Jackson Hole in 1926 by Horace Albright, then superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.
Albright at the time harbored a dream of preserving the Tetons by annexing them to Yellowstone, and he hoped to enlist Rockefeller in his effort to conserving the Tetons “and the whole valley north of Jackson.”
He would succeed beyond expectation. Rockefeller and his wife, Abby, were disturbed by what they saw during the trip, asking Albright why telephone lines, billboards, and ramshackle buildings were allowed to clutter the views.
“The Rockefellers expressed great concern that this spectacular country was rapidly going the way of development and destruction,” Albright, who later became head of the National Park Service, wrote in The Birth of the National Park Service.
To counter the clutter, Rockefeller shortly thereafter pledged $2 million and created the Snake River Land Co., which quietly began to purchase private lands beneath the Tetons with the intent of turning them over to the federal government. By the early 1940s Rockefeller had amassed 35,000 acres, which he donated to become part of Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943.
Seven years later, during a vacation in Moran, Rockefeller’s interest in building a lodge on the edge of Jackson Lake was kindled by Harold Fabian, a Salt Lake City attorney who had chartered the Snake River Land Co. at Rockefeller’s request. Soon after Rockefeller returned to New York City, he dispatched Underwood and Tom Vint, the park service’s chief of planning and design, to Jackson Hole to begin designs for the lodge.
When Rockefeller called Underwood out of retirement in 1950 for the lodge project, the country was at a crossroads, both societal and architectural. The nation was recovering from World War II and the Baby Boom generation was on its way and anxious to see the country. The lack of accommodations in Grand Teton National Park also was creating health problems, as tourists were camping anywhere they could along the roadways.
“… the sanitary conditions along the roads and in the parking areas resulting from people sleeping in their cars, and camping over night at picture turnouts and wherever they can pull off the road, without the facilities provided except the sagebrush and trees, are getting to be a real menace and a threat from the spread of germs carried by flies,” Fabian said in a rambling letter to Albright in August 1952 that recounted Rockefeller’s interest in building Jackson Lake Lodge.
While there was a definite need for accommodations in Grand Teton, the cost of building a lodge had rocketed from the early days of Underwood’s career. Cheap labor in the form of the Civilian Conservation Corps was no longer available, and material prices had increased substantially.
Underwood outlined in 24 pages how public lodgings should be laid out at Grand Teton National Park. Along with selecting “Moose Hill,” one of Rockefeller’s favorite overlooks of the lake, for Jackson Lake Lodge, Underwood also recommended copious use of concrete.
“Construction should be of at least semi-fireproof construction,” he wrote in his proposal. “It would be desirable to develop a reinforced concrete or light steel frame, and fireproof floors. … The exterior of the building could be of stained concrete or stone to merge with local coloration. Advice should be sought from insurance experts on the savings in premiums that will result from fireproof or fire-resistant construction.”
At times the challenge was daunting.
“Cost estimates are running higher than a cat’s back on a picket fence,” Underwood wrote Fabian in September of 1952. “Therefore, will try a frame estimate, in lieu of fireproof.”
Despite Underwood’s departure from rusticism, his proposal was warmly received by Rockefeller and the National Park Service. Park Service Director Newton Drury called Underwood’s proposal “an admirable solution to the problem of providing the public concessions” in the park.
So ‘admirable” was the Modernistic concrete design deemed by the park service that it arguably became the prototype for Mission 66 construction in the parks. Launched in 1956 by National Park Service Superintendent Conrad Wirth to enhance visitors’ park experiences through better, more modern facilities, Mission 66 produced a sweeping infrastructure upgrade throughout the park system.
During the ten-year project, which culminated on the 50th anniversary of the park service, more than 100 visitor centers as well as 585 comfort stations and 221 administrative buildings were constructed.
“Over the course of the ten-year program, the visitor centers came to symbolize, for visitors and park service administration, the accomplishments of the Mission 66 program,” notes Christine Madrid French, an architectural historian in Virginia who runs a web site devoted to Mission 66. “The new building type, a larger part of the building improvement project, changed the character of architecture and public service at the national parks. The nostalgic period reflected by the earlier CCC structures, limited in its scope and applicability, was largely abandoned in favor of this unified contemporary architectural statement. The modern structures heralded a new period for the National Park Service and demonstrated its efforts to protect historic and natural resources as well as accommodate and educate the people.”
Mission 66 did indeed send the Park Service in a new architectural direction. Sarah Allaback, an architectural historian who in 1999 examined the Mission 66 movement for the Park Service, noted that “everything changed” after World War II.
“In the post-war era, modern architecture not only represented progress, efficiency, and a scientific approach, but it also came ‘ready-made’ in mass-produced parts that could be constructed on site cheaply and efficiently, which was important considering the urgency of the situation,” she wrote.
Allaback’s husband, Ethan Carr, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts, studied not only the Mission 66 style for the Park Service but Underwood’s influence. For those offended by Underwood’s creation on the shores of Jackson Lake, Carr points out the subtle, yet unmistakable, rustic influences. The low front entry, which leads visitors up a flight of stairs and down a hallway into a lobby boasting 60-foot-tall windows that frame the Tetons is not so different from the approaches Underwood employed at both the Ahwahnee and the Grand Canyon lodges.
Plus, Underwood gave the concrete a texture and color of wood, and enclosed steel beams in wood so they would appear as trusses. As to exactly how Underwood arrived at his design for Jackson Lake Lodge, Carr has searched fruitlessly for an answer. However, he believes the building trends of the day influenced Underwood.
“Like many architects in the United States in the 1950s, (Underwood) was responding to new ways of building,” says Carr. “His is the first really big example of how Modernism (was) going to be used in the national parks.”
Plus, adds Carr, Underwood’s design demonstrated his flexibility in working with available materials. "It’s (Jackson Lake Lodge) just showing a skilled architect saying, ‘You want concrete? I can give you concrete. I can still do many of the same (rustic) things’,’’ explains the professor.
“He knew better than anyone what national park lodges were about, and he understood the current trends in architecture, and he simply adapted and came up with a new adaptation.”