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The Beautiful Buildings of Our National Parks

massive Douglas-fir columns in the Glacier Park Lodge lobby

I usually camp when I visit national parks, and indeed I spent the first few days of my recent trip to Glacier on the park’s west side, based out of Apgar campground on the shores of Lake McDonald.  After a few nights there, I relocated to the east side of the park, and decided to take advantage of such comforts as a shower and a bed.  In a park like Glacier, though, not any bed would do: I spent one night at the Many Glacier Hotel and another at the Glacier Park Lodge.

These two historic hotels were constructed by the Great Northern Railway as part of their “See America First” campaign that enticed wealthy travelers to put off the traditional Europe tour in favor of visiting wild western landscapes.  The Glacier Park Lodge, located adjacent to the rail depot in East Glacier Park, Montana, opened in 1913.  More than fifty miles to the north, the Many Glacier Hotel followed suit in 1915. 

Both hotels were expanded shortly after they opened in order to meet the strong demand for rooms and are, today, rambling structures with exteriors reminiscent of Swiss chalets.  The steep hipped roofs, railinged balconies, and wooden siding are painted the deep brown of a shadowy forest that is so common to national park buildings in the Rocky Mountains.

I stayed first at Many Glacier.  The sprawling, 212-room hotel dominates the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake, yet the surroundinghallway in the Many Glacier Hotel mountain peaks dwarf the building.  This was my first time spending the night here, though I had visited the lodge on my one previous trip to Glacier, back in August of 2008.  A pouring rain that day masked the peaks across the lake, and visitors sought shelter in the lobby of the hotel.  My partner Dave and I ventured down a long, white corridor to get to the dining room for lunch; the white doors to the guest rooms were festooned with little red shields painted with Swiss crosses and the room numbers, and the dining room itself had a white dropped ceiling hung with festive banners sporting coats-of-arms.

In the four years that passed since that visit, my memories of the building had dwindled to clouded impressions of a crowded, shabby-genteel reception room, and an overwhelming whiteness to the decor.  I arrived at the hotel and was surprised at how big it was, and that not everything inside was white.  I felt especially gratified that restoration efforts by the Parkrestored Ptarmigan Dining Room in the Many Glacier Hotel Service had removed the dropped ceiling in the Ptarmigan Dining Room.  For the first time since the 1950s, the restaurant now has an airy feel, open to the timbers that support the peaked roof.  The renovations also exposed more of the magnificent native stone fireplace and chimney at the far end of the room.

From Many Glacier, I made my way slowly south to the town of East Glacier Park, home of the Glacier Park Lodge.  Since this building lies outside the park boundary, it has amenities like a golf course and a swimming pool that I don’t typically associate with park lodges.  Its lobby is nearly twice the size of Many Glacier’s, and I was seeing it for the first time on this trip.  I had to stop, look around, and give myself a moment admire the expansive space.  Massive, columnar Douglas-fir tree trunks, in excess of three feet in diameter and with the corky bark still on, serve as the supports for the roof beams four stories above.  The huge trees were shipped in by rail from the Pacific Northwest in 1912.  The hotel opened the following year, promptly earning itself the nickname “the Big Trees Lodge.”

Despite the rustic materials, the lobby follows a formal plan, rectangular and symmetric.  The pillars that, at first glance, evoke the

massive Douglas-fir columns in the Glacier Park Lodge lobby

Massive Douglas-fir columns in the lobby of the Glacier Park Lodge, dating from 1913.

feeling of being in a mighty open forest turn out to be topped with smaller paired logs that formed Ionic capitals.  The room is curiously charming in its contradictory architectural tendencies.

The classically-influenced plan of the Glacier Park Lodge made an interesting contrast with the interior of my “hometown” hotel, the Old Faithful Inn.  Designed by Robert Reamer, the Inn opened for business in 1904, and was a true pioneer in the rustic architectural style that has come to be known as “parkitecture.”

For over a hundred years park visitors have walked into the lobby of the Inn and gaped at supporting columns that, like those in the Glacier Park Lodge, were constructed of whole trees.  But in the case of the Old Faithful Inn, the trees used were tall, slender lodgepole pines.  Reamer sought out gnarled specimens and used them angled support beams.

Felled in Yellowstone and transported just a few miles, the trees were erected, bark still on, to form the bones of the Inn’s great hall.  They have since been stripped smooth, but the lobby of the Inn still evokes the feeling of being in a forest.  The steeply-pitched roof—also made of lodgepole logs—soars 75 feet overhead.  Small, asymmetrically-placed windows high in the walls bring dappled sunlight down to the lobby floor.  A vast fireplace and chimney featuring eight distinct hearths lies off-center in the square space.  Its irregularly-cut blocks of volcanic rhyolite were quarried in the park.

Today, building projects would never be allowed to use timber and stone from within a national park, and I think that is as it should be.  But the use of native materials permitted the construction of buildings that fit into their homelandscapes in way that makes them true objects of beauty, and I am grateful for this gift from a century ago.

I have visited, though never stayed in, several other historic park lodges: the Ahwahnee in Yosemite Valley, the Zion Park Lodge, and the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim, to name a few.  I’ve spent a few nights at the stately Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park, the Canadian sister to Glacier.  There are numerous other well-known park lodges that I have not yet seen, such as El Tovar, on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim; Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier; the Crater Lake Lodge; and Oregon Caves Chateau.  I hope my travels bring me to all of them, in time.

National parks are famous for preserving spectacular natural features, but they preserve valuable cultural treasures as well.  What are your favorite historic park structures?

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