Christine Barnes turns to a woman in the elevator in the Ahwahnee Hotel at Yosemite National Park, intent on sharing the glow that emanates from the stately hotel nestled in one of the most beautiful spots in the United States.
“How do you like the Ahwahnee?” Barnes asks.
“Have you been to the Wilderness Lodge at Disney World?” the woman asks in return. “It’s much nicer.”
At a time when Disney often passes for the pinnacle of vacation destinations, Barnes is helping people discover attractions evocative of a different era. The Ahwahnee, the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone, the Many Glacier Hotel at Glacier National Park and El Tovar at the Grand Canyon are among the 16 grand lodges featured in Barnes’ latest book, Great Lodges of the National Parks.
Published by W.W. West Inc. earlier this year, it is a companion to last summer’s four-part PBS documentary of the same name, for which Barnes (SCS79) acted as a consultant and historian (she also appeared on the program). For the former journalist, the book and series provided a chance to highlight what has become her passion — telling the stories of the lodges, which can be as much a touchstone for national parks visitors as the spectacular scenery.
“There are lots of people who know the lodges. What I hope is that they will understand their significance,” Barnes says. “Many were slated for demolition at some point in their history. Some have been so neglected they get into a crisis situation. Their loss would be irretrievable, like tearing a page from our history.”
Barnes’ book should help ensure the page remains intact. With gorgeous photography, compelling stories and attractive design, it pays homage not only to the great lodges but also to their splendid settings. She relates the background of the lodges with a journalist’s knack for story and detail and an architectural historian’s eye for the buildings’ structural significance and the personalities of their designers.
Most of the resort hotels were built in the early 1900s to lure affluent Easterners to the West, away from their traditional European vacations. The Great Northern Railway’s official photographer, Fred Kiser, suggested the slogan “See America First” to attract travelers to lodges and chalets that railroad founder James J. Hill and his son Louis built in Glacier National Park between 1910 and 1915. The Hills and other railroad entrepreneurs were instrumental in building lodges at the heads of rail lines at Bryce Canyon, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and others. Up-and-coming architects such as Gilbert Stanley Underwood (who designed the Ahwahnee and the Bryce Canyon Lodge, among others) saw designing the lodges as a way to make their names. Some visitors felt the buildings, however rustic the design, sullied the pristine landscape. But for most, especially in the early decades of the 20th century, the lodges represented a happy medium between unspoiled nature and creature comfort, says Richard Longstreth, past president of the American Society of Architectural Historians.
“Although they are somewhat posh and cushy and full of amenities, at the time they also represented a growing, widespread sympathy with nature and with place,” Longstreth says. “The scale, even when they’re quite big, is to be complementary to their natural setting rather than to overwhelm it. As design, intrinsically, but also in terms of the national parks movement and the reflection of this newfound respect for natural settings, they are front and center.”
Barnes gives each lodge front-and-center treatment. Her lively, well-researched prose tells the fascinating stories of the architects, builders, entrepreneurs, boosters and National Park Service personnel who, between 1904 and 1937, took on the challenge of building hotels to help open the parks to an increasingly mobile public. Perhaps more daunting was creating buildings to complement some of nature’s most stunning scenery.
The book’s historical photographs capture the energy of the lodges’ early days, while contemporary shots by photographers Fred Pflughoft and David Morris illustrate the enduring beauty of the parks and the hotels. They do a particularly good job of highlighting the large common rooms that are the lodges’ focal points. Most of the interior shots, devoid of people, were taken in the middle of the night so that guests would neither be disturbed nor appear in photos.
The balance of photography, prose and the architectural drawings sprinkled throughout makes an attractive package that celebrates what the lodges have meant to generations of visitors.
“There is an experience that is different from your ordinary motel with a number,” says NPS architect Andy Beck, who from 1980 to 1983 oversaw the renovation of the Old Faithful Inn. “They provide this ambience, this almost emotional impact that is really quite different from the usual tourist stops.
“The average person knows Yellowstone in terms of geysers and hot springs and nothing more, and yet there are tremendous historic resources there as well,” says Beck, who shared his expertise with Barnes and PBS and is featured in the Old Faithful Inn segment of the series. “Without people like Christine placing in front of the public the fact that there is special stuff to see, it would be lost on most people. The Park Service does not promote that. Its job is to present the natural resources, so she’s doing a great service.”
The NPS, established in 1916, took over some of the lodges previously run by independent concessionaires. Stephen Mather, who was the first NPS director, encouraged the building of others, such as the Ahwahnee. “People must see the parks to value them,” he said. Now, nearly 90 years later, visitors continue to discover and enjoy the lodges, although the upkeep is a continual challenge for a tight NPS budget. Several of the lodges have private foundations to solicit funds for their maintenance and operation, and Barnes’ publisher has established a fund, into which a portion of book proceeds will go, for restoration of historic structures in national parks.
Great Lodges of the National Parks is Barnes’ third major book in a loosely related series, all published by W.W. West, that began with Great Lodges of the West in 1997. Great Lodges of the Canadian Rockies followed in 1999, and two smaller lodge books in 2001.
What would appear to be a calculated plan to become chronicler of great lodges has actually been more happenstance. It began at Northwestern, where Barnes decided to pursue a career in journalism. A Colorado native, she was a nontraditional student who earned a full scholarship from the state of Illinois for women in continuing education. She and her husband, Jerry, a banker, had two children. Barnes juggled family and school as she pursued her degree. She took classes in Evanston by day and at the downtown campus at night and wrote freelance stories along the way. One of her first published pieces was about older college students. She graduated with honors, then worked for a chain of weekly newspapers in Chicago’s north suburbs.
After moving to California, Barnes became features editor for a group of newspapers around San Francisco, then moved to the Oakland Tribune as assistant city editor and later features editor. “It was the best experience of my journalism career, because I worked for Bob Maynard, who was my mentor and one of the finest people I’ve ever known,” she says. Fearing the Tribune would soon fold, Barnes jumped to the San Francisco Examiner in 1988, where she spent six years as features editor.
But with their children grown and out of the house, she and her husband decided they were tired of the daily grind and began scouting for a more low-key place to live. They settled on Bend, a small town in central Oregon, where they moved in 1994. Barnes quickly adjusted to life away from the rat race. She didn’t read a newspaper for six months and spent a year traveling.
Then a call from her brother brought her back to the world of words. He worked for a publisher in Montana and was looking for a writer to do a book on central Oregon. “He knew I would do a good job,” Barnes says. And she delivered. Her first book, Central Oregon: View from the Middle (Farcountry Press, 1996), features the area’s history, geology and recreation as well as profiles of towns.
“It was great practice to see if I wanted to write nonfiction books,” she says. “It was just like writing feature articles, except big.”
The next step came in 1995 after a weekend trip at the reopening of the Crater Lake Lodge in southwestern Oregon. Built in 1915, it had fallen into disrepair. At one point the National Park Service planned to raze and replace it. But the lodge, perched on the rim of an ancient volcano whose caldera is filled with midnight blue water, was saved from the wrecking ball by a combination of state legislative action and grassroots activism.
The story of its resurrection captured Barnes’ imagination. She wrote a freelance piece on the reopening for the San Francisco Examiner Sunday Magazine.
“It was well received, and it was fun to write. I started to think that perhaps there was a book on the history of these other lodges.”
She began researching other lodges she had visited, including the Old Faithful Inn, the Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood and the Paradise Inn at Mount Ranier. “I started to realize the interconnection between the parks, the architecture, the development of the National Park Service and the railroads,” she says.
While Barnes considered writing a book on the lodges, serendipity occurred. At Munch & Music, a festival at a Bend park, she met Don Compton, a recently retired metals fabricator. Compton knew of her first book and asked what she had planned next. “I’m going to write a book on the historic lodges of the Pacific Northwest,” Barnes replied.
A couple of weeks later, Compton called and told her he wanted to publish her book. “I didn’t realize you were a publisher,” she told him. “I’m not,” he replied. “Yet.”
While Barnes turned her idea into a book proposal, Compton immersed himself in getting an education in publishing. He attended American Booksellers Association shows, joined the Publishers Marketing Association and later formed W.W. West Inc. Barnes trusted her gut feeling and signed a book contract with Compton’s new company.
In another bit of serendipity she found a pair of photographers in Bend who would eventually work with her through all three books. Fred Pflughoft and David Morris had strengths not only in nature shots but also the architectural interiors crucial to the book’s presentation. The team produced Great Lodges of the West, which sold 40,000 copies, healthy sales for a publication of its type. It also earned a gold medal Benjamin Franklin Award for the best new history book from the Independent Book Publishers, beating out a book on the Titanic that was a tie-in with the hit film of that year.
While Barnes was researching the book in Glacier National Park, several people urged her to write something similar on the lodges in the Canadian Rockies. She was further encouraged after talking with historians from Parks Canada (the equivalent of the NPS). “When you talk with these people, they’re so happy that someone cares about these wonderful buildings,” she says. “They’re wonderful resources and very underappreciated in the U.S. and in Canada.”
Barnes, Pflughoft and Morris visited parks in British Columbia and Alberta in early winter and again in summer. Great Lodges of the Canadian Rockies features 12 buildings, from the spectacular Banff Springs Hotel to the remote Mount Assiniboine Lodge.
“Once again, it became this saga of one place linked to another,” Barnes says.
And once again the resulting book claimed the Benjamin Franklin Award, this time a silver medal.
Barnes’ work habits have changed little over three books. She researches as much as possible at home, then faxes requests for information and a list of questions to park archivists and historians. She then goes to the parks, often staying at the lodge.
“What was really difficult about writing the books was that the lodges are mostly open only during the summer, so you do all this background and then hit the road,” she says. “It sounds glamorous, but it’s exhausting.” She interviews everyone from park superintendents to maintenance workers and admits she is an “expert eavesdropper” on the conversations of her fellow visitors, who sometimes become interview subjects. “While I’m there I can get a really good sense of place.” She often writes in the early morning quiet of the great rooms.
Her journalism experience proved invaluable. “I knew discipline, I knew research, I knew how to write. I was an editor for years, so I was not put off in the least by working with editors,” she says.
The success of the books led Compton to pitch to Oregon Public Broadcasting the idea for a series based on Great Lodges of the West. The producers steered it toward lodges of the national parks. Barnes took several scouting trips, and the book and PBS series evolved concurrently. The companion book differed from her previous work in that it involved more storytelling, the inclusion of four additional lodges and chapters on each park, supplemented by her usual archival research, she says.
“It was more like writing a feature story because I was using people more,” Barnes says.
Barnes was pleased by the additional attention the PBS series brought and happy that the book and series may lead more people to discover the lodges. Her own favorite is “the last one I visited,” although she has special regard for the Ahwahnee, where her son’s wedding reception was held in fall 2001.
“You have to appreciate them for what they are,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to see the parks as was originally intended. As Andy Beck said in the book, it’s a chance to go to the Old Faithful Inn and reach out and touch 1903.”
Kieran McConnellogue is a writer based in Greeley, Colo.
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