A Look Inside Yosemite's Historic Ahwahnee Hotel

Posted on: December 27th, 2012 by David Robert Weible

Ahwahnee Great Lounge. Credit: DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite.
The Great Lounge at Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel.

Diane Cole’s “Grand Spans” in the upcoming Preservation’s "Outside the Box" department details the controversy over saving three of Yosemite National Park’s historic bridges, and highlights the struggle to balance cultural and land preservation within the National Park System. But despite an uncertain future for these bridges, our national parks are an incredible repository for historically significant structures of all kinds, and Yosemite is no exception.

Most of the historic structures under the charge of the Park Service are NPS Rustic Style -- an architectural concept that uses wood shingle roofs, log framing, stone foundations, exposed rafter rails, and dark stained siding, when applicable, to blend each structure into the surrounding natural landscape.

According to Anthony Veerkamp, field director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s San Francisco Office, the theme was popularized by the Park Service’s first director, Stephen Mather, between 1916 and 1942 -- a time when much of the remaining infrastructure of the National Park System was being constructed.

The Yosemite Valley National Register historic district alone has hundreds of historic buildings and structures, including the second largest collection of Rustic Style resources (the largest collection is at the Grand Canyon). And for all of the National Park System’s man-made treasures, the crown jewel is Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel, a Rustic-Style National Historic Landmark (and a member of the National Trust’s Historic Hotels of America program), situated at the heart of the park.

Ahwahnee Winter Club Room. Credit: DNC Parks & Resorts of Yosemite.
Winter Club Room.

The Ahwahnee was built in 1927 on the site of a former Miwok Indian village (so chosen for its views of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and Glacier Point) and was designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood to meet the need for accommodations for wealthy and influential individuals who could help support the Park Service -- people like Lady Astor, an American-born member of British Parliament who complained of the park’s “crude lodgings.” As a result, what stands out most about the Ahwahnee is likely the elegant interior and furnishings, which are said to be the inspiration for parts of the design of the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Largely completed in just a three-week period of early 2011, the exterior boardwalk of the Ahwahnee was replaced, and its guest rooms, hallways, Great Lounge, lobby, dining room, kitchen, public restrooms, and exterior were restored.

In addition, the newly restored spaces were furbished with custom-made throw blankets, new bed linens, woven wood window shades, and carpeting designed to reflect the hotel’s appearance between 1927 and 1942 - -the period deemed most significant by historians. Original artwork was also reinstalled throughout the hotel.

Ahwahnee Elevator Landing. Credit: DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite.
Details at the elevator landing.

“It’s definitely one of the premiere lodges of the Park Service [and] I don’t know of anyone who would suggest that it’s not being well stewarded,” Veerkamp says.

So regardless of what happens with Yosemite’s historic bridges, preservationists can still take comfort in the fact that one of Rustic Style’s most important icons is still shining brightly.

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David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

Preservation Magazine, Travel