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Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park Could Shut Down For Structural Strengthening


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.


The Ahwahnee has both its fans and detractors, so this project should inspire a few opinions.

No question there's a lot of history associated with the building, and a basic goal for any park building should be structural safety - especially in "earthquake country." However ... that's a lot of money in today's budget climate to put into one building. Pundits could suggest the work could be funded with about one season's cash flow, given the rates currently charged to stay in the hotel.

It will be interesting to watch this one play out in the priority process.

The Ahwahnee is a wonderful hotel, however the design and construction of concrete structures has seen many improvements since the Ahwahnee was built in the 20's. While I hate to see the Ahwahnee close for as much as 2 years for the structural work, I would also hate to see it badly damaged in an earthquake. I am one of the few who have had the opportunity to "look inside the walls" of the Ahwahnee, and I have to agree that the strucutral upgrades are probably a good idea. They just didn't use enough structural steel in the concrete back in the '20s to allow these structures to hold up well to a major earthquake. One of the biggest issues would be breakage of pipes within the walls, and associated flooding of the building that would result. The Ahwahnee has a lot of valuable art in it that could be badly damaged. While $137 million is a lot of money, at least it would be going toward something that would have a return in value for the future generations who will have to pay back that money. So I guess I would weigh in on the side of favoring the upgrade. (There are a few photos "inside the walls" of the Ahwahnee on my website if you are interested, they show the huge cast iron pipes within the walls.)

Jess Stryker

Imagine paying the high rates the Ahwahnee commands to stay at a hotel that could kill us in an earthquake!!! Talk about corporate greed!!!

It's not a question of corporate greed. It's a matter of the National Park Service allowing the work. The Ahwahnee has national historic landmark status. The concessionaire can't paint a public bathroom in it without NPS approval.

...and if they decide to take down the metal balcony on the 6th floor, I want it. After all, my grandfather built it and put it there...

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