The Ahwahnee - Yosemite National Park's Historic Hotel & The National Park Service's Premiere Example of "Parkitecture"
If there's one location in the Continental United States that everyone should have on their Bucket List to see at least once it should be Yosemite National Park in California. Formerly the home of the Southern Sierra Miwok Indians who called themselves the Ahwahneeche, Yosemite is now the destination of over 3.7 million people annually who visit the park to take in its spectacular granite cliffs, beautiful waterfalls, clear streams, and Giant Sequoia groves - most of which were made famous by American photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams' stunning black and white photographs.
Major vacation destination that is, Yosemite offers visitors many lodging options but none are quite as spectacular as the park's historic AAA® Four-Diamond hotel The Ahwahnee which was the brainchild of Stephen T. Mather, the man who was appointed the country's first National Park Service Director in 1917 and who essentially developed the NPS as we know it today.
Mather's motives for building the hotel were two-fold in that there was no doubt that as the President and Owner of Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company, Mather was a millionaire and used to the comfort and luxury of fine hotels himself but he also knew that a key source of support for the fledgling National Park Service would be in getting the rich and powerful to visit a National Park and win over that much-needed support - something that certainly wasn't going to happen if the rich and famous couldn't be convinced to stay in the park. Legend has it that Mather got the incentive to build The Ahwahnee after Nancy Witcher Astor - aka Lady Astor, England's first female to sit as a member of Parliament in the British House of Commons - left her visit to Yosemite in disgust after being somewhat repulsed by her unheated and primitive accommodations at the Sentinel House, one of Yosemite's earliest guest facilities which was replaced by The Ahwahnee.
After Lady Astor's hasty retreat to town and lodgings more suited to her position, Mather decided that the rich and powerful needed a place to stay that was on par with their accustomed first-class accommodations and with that the push was on to build a world-class hotel located smack in the middle of one of the National Park Service's most beautiful locations and Mather's favorite of them all.
Named The Ahwahnee - meaning "Place of a Gaping Mouth" which was derived from the Southern Sierra Miwok Indians - and built in a meadow below the Royal Arches rock formation that provides stunning views of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and Glacier Point, the hotel was designed with a massive granite facade that was constructed so as to blend in with the majestic natural beauty of its surroundings. Chosen for the project was Harvard-trained architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood who also designed the Zion and Bryce Canyon Lodges in Utah as well as the Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge in Arizona. Underwood's design called for a structure made of concrete and steel along with granite accents that would be impervious to fire unlike many of the great hotels of that era which were lost to flames.
The interior design of The Ahwahnee was directed by the married team of Dr. Phyllis Ackerman and Professor Arthur Upham Pope, both of whom were pioneers in the study of the arts of Asia with a paramount dedication to the art, history, heritage and culture of Persia. Ackerman and Pope were not only responsible for design specifications - colors, floors, fabrics, rugs, finishings - but also for all manner of furnishings required by a hotel such as beds, mattresses, linens, lighting fixtures, flatware, china, etc. Ackerman and Pope's designs for The Ahwahnee uniquely blend an array of influences including Art Deco, Native American, Middle Eastern and Arts & Crafts Movement.
On August 1st, 1926, The Ahwahnee's cornerstone was laid and workers began toiling away seven days a week in order to get the hotel completed so that its opening would coincide with the opening of Yosemite's all-weather road "on or before December 15th, 1926." Coming in seven months past deadline and substantially over the original $600,000 budget, The Ahwahnee finally opened on July 14th, 1927 at a final cost of $1,225,000. Standing as the National Park Service's premiere example of "rustic architecture" (also colloquially known as 'Parkitecture'), the hotel was constructed from 5,000 tons of rough-cut granite, 1,000 tons of steel, and 30,000 feet of timber - all of which was brought in from outside of the park as Yosemite's own resources are protected by law.
Originally built for the pampering of the rich and powerful, past guestbooks contain such names as Queen Elizabeth II, John F. Kennedy, Will Rogers, Boris Karloff, Charlie Chaplin, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Humphrey Bogart, Charlton Heston, Lucille Ball, The Shah of Iran, Ronald Reagan, and Eleanor Roosevelt to list just a few. However, The Ahwahnee isn't as 'exclusive' as it used to be and today all visitors to Yosemite National Park are allowed to walk the grounds and tour the hotel as long as they comport themselves properly - which is how I came to be there on a Wednesday afternoon in early February.
During my recent trip to Central California to visit a dear friend that was ill, I made an impromptu side trip to Yosemite with another friend from Santa Cruz. While at the park, we decided to visit The Ahwahnee and perhaps have a drink in the hotel bar to celebrate a beautiful day in a beautiful place. As we were spending the night at the much humbler lodgings of Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, we checked in there first and then hopped on the free shuttle bus that runs around Yosemite Valley for a ride over to The Ahwahnee.
The main entrance to The Ahwahnee is via the porte-cochère - French for "coach gate" - which is the architectural term for a porch- or portico-like structure at a main or secondary entrance to a building through which a horse and carriage (or motor vehicle) can pass in order for the occupants to alight under cover and protected from the weather. At The Ahwahnee the porte-cochère would be the place where guests staying at the hotel pull up for valet parking but neither it nor the hotel's main entrance are located in their original intended spots as the porte-cochère is at the back of the hotel. What? Guests don't arrive at the front entrance of a first-class hotel? How can that be? Well there's an interesting explanation for that ...
During the time of The Ahwahnee's construction, no one noticed until approximately ten days prior to the hotel's planned opening that the porte-cochère for the main entrance on the west side of the building would be built in a location that had guest rooms directly above it. This would prove to be a major design error as when vehicles would arrive to load and unload guests and their luggage, fumes from the idling engines would rise up and waft into the rooms above during the summer months when the windows would be open as there was no air-conditioning and summers in Yosemite can be very warm. Needless to say having guests choking on engine exhaust in a first-class hotel would be totally unacceptable so with little time to spare, a new porte-cochère was quickly designed and constructed behind the hotel along with a 120-foot covered walkway from it to the lobby.
With the relocation of the porte-cochère, what used to be a side door became the main entrance of The Ahwahnee as guests stroll the red carpet beneath polished Douglas Fir log columns and beams (that were replaced in 1990) past the Gift Shop and National Historic Landmark plaque before walking into a lobby that seems a bit askew.
The direction that I shot this picture of the front desk in probably makes it look like you approach it just like you would any front desk in any hotel lobby but au contraire, mon ami! I actually walked through the side door which would be to the right of the picture and then past the table and flowers in the middle to then turn around and shoot a picture of the front desk. So where is the original main entrance you ask?
See those tall banks of windows and doors (look past the blurry people please) and the room on the other side? That's The Ahwahnee Bar - formerly The Indian Room - and even more formerly the hotel's main entrance! I didn't know any of this about the bar until I got home and started doing some research so I have to make use of an image from another website which I happily give credit for here being that I hadn't taken any pictures of the bar from a head-on angle.
Now then, if you stand in the center of the room and look directly at the bar you'll notice a rock column on either side with the counter below, the bar shelves in the middle, the sign above, and a couple of decorative sconces along with the paneling on either side of the bar. In your mind's eye, leave the two rock columns there but remove everything else and ta-da! - there you have it - the location of the original main entrance and porte-cochère which the rock columns provided the roof support for. If you turn around and look back out of The Ahwahnee Bar towards the lobby what you see is this, the area that you would have walked into once you left your car and bags at the porte-cochère and made your way inside The Ahwahnee.
The Concierge's desk is to your left, the main registration desk is to your right, and directly ahead is the Sweet Shop, the Elevator Lobby, the Dining Room, and the Great Lounge.
I'll get back to The Ahwahnee Bar where Katharine and I had lunch in a bit but first I'd like to take you through the rest of the hotel as we did some exploring before eating so it seems fitting that you should also! Before I head down the hall though, allow me to tell you about the floors in the lobby - some of which you've seen in the above photos. The floors of the lobby are constructed of stained concrete with inlaid mosaics made of "battleship linoleum". Used mainly in high-traffic situations like offices and public buildings, "battleship linoleum" is so named as it was originally manufactured to meet the specifications of the U.S. Navy for warship deck covering on enclosed decks instead of wood.
I'm sure a lot of you are thinking "Linoleum in a world-class hotel?" but that's probably because you're thinking of the cheap linoleum that would crack and discolor on kitchen floors around America in the 1960s. The linoleum used on the floor mosaics of The Ahwahnee lobby is a product of finely ground cork mixed with linseed oil and pressed on a burlap backing then colored to give it evenness and extra linseed oil to make it pliable and resistant to cracking. The designs are a straight-edge inlay which is constructed like a tile mosaic and then embedded into the concrete. The mosaics, done in Native American patterns, have lasted in spite of a lot of feet - some famous and some not - passing over them since 1927. Not bad, huh?
Speaking of feet moving over the mosaics, let's head down towards the Elevator Lobby, shall we?
The Elevator Lobby continues the Native American designs that were seen in the Main Lobby with sawn-wood reliefs on the elevator doors while a basket-inspired abstract mural is over the large fireplace. The mural was created by Jeannette Dyer Spencer, a San Francisco native who had studied stained glass design at the Louvre and was hired as resident artist.
Walking across the Elevator Lobby, Katharine and I then poked our heads into the Dining Room - a truly magnificent room with 34-foot high ceilings constructed from sugar pine logs, massive granite pillars, and floor-to-ceiling windows framed with stained glass along the north and west walls. Luckily only one table was occupied by several guests having a late lunch so Katharine and walked around the room a little bit and as I really liked the Dining Room, I took a lot of pictures while we were in there!
In addition to providing guests with a magnificent dining experience, The Ahwahnee Dining Room is the site of some of the most remarkable culinary events in the country: The Bracebridge Dinners - four-hour Medieval yuletide pageants held on select dates in December that since 1927 have transformed The Ahwahnee into a 17th century English manor for a feast of food, song and mirth; Vintners' Holidays - held in late October through early December and celebrating winemakers' fall harvests with wine tastings and five-course gala dinners; and Chefs' Holidays - held each year in January and February and featuring some of the world's most innovative and acclaimed chefs. Katharine and I put our names in a drawing for a Vinters' Holiday package so who knows, maybe one of us will get lucky and can then tell you about the event firsthand!
As beautiful as the Dining Room was in the afternoon with the sun slanting through the windows and the breathtaking landscape that could be seen outside, I can only begin to imagine how gorgeous it must be at night when the triangular-shaped chandeliers overhead fill the room with light and candles decorate each white linen-covered table. While shorts and athletic wear may be worn at breakfast, brunch, and lunch, it's no surprise that The Ahwahnee Dining Room has a dress code of "Resort Casual" at dinner when gentlemen are respectfully requested to wear collared-shirts and long pants while ladies should wear dresses, skirts, or slacks with blouses. Children over the age of four are also asked to dress appropriately.
Reluctantly leaving the Dining Room behind, a spot where Katharine had fond memories of many a Sunday brunch when she was a child visiting the park, we took the stairs and made our way up to the Mezzanine Level where another small lounge awaited us and where Katharine said I would get the best view of the Great Lounge below.
She wasn't kidding as from there I was able to get a spectacular view of The Ahwahnee's Great Lounge which is 77 feet long and 51 feet wide with 24-foot-high ceilings. Yep, when they say "Great" they mean "Great"! The lounge has ten floor-to-ceiling windows, five on each side, that are topped with original, hand-stained glass panels that were designed by Jeannette Dyer Spencer. I'll show you the humongous fireplace in the Great Lounge in just a moment once we get back downstairs.
The picture below is the guest room hallway on the Mezzanine Level while below that is a Guest Ice Chest which is literally just that!
Being the curious sort, of course I had to look inside!
Out of even more curiosity, we then took the elevator to the third floor just to have a quick look-see but we didn't want to be pests and go anywhere that we weren't supposed to so following a quick shot of the area, we got back in and went right back down to the main floor. On the short trip down I snapped a picture of the stained-glass ceiling in the elevator which was quite beautiful.
Arriving back in the Elevator Lobby, we found that the previously low fire had been built back up by the addition of several logs and it was burning quite brightly - not to mention throwing off a lot of heat! Even as far back as I was standing I could feel the warmth radiating out and onto my face - something I bet that many a chilled traveler has quite enjoyed after coming in from a day of hiking or skiing.
On the other side of the Elevator Lobby, in the Great Lounge guests were enjoying the peace and quiet of a beautiful afternoon while hotel staff had restocked the logs in their fireplace also and a large, cheery fire was crackling away. On an interesting note, the fireplace in the Great Lounge is constructed of cut stone and is what you might call a "walk-in" fireplace being that the firebox itself is six-feet tall. If you look closely, you can see two seats that have been designed into the fireplace so sitting close to warm your feet by the fire is no problem at all!
The Stairway Lounge with another large fireplace is located at the opposite end of the Great Lounge and from there guests can access two more lounges - the Mural Room which was originally known as the Writing Room and the Winter Club Room. Somehow or other I had managed to totally miss both of them in my haste to seek out the beautiful views from the tall windows at the very end of the room but should I ever get back to The Ahwahnee I will be sure to seek them out!
My destination was the far southern end of the Great Lounge and the Solarium, a rounded room with six beautiful windows that provide gorgeous views to Ahwahnee Meadow and Glacier Point. The Solarium also has a fountain made from local jasper and beautiful plants that no doubt soak up the sun that streams through the windows.
Stepping outside the doors of the Solarium, we found ourselves in the meadow facing the front of The Ahwahnee where the above plaque is located. If you enlarge it, you can read about how during World War II, The Ahwahnee was called into service as a convalescent hospital for 350 sailors. The artwork and fine furnishings were moved into storage and at times upwards of 850 staff and patients occupied the hotel. Personally I don't think I could pick a more beautiful place in the world to convalesce but apparently that wasn't the case for a lot of the patients there as its location made it pretty secluded and not exactly a place that was easy for family and friends to come visit. Still, with views like those below, how could you not get better?!
Speaking of the view, standing back from the hotel and looking at it from a slight distance, it's easy to see how well the design blends into the environment surrounding it.
The above pictures give you a pretty good idea of what the exterior of The Ahwahnee looks like - much better than when you're viewing it from over the back fence near the porte-cochère!
Looking at the hotel from these angles, it's easy to see how well The Ahwahnee's architect designed a plan for "a hotel that fits the environment." Using ornate copper and iron fixtures for exterior lighting gives the hotel a somewhat rustic accent and the staggered, non-symmetrical look helps the building to blend in with its surroundings.
From this angle it's also hard to tell that the 'wood siding' and 'structural timber' on the exterior of the hotel - with the exception of the window shutters - is actually formed of stained concrete poured into molds and then hand-painted to simulate redwood but it is! Click here for a closer view. When you're building something to be fireproof it makes perfect sense to use "faux wood" rather than the real thing and if people can't tell the difference, all the better!
Just out of camera shot in the picture above and to the right, is a year-round heated pool for hotel guests and through the double doors next to it was the way that Katharine and I walked back into the lobby and The Ahwahnee Bar where we were more than ready to order a drink and something to eat!
Our waiter that day was Michael, the dark-haired fella with the mustache in the middle of the picture below, who was very helpful not only when it came to our lunch and drinks but also in finding out what time the moon would be rising that evening and other assorted questions! Based on what he told us, Michael has been working at The Ahwahnee for quite some time and he seems to quite enjoy his job and workplace.
The bar had just received a new espresso machine that day and the staff was quite excited about it as they each received instruction on its operation but alas, neither Katharine nor I ordered an espresso. Instead I chose a Brandy Alexander and Katharine ordered a Champagne Cocktail as we sat under the watchful eyes of President Teddy Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir as they stood on the summit of Glacier Point and made plans to make Yosemite a unified park in 1903.
After much perusing of the menu, we finally decided to order two sandwiches and split them; our choices were chicken salad on a croissant with a fresh fruit cup and pastrami and swiss on a bulky roll with fresh-made kettle chips. As good as everything was, I've got to say that what really won my tastebuds over were the kettle chips. Wow were they ever good! Michael totally agreed with me and said that not eating too many of them was the hardest part of his job which I could certainly believe! I apologize for the slightly out-of-focus picture but I'm sure I was too busy wolfing down chips to set the focus properly!
Following our lovely lunch in The Ahwahnee Bar, Katharine and I again walked around the lobby a little bit and checked out the Sweet Shop and the Gift Shop as well as the plaques on the wall indicating The Ahwahnee's AAA® Four-Diamond status and that they are a member of one of my favorite organizations, the Historic Hotels of America. The bronze plaque on the bottom is dated July 14th, 1977 - the 50th anniversary of The Ahwahnee - and states that the hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on February 15th, 1977 in recognition of its architectural significance. Ten years later in 1987, the hotel was also listed as a National Historic Landmark - the marker for that is near the hotel's entrance and has a photo above in the earlier part of this post.
With the historical designations came the commitment that any future renovations and repairs to The Ahwahnee needed to be done so as to retain the historical architecture of the building. Renovations to The Ahwahnee started almost immediately after its opening including a 1928 remodel of a roof garden and dance hall that were converted into a private apartment after the dance hall failed to draw an audience and a remodel of the hotel's landscape to address the problem of congested parking at the hotel's entrance which was performed by Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., the landscape architect of New York City's Central Park, who was hired in April 1930.
In 1931-32, the trusses in the Dining Room were strengthened when it was discovered that they were minimally designed for the snow loads and earthquake stresses they needed to bear, and following the Navy's takeover of The Ahwahnee as a convalescent hospital in 1943, more changes included the repainting of the interior along with the conversion of the chauffeur and maid rooms into guest rooms as after the War fewer guests were bringing their own staff, as well as the enclosure of the original porte-cochère which in 1950 was again remodelled into the Indian Room (the current Ahwahnee Bar) as a multi-purpose space for meetings, dances, and the like.
Changes to The Ahwahnee continued throughout the years: the fire alarm system and exterior fire escapes also were added during the 1950s, in 1963 the outdoor swimming pool and automatic elevators were installed, and the former roof garden/dance hall that had been converted into a private apartment was remodelled during 1970-71 and then underwent further remodelling in the early 1980s in preparation for a visit by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip.
The most recent renovations to The Ahwahnee - a multi-million dollar upgrade to the fire, life and safety systems and a remodel of its guest rooms, public spaces and exterior areas - were completed in the Spring of 2011. For the upgrade, designers researched Yosemite’s archives in order to select textiles, colors and accessory items that were complementary to those used in the hotel between the years 1925 and 1942 which was the time period established by National Park Service Historians as the “period of historic significance” for the hotel based on a comprehensive evaluation of the hotel’s history. The new additions to the hotel were selected from American companies, several of which supplied the hotel in 1927 and that are still operating today, and included new bed linens, hand-loomed, custom-made throw blankets, bed frames, window treatments, woven-wood window shades, carpeting in the rooms and hallways, high-definition TV programming, newly-wired telephones and original artwork .
I would love to have been able to show you some pictures of a guest room or two highlighting some of those new additions but alas, I don't think I'll be staying overnight at The Ahwahnee anytime soon as much as it might be a dream come true. Though the hotel lost some of its "exclusiveness" after World War II, it's still on the pricey side with rates ranging from approximately $340 a night for a small standard room during the off-season and going up considerably higher (read $1,000+) during the summer months and other peak seasons. That's if you can get in to begin with! The hotel takes reservations up to 366 days in advance and with the popularity of The Ahwahnee, I'm thinking you need to make sure you've booked your chosen dates as soon as possible to insure that you get the room and time that you want.
With an assortment of accommodations to choose from including 99 rooms in the six-story main building along with four parlor rooms that can be booked in conjunction with an adjoining room to create a suite and an additional 24 cottage rooms that are nestled among the dogwoods and pines on the hotel grounds, there's certain to be a room that will be the perfect spot to spend a night or two and make memories that will last a lifetime. Perhaps you'll even be as taken as photographer Ansel Adams was who wrote:
". . . yet on entering The Ahwahnee one is conscious of calm and complete beauty echoing the mood of majesty and peace that is the essential quality of Yosemite. . . . against a background of forest and precipice the architect has nestled the great structure of granite, scaling his design with sky and space and stone. To the interior all ornamentation has been confined, and therein lies a miracle of color and design. The Indian motif is supreme . . . . The designs are stylized with tasteful sophistication; decidedly Indian, yet decidedly more than Indian, they epitomize the involved and intricate symbolism of primitive man . . ."
Additional photos of The Ahwahnee can be found in my SmugMug Gallery.