LAKE YELLOWSTONE LODGE

A poignant moment, as we left Old Faithful Inn: This wonderful National Park Lodges Tour that we’ve anticipated and planned for, for over a year, is nearing its terminus. How true the closing line in Dumas’ powerful novel, The Count of Monte Cristo—that all human wisdom is distilled in just two words: Wait and Hope. Indeed, for those like us who have reached the autumn of our lives—without new goals, new dreams, new directions, new places to see, new people to meet—our bodies would close shop on us. It is our dreams that energize each day’s awakening, and give us torque and joy.

Then it was time to leave. Actually, it was harder to leave than I thought it would be. Perhaps because of all I now knew about Robert Reamer, who’d dreamed up this magical place, who’d done the same with Lake Quinault Lodge, and transformed Lake Yellowstone Hotel—which I could hardly wait to see. After driving away from a place I now felt we knew personally, I (as navigator) read the entry in Barnes’ second book having to do with the Lake Hotel. What an incredible difference it makes to arrive at a hotel you already know inside out because of all her research, words, and photographs!

Yellowstone Falls

Soon we angled off to Artist’s Point on the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Bob and Lucy had never been here before so, with them, we were able to experience vicariously that once-in-a-lifetime moment when someone first takes in the sights and sounds of those prodigious waterfalls thundering over their wide ledges into the abyss over a thousand feet below us. This incredible vista never fails to overwhelm us with its grandeur—and Bob and Lucy’s silence was testimony to how deeply it affected them.

By mid-afternoon it was time to head for another of the world’s most beautiful sights: twenty-mile long Yellowstone Lake, framed by the snowcapped Absaroka Mountains (with peaks towering over 12,000 feet). At first, we missed the turn-off for the hotel—which is not surprisingly given the undeniable fact that it is publicized so little. As many times as we’d been to the park over the years, we’d not only not seen it—we’d not even heard about it! In fact, it hadn’t been included in Barnes’ first book at all (but Old Faithful Inn had). Only during the last year had I discovered it even existed.

Lake Yellowstone Lodge

Then we turned a corner—and there it was! Real after all. A very long wooden structure radiantly golden in the afternoon sun. As out of place stylistically yet paradoxically just as much at home as is true of the Stanley Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. As Robert L. Wheaton put it,

Lake Hotel represents a rare survivor of the large Colonial Revival-style hotels and resorts that once sprawled along the Atlantic Coast from Florida to Maine and inland at mountain retreats. At Yellowstone National Park, it was a symbol of civilization in the wilderness. (Barnes, 32).

After driving up the sweeping drive to the porte cochere, we parked behind one of the hotel’s eight vintage White Motor Company motorbuses, painted yellow like the hotel of course. Inside, we walked into a scene that could not be more at variance with old Faithful’s were it on the moon. A grand hotel out of the Golden Age of a hundred years ago, reminiscent of the likes of Greenbriar Inn and Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel. And as serene:

Solitude seekers hike and pack into the far reaches of the park and lose themselves in its beauty. For those simply looking for a room to soothe the soul, far from the marvels at Old Faithful or Mammoth Hot Springs, the butter-yellow and white Colonial Revival facade of Lake Hotel . . . simply beckons an attitude adjustment. (Barnes, 17).

THE LAKE HOTEL’S STORY

When Robert Reamer was hired on to be the equivalent of “court architect” for Harry Child in 1903, it was with the understanding that he would design everything Child entrusted to him—which turned out, meant everything! Virtually every building that has endured for the last century came about because of this collaboration of kindred spirits. More often than not, there were many concurrent projects going at once. Just so, it was with Lake Hotel and Old Faithful Inn. Northern Pacific Railroad wanted a hotel on Yellowstone Lake, but all they had was a plain-looking box with the ambiance and appeal of an Army barracks. Reamer’s job was to transform the ugly duckling into a swan.

Interior of Lake Yellowstone Lodge

During the 1903-1904 period, Reamer doubled the size of the facility, and by the introduction of twelve 50-foot-high ionic columns transported all the way from Chicago (these supported the porticos), dormers, false balconies, huge iron coach lamps, balustrades, verandas, enlarged windows, etc., he pulled off his miracle: transforming a plain box into an elegant hotel. By summer of 1904, the Lake Hotel had 210 rooms and the ability to accommodate 466 persons, and was advertised as the largest hotel in the park. Because its opening predated that of Old Faithful Hotel, it is considered today to be the oldest public lodging in the park.

Twenty years later, so popular had the hotel become that Reamer was asked to expand its size by adding 113 rooms, and 59 additional bathrooms. Inside, major changes took place: the dark redwood paneling was removed and replaced with light painted woodwork and plaster; “reed-style furniture ordered from San Francisco and large potted ferns replaced the heavy, wooden Colonial Revival ladder-back furniture, giving the hotel the feeling of an East Coast ‘summer resort’ . . . .” Not only that, but now Reamer also constructed a larger, four-hundred capacity, dining room, complete with large picture windows, curved bay window, and self-standing torchere lights.” Adjacent to it, in an inspired mood, Reamer constructed “a lounge solarium set between the columned portico and new porte cochere at the west end of the hotel. This beautiful sun-filled lounge seemed to be the architect’s final grand statement.” (Barnes, 24-28).

The hotel reached its peak beauty just as the Great Depression hit. It was closed down from 1933 – 1936, and only partially opened in 1937. By 1940, the decision was made to tear it down. That summer, the rear wing was demolished. What was left remained empty until 1947. “Neglected and unappreciated, the hotel stood like an aging grand dame with a saucy new era mocking its once stately beauty.” (Barnes, 32).

It was all down-hill from there. In 1979, the National Park Service purchased the derelict from the Yellowstone Park Hotel Company. During the last 30 years, gradually the hotel (now a National Landmark) has been restored to its former glory. Since 1995, it has been managed by XANTERRA.

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View of Yellowstone Lake from the Lake Lodge

Our own room on the second floor front looked out at the deep blue waters of Yellowstone Lake. After exploring the hotel, none of us wanted to leave the sunny lounge solarium. Nor, apparently did the hotel’s other guests. Since (as is generally the case with these old lodges) there was no TV in the rooms, families either explored the outdoors or relaxed, read, chatted, played board games, or spent money in the gift shop. Later on, we sat down in the large dining room, and took a long time to dine. Outside: the great windows we never tired of. Later, as darkness fell, the Lake String Quartet (a group of professional musicians from New York City, here for their fourth season) performed from a wide musical menu—from classical, semi-classical, easy-listening, pop, to jazz. The audience loved them!

Afterwards we retired. My head spun; I had the sniffles—the bug had got me too.

Next morning, we ate breakfast in that lovely dining room, then delayed our moment of leaving until check-out time. Afterwards, we drove over to another old facility (also managed by XANTERRA, the rustic Lake Lodge (built during the 1920s) and its 186 wooden cabins (away from the lake). The main lodge has a large lobby with two impressive gas fireplaces, a cafeteria dining area, and long veranda equipped with rocking chairs so comfortable neither Lucy nor Connie wanted to get out of them. As we drove out, just north of the Lake Hotel, a great bull buffalo grazing next to the road posed for photos.

CANYON HOTEL—PARADISE LOST

We must not close this series of Robert Reamer-designed hotels without bringing up a very sad story. In the fall of 1909, the Childs and Reamer boarded the steamship S. S. Mauritania for Europe. Once there, they studied European architecture in England, Scotland, Switzerland, and Germany. On their return, his head whirling with visions of all the romantic architecture he’d studied, Reamer dreamed up his Xanadu: a great European-inspired hotel at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Construction began in June of 1910, of the largest building ever to be constructed in the park. Thanks to Northern Pacific’s deep pockets, money was no object, and it showed. It cost half a million dollars—a staggering sum for the times.

Lake Lodge

It was 600-feet long by 100 wide, and contained 375 guest rooms—huge fireplaces added to the overall dramatic effect. The great three-story-high lounge was 200-feet long by 100-wide, and became renowned for its two spiral staircases, and grand staircase; the magnificent lobby was 85-feet high, 175-feet-long, and 100-feet-wide, complete with signature fireplaces. Twenty years later, so heavily booked was it that Reamer added a 96-room-wing to the already enormous hotel. The great masquerade balls and dances became the stuff of legend.

That Reamer knew he’d created a masterpiece is borne out by these words: I built it in keeping with the place where it stands. Nobody could improve upon that. To be at discord with the landscape would be almost a crime. To try to improve upon it would be an impertinence. (Quinn, 79).

But then the Great Depression hit, delaying completion of the 96-room-addition until 1935. By then it was all too clear that the euphoria of the Jazz Age would not return; nor would the wealthy clientele that filled great resort hotels like this for months at a time.

It remained a forlorn relic of that bygone age for 25 more years until it was demolished in August of 1960. But it did not perish ignominiously to the wrecking ball—somehow, it suddenly ignited and roared into an inferno.

Quinn’s requiem reads thus: “The Grand Canyon Hotel is second only to Old Faithful Inn in fame and recognition of Reamer’s talents. Numerous Yellowstone visitors today return with fond memories of lunches eaten, dances enjoyed, or summers engaged as employees at this grand hostelry. For those who experience it only vicariously through photographs, it is a romantic reminder of grander, gentler times.” (Quinn, 78).

SPECIAL NOTE

Next Wednesday, we move on to Jackson Lake Lodge

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks 2 (Portland, OR: Graphic Arts Books, 2008) [most informative!]

Quinn, Ruth, Weaver of Dreams (Gardiner, MT: Leslie and Ruth Quinn, Publishers, 2004). [Invaluable source for both the Yellowstone Lake and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone hotels].

Scott, David L. and Kay W. (The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).