(this is part of a series of posts about touring historic buildings while on our cross country road trip last summer. You can read all about the non-architecture-related parts of the trip over on my travel blog)
Architect Robert Reamer was 29 years old when he designed Old Faithful Inn for Yellowstone National Park. Workers toiled through the long winter of 1903-04 so that that Inn could open for the summer season in 1904. Visitors approached the finished Inn on a road offering views of Old Faithful itself in the distance and arrived to find luxuries like electric lights and steam heat and a roof deck from which to view the geyser. Today it remains the largest log hotel (and maybe the largest log structure, period) in the world.
Reamer and the Old Faithful Inn were pioneers in Rustic Resort Architecture or Parkitecture. Today, the idea that architecture should fit in with and work together with its surroundings seems obvious, but compare the Old Faithful inn to the Lake Yellowstone Lodge, built just over a decade earlier in 1891. It’s a lovely building on the shores of the impressive Lake Yellowstone, but it doesn’t look much different from the grand hotels Yellowstone’s early visitors would have been used to from holidays at New England seashores.
Old Faithful Inn, in contrast, is constructed nearly entirely from local materials. It’s aggressively rustic and almost impossibly huge, as ostentatious and spectacular and over the top as Yellowstone itself.
These days you’ll have to book early and pay dearly if you want a room at the Inn, but you can take a free tour that’s offered several times a day to see it and learn about its history and architecture. The older kids and I took our tour while Dave drove a sleeping Abe around the park.
I’m pretty much always game for a historic building tour, but I’m especially appreciative of one that takes me through a building as iconic as Old Faithful Inn and one that’s conducted by a tour guide as knowledgable and enthusiastic as ours was. She told us she’d been doing the tours for many years, and it was clear that she not only knew her stuff but truly loved her subject. Throughout the tour, through a number of fascinating stories, she tied everything back into her theme of connection (I love a good theme!)
The building is deliberately and beautifully connected to the land that surrounds it, with its rustic style and with the materials it’s made out of. Like the impressive fireplace made of native stone that dominates the lobby:
The Inn and the rustic architectural style it popularized connects Yellowstone with other National Parks and their lodges that followed its lead, like the Ahwannee in Yosemite, the Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park, and El Tovar at the Grand Canyon. And the Wilderness Lodge at Disney World. Wait–one of those is not quite right, I think.
One of the great things about the National Parks is how different they all are….in their actual physical features of course, but also in their culture and in…personality. These are not homogenous places. But as awesome as that is, it’s also fascinating to observe how there are some things that still unite the National Parks and remind you that they all share some common missions and heritage.
The Inn connects today’s visitors to the park’s early visitors. Our guide told us a story of a woman who visited the Inn and was able, with the help of hotel employees, to figure out from an old photo which specific room her grandmother had stayed in years before and stay in the same one herself.
I don’t think it was this one, but one of the fun parts of the tour was when we all got to take turns checking out one of the room’s from the oldest wing of the Inn. The rooms are not luxurious by today’s standards; they’re small and sparsely appointed, and some of the original rooms still share a central bath down the hall. And no air conditioning to be found. But look at those magnificent pine walls and that beautiful copper washstand:
I loved seeing the dining room and hearing about what a visit here was like in the park’s early days, when everyone would gather together for a meal and then have dances in the lobby:
In case you’re wondering, no, you can’t take those stairs all the way up to the peak of the lobby. At least not anymore. In the old days, we were told, musicians would play in those little treehouse looking things way up there. These days, you can’t go any higher than the second level of balcony.
I highly recommend the tour of the Old Faithful Inn to anyone who makes the trip to Yellowstone. You’ll never run out of scenic beauty and natural oddities to gawk at in Yellowstone, but an interlude to check out this human side of its history is very much worth your while.