Still Faithful

PrintPrintEmailEmailON SEPTEMBER 7, 1988, the area around Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park looked like Hell. The North Fork Fire, which had been burning since July and would ultimately torch a half-million acres, had arrived at the park’s most famous landmark. On most late-summer days, tourists would be milling around, waiting for the geyser’s next eruption. Now the remaining visitors and park employees were under fiery siege, as was the 84-year-old Old Faithful Inn. Would the famous hotel survive the onrushing inferno?

At the National Park Service’s Denver Service Center, 565 miles away, an architect named Andy Beck sat calmly in his office. Just the year before, while managing a major restoration project at the Old Faithful Inn, Beck had consulted on the installation of a sprinkler system on its shingled roof, an idea first advanced in 1979. Asked to recall how he felt as the fire swept through the Upper Geyser Basin, Beck says simply, “I was not worried at all.” Indeed, amid raining ash and embers, the rooftop sprinklers helped volunteer firefighters keep the flames from consuming what has sometimes been described as the world’s largest and fanciest log cabin.

Reamer was among the first architects to believe that national-park hotels ought to reflect their surroundings.
 
 
 

As the Old Faithful Inn turns 100 this spring, it’s fair to say that without people like Andy Beck it probably wouldn’t be standing today. The centennial is a good time to reflect on why the inn is as significant as any of the park’s natural wonders and what’s being done to ensure its future. Just as Yellowstone set a standard with its preservation as the world’s first national park, the Old Faithful Inn showed how architectural vision could complement, not compete with, nature.

Like the geyser it was named for, the inn is central to the modern traveler’s image of Yellowstone, yet it didn’t even exist during the park’s first few decades. The hotel opened on June 1, 1904, replacing a charmless establishment that had been built when an equally sad hostelry burned down in 1894. “No register has survived, so we don’t know who or how many people stayed that first night,” says Ruth Quinn, a longtime inn tour guide. But we can be sure the first guests were mighty impressed. “The new hotel at the Upper Geyser Basin known as ‘Old Faithful Inn’ is a remarkably beautiful and comfortable establishment,” the acting park superintendent, Maj. John Pitcher, wrote in 1904. “…While rustic in appearance, it contains all of the modern conveniences which the traveler of to-day is accustomed to, such as electric lights, baths, etc. This establishment is a great improvement on the tents which were used at this place for a number of years.”

This was the first important building by the architect Robert C. Reamer, who was just 29 when he took the commission. Around 1900, Reamer, a native of Oberlin, Ohio, was working in San Diego when he met and was hired by Harry W. Child, cofounder of the Northern Pacific Railroad-affiliated Yellowstone Transportation Company, which was building hotels to promote tourism within the park.

Reamer was among the first wave of architects who believed that national-park hotels ought to reflect their surroundings. Many other lodges, including El Tovar at Grand Canyon National Park (1905), Glacier Park Lodge (1913), and the Ahwanee at Yosemite National Park (1927), were built in its wake on the same principle. “Reamer didn’t invent rustic architecture, but he made it popular,” Quinn says.

New visitors are usually struck first by the inn’s solidity, with which Reamer provided travelers with a sense of safe haven from the wilderness all around. At 188,445 square feet, it is massive, its lobby soaring more than 76 feet to the ceiling. The dramatically pitched roof has been described by some observers as tepee-like and by others as reminiscent of a circus big top. The inn cost $140,000 to build and another $25,000 to furnish. The original structure, today called the Old House, had 140 rooms; subsequent additions and renovations have brought the hotel’s total to 327 guest rooms.

“Reamer chose not to orient the front of the building toward the hourly erupting geyser,” the historian David Leaven-good has written. “Rather, the hotel faces ninety degrees to the north. This perpendicular adjustment put arriving guests directly on a viewing axis with the geyser, reminding them of disturbing forces beneath the earth’s surface. Refuge, however, was not far away.”

To his building’s imposing canvas, Reamer added unusual, often asymmetrical touches. Inside, sharp-eyed visitors will see a tree-house—some call it a crow’s nest—tucked into a corner near the rafters, where musicians once gathered to entertain guests, their tunes cascading down to the lobby below. Three rows of dormer windows decorate the front. The top row has four; the middle, two, both on the left side; and the bottom, five. “But the whole composition has balance,” like a tree whose branches aren’t perfectly matched, says Andy Beck.

Beck guesses that Reamer didn’t expect the inn to last much beyond 50 years, and by the late 1970s, there was talk of tearing it down. In Yellowstone the Reamer-designed Canyon Hotel—“probably Reamer’s best hotel, even better than the inn,” claims Beck—closed in 1959, even though tourists preferred its rooms to the newer motel-style digs at Canyon Village. But two decades later, with a stronger preservationist ethic at the national parks, Beck was charged with restoring the Old Faithful Inn and bringing it up to modern safety standards—a $7.35 million process that took from 1979 to 1988.

Just as the original inn was built in the winter of 1903–4, most of the restoration was also done in the off-season, so the hotel could remain open to warm-weather guests. First, workers replaced the roof and some of the siding, which had rotted. Next, crews hand-nailed 100,000 square feet of new shingles. Finally, the restoration team replaced logs that were too damaged to be repaired. In Reamer’s day, trees could be harvested right in the park, and the architect handpicked many of the twisted timbers that became hallmarks of the inn. Latter-day crews, however, had to spend weeks searching the nearby national forests to come up with suitable lodgepole pines.

Parts of the inn are not protected against snowmelt and rain, which often get trapped between the stone and logs. This breaks what Beck says are “three rules of water and buildings: Get the water off the building, keep the water away from the building, and never, ever let anything stop you from doing the first two—it’s that important.”

“In Reamer’s original design, he didn’t break the rules,” Beck says, but subsequent additions did. So since the 1980s restoration, constant maintenance has been necessary. “It won’t stand there on its own,” Beck says. “Someone needs to be there all the time taking care of it.”

Fred Paulsen, a third-generation carpenter and the manager of Yellowstone’s historic restoration crew, is that some- one. He reckons that he and his team spend most of their time working on the inn, though they’re charged with watching over all of Yellowstone’s historic buildings. A fair amount of effort is devoted to replacing deteriorating logs, often using vintage tools much like those wielded by the inn’s original craftsmen. “It’s a little frustrating at times, when pieces we replaced 10 years ago have to be re-replaced,” Paulsen says. “But I love the building. I love working on it. Ninety percent of the time it’s a pleasure.”

People on her tours sometimes ask Ruth Quinn whether, had the Old Faithful Inn burned down in 1988, she would have favored reconstruction. “You could rebuild the building just how it looked, but it wouldn’t be the same,” she says. “I’d have voted on the ‘no’ side.” Fortunately, because those rooftop sprinklers were installed just in time, and thanks to the continuing vigilance of the Old Faithful Inn’s many fans, the question remains hypothetical.

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