Thursday, August 27, 2009

Luxury in the Meadow

In 1925, the construction of The Ahwahnee, a new luxury hotel in Yosemite National Park, was “the most complex trucking endeavor of its day.”

Over 5,000 tons of stone, 1,000 tons of steel, and 30,000 feet of timber were hauled over the challenging mountain roads. Even on the winding road we traveled, carrying this material would be a challenging task today.

The primary building materials are rough-cut granite and concrete. The granite rubble masonry of the piers matches the color of the adjacent cliffs.

To protect The Ahwahnee from fire, a fate of many of the Park's earlier hotels, its wood-like facade is actually concrete, poured into rough-hewn wooden forms and stained to look like redwood.

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.

Walking into the lobby, we were struck by the philosophy of what a luxury hotel used to be. The lounge furniture invited one to rest, converse, or observe.

Even the hallways encouraged the traveler to slow down and enjoy the beauty of the natural surroundings.

Today's hoteliers would look at these photos and note all the space that is not generating income. And while the 99 rooms at The Ahwahnee are by no means inexpensive, the setting provides its guests with both the physical and psychological luxury that royalty, presidents, and celebrities expect.

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 elevator lobby has an abstract mural based on Indian basket patterns over the fireplace.

The architect for the building was Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who designed buildings for the Union Pacific Railroad on Zion and Bryce Lodges and the Grand Canyon Lodge on the north rim.

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.

Photographer Ansel Adams was so taken with the building that he 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 . . . ."

When the Ahwahnee opened its doors to the public in July, 1927, the consensus was that it was worth the wait. The Ahwahnee, from a local Indian word meaning "deep, grassy meadow," became the impressive building that its designers wanted in the meadow surrounded by those awesome granite cliffs.

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