The Ahwahnee Hotel
|Location||Yosemite National Park, California|
|Built||August 1, 1926–July 1927|
|Architect||Gilbert Stanley Underwood|
|Architectural style||National Park Service Rustic|
|Governing body||National Park Service|
|NRHP Reference #||77000149|
|Added to NRHP||February 15, 1977|
|Designated NHL||May 28, 1987|
The Ahwahnee Hotel is a grand hotel in Yosemite National Park, California, on the floor of Yosemite Valley, constructed from stone, concrete, wood and glass, which opened in 1927. It is a premiere example of National Park Service rustic architecture, and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987. The hotel was built by two companies that were merged when the National Park Service began leasing concessions to a single company.
Background and history
David and Jennie Curry, owners and operators of Curry Village were schoolteachers who came to Yosemite Valley in 1899. The couple offset some of their vacation costs by giving camping tours, having experimented early on in Yellowstone National Park. For three summers in a row, the Currys led teachers on camping outings to Yellowstone with horse and wagon. They arrived in Yosemite with a cook and seven tents. Despite the two week, round trip travel period from Merced, California, the camp registered 292 guests its first year. The couple brought their three children with them. Foster, Mary and Marjorie (ages four through eleven) all helped out where they were able. The Curry Company, came to dominate the politics of the park for decades. David wrote the Secretary of the Interior, Franklin Lane in an effort extend the park's tourist season, hoping to expand his own business. The Currys were adept at promotion and revived an old tradition started by James McCauley on the Fourth of July 1872. At sunset, piles of burning logs were pushed off Glacier Point creating what was known as the Fire Fall. The theory was, that national parks were for recreational use. David Curry died in 1917 and left the management of Camp Curry to his widow Jennie, now known as "Mother Curry". She received help from her children, particularly Mary and her husband Donald Tresidder.
In 1915 Stephen T. Mather convinced D.J. Desmond to convert an old army barracks into the Yosemite Lodge. Desmond also began a hotel at Glacier Point the following year, while buying out a number of businesses to improve Yosemite Park Company's position in upcoming Park leasing contracts. A congressional act allowed for efficient supervision of the parks for the enjoyment of the public. Beginning in 1916 the newly formed National Park Service began a concerted effort to attract visitors to the parks and create better accommodations and services. Under the direction of Mather, whose greatest desire was to have a luxury hotel in Yosemite, an attempt was made to build near Yosemite Falls but funding failed. Prominent socialite, Lady Astor and other wealthy tourists had refused to stay at the park due to the horrible conditions of the facilities. Lady Astor is reported to have disliked the Sentinel Hotel, describing it as "primitive". In 1925, Park Service, unhappy with the declining concessions situation within the parks, decided to grant a monopoly to single entities to run the hotel and food services in each park. Two existing companies; Curry Company (Curry Village tent camp) and The Yosemite Park Company (Yosemite Lodge) were merged to create one larger company to run all of the hotels and food concessions in Yosemite National Park. As part of this reorganization, the newly formed Yosemite Park and Curry Company (YPCCC) proposed a new luxury hotel. The new head of the YPCCC became Donald Tresidder from the Curry Company. It was hoped that the more successful Curry Company involvement would help build Mather's hotel. While the National Park Service had complete control, the YPCC Company began to have further influence. The monopoly accomplished leasing privileges and created both financial and political benefits.
Yosemite Park & Curry Company
What started out as a simple campsite begun by two Indiana schoolteachers, ends up as the sole concessionaire for the park. Yosemite Park & Curry Company went on to build much of the park's service structures over decades. Donald Tresidder, as president of YPCCC built the Ahwahnee and several other major structures within the park. The name selected for the new hotel as "Yosemite All-Year-Round Hotel", but changed by Tresidder just prior to opening to reflect the native name of the spot.
After the Ahwahnee was built, Tresidder had to overcome a number of financial obstacles. The cost of the hotel was nearly double the estimate, and as fall approached, guests began to decline. Park officials became concerned and suggested closing the hotel for the winter. To avoid this and keep guests and income flowing, Tresidder centered on skiing and other winter activities. In order to keep the hotel filled throughout the holiday period, Tresidder proposed Christmas entertainment. A banquet event was planned based on a story by Washington Irving of an eighteenth century English Christmas at the home of the Squire of Bracebridge. The cast was filled with locals from the park, including photographer, Ansel Adams.
Concept and build
Architecture and interior design
The Ahwahnee hotel was designed by architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood (who also designed the Zion Lodge, Bryce Canyon Lodge, and Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge). It is considered a masterpiece of "parkitecture" and is made to feel rustic and match its surroundings. Interior designers were Dr. Phyllis Ackerman and Professor Arthur Upham Pope. The interior work was carried out by a number of artisans under their supervision. The individual border designs in the beams of the Great Lounge are from artist Jeanette Dryer Spencer. The site for the hotel is below the Royal Arches rock formation in a meadow area that had served in the past as a village for the native Miwoks, who formerly lived in the valley, and a stables complex known as Kenneyville. The site was chosen for its views of many of the iconic sights in Yosemite, including Half Dome, Yosemite Falls and Glacier Point, and its exposure to the sun allowing for natural heating.
The original concept art of the hotel was far more megalithic in scale than what was built. Underwood's original design concept called for a massive six story structure. Tresidder and the board originally had requested a hotel with only one hundred guest rooms that felt like a luxurious country home and not a hotel. The design was changed several times and at one point was to be no larger than 3 stories with a wooden and stone construction and then again plans changed to a larger scale. Interior designs and designers had also changed. The Husband and wife team of Ackerman and Pope were chosen over artist/interior designer, Henry Lovins from Los Angeles. Lovins' interior design renderings, provided by Elizabeth Lovins (Director of the Hollywood Art Center Archive) depict a "Mayan revival", drawing of Hispano-Moresque styling. Historians, Ackerman and Pope created a style that mixed Art Deco, Native American, Middle Eastern and Arts and Crafts. A lot of decoration originally used was Persian. Ackerman and Pope actually became consultants in Iran. Pope even has a mausoleum built for him by the Shah.
Eventually the Grand Dining Room was scaled back from seating for 1000 to seating for only 350 guests. The Ahwahnee is a 150,000 square feet (14,000 m2) Y-shaped building and has 99 hotel rooms, parlors and suites, each being accented with original Native American designs. 24 cottages bring the total number of rooms to 123.
The hotel was constructed from 5,000 tons (4,535 t) of rough-cut granite, 1,000 tons (907 t) of steel, and 30,000 feet (9,140 m) of timber. The 'wood siding' and 'structural timber' on the exterior of the hotel is actually formed of stained concrete poured into molds to simulate a wood pattern. The steel came from the Union Iron Works in San Francisco and the timber cut from land owned by the Curry family. Concrete was chosen as the material for the outside 'wood' elements to add fire resistance to the hotel. The construction lasted 11 months and had a cost of US$1,225,000 upon completion in July 1927. After construction was complete the company began an advertising campaign to showcase the new amenities.
Just before opening, the director noticed that the porte-cochere planned for the west side of the building, where the Indian room now sits, would allow exhaust fumes from automobiles to invade the premises. A hastily designed Douglas Fir pole porte-cochere entry and parking area was erected on the east side of the hotel to correct this. The logs were replaced in the 1990s. Almost immediately after opening, the next of many alterations were made to the hotel. In 1928, a roof garden and dance hall were converted into a private apartment after the dance hall failed to draw an audience. It was found that the load-bearing trusses in the dining room were barely adequate to support the snow load on the roof and potential earthquake stresses. This led to the trusses being reinforced in 1931-32.
When Prohibition was rescinded in 1933, a private dining room was converted into the El Dorado Diggins bar, evocative of the California Gold Rush period. 1943 saw the United States Navy take over the hotel for use as a convalescent hospital for war veterans. Some of the changes made to the hotel by the Navy were repainting of the interior, conversion of chauffeur and maid rooms into guest rooms and enclosure of the original porte-cochere.
The 1950s, '60s and '70s brought modernizations to the hotel including fire escapes, a fire alarm system, smoke detectors and a sprinkler system, along with an outdoor swimming pool and automatic elevators. 2003-2004 saw a major roof overhaul, where virtually the entire slate-tile roof, and copper gutter system was replaced. Martech Associates, Inc. of Millheim, Pennsylvania designed the updated roof and served as the general contractor for the project. The project cost approximately USD $4 million and is especially noted for its 97 percent material recycling rate. An article in the Los Angeles Times on March 13, 2009 stated that seismic retrofits may be needed for the Ahwahnee.
Grand Dining Room and kitchen
The kitchen area is from the original design concept and included separate stations for both baking and pastries and was never reduced when the original project was down sized. High quality kitchen appliance were installed for the hotel to compete with fine dining establishments and was specifically constructed to handle special events and functions. Only the Grand Dining Room uses real wooden beams for fire safety reasons. Every detail was carefully thought out. The alcove window at the end of the room perfectly framed Yosemite falls when the hotel was completed. The dining room has a total size of, 130 feet in length and 51 feet wide with a 34 feet ceiling supported with rock columns creating a cathedral like atmosphere. While the dress code for the park is usually very casual, the Ahwahnee Dining Room used to require a jacket for men, but has eased up on that tradition. Now collared shirts for men are allowed, and women may wear either a dress, or slacks and a blouse.
The Hotel and Dining room have provided accommodations to many notable figures including royalty, presidents and others. Queen Elizabeth II stayed at the hotel as well as many film and television stars from Lucille Ball, Dezi Arnaz and Judy Garland to William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. The regular entertainment provided at dinner is a pianist dressed in a tuxedo if male. Local Yosemite artist, Dudely Kendall played piano in the dining room at the Ahwahnee for years and had his work displayed at the hotel.
Bracebridge Dinner is a seven-course formal gathering  presented as a feast given by a Renaissance-era lord. Started in 1927, the Ahwahnee's first year of operation, the dinner is inspired by the fictional Squire Bracebridge's Yule celebration in a story from The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving. Music and theatrical performances based on Irving's story accompany the introduction of each course. Donald Tresidder, then president of the Yosemite Park & Curry Company (which operated the Ahwahnee and all other concessions in the park), conceived the idea for the event with his wife, Mary Curry, their friends and park staff. It is held in the grand dining room at the hotel. Tresidder hired Garnet Holme the first year to write the script and produce the event. Tesidder and his wife played the Squire and his lady until Tresidder's death in 1948. Photographer Ansel Adams was earning a secure living from work for the YP&C Co during the Great Depression. Adams was well known in Yosemite for his eccentricities and was asked to be a part of Donald Tresidder's new Winter celebrations in the elaborate, theatrical Christmas dinner with friends from the nearby Bohemian Club. Cast as the "Jester", Adams had asked the director for suggestions but was told to just act like a jester. Adams fortified himself with a few drinks and went on to climb the granite pillars to the rafters. Adams played the Lord of Misrule for the first two years. Holme died in 1929, and Tresidder asked Adams to take over the direction of the show. Adams reworked the script considerably in 1931, creating the role of Major Domo, head of the household, for himself while his wife, Virginia Best Adams, played the housekeeper.
The dinner was not held during World War II, when the Ahwahnee was functioning as a naval hospital. The 1946 dinner introduced chorale concerts and a more significant musical performances. Ansel Adams retired from the event in 1973, passing it on to Eugene Fulton, who had been part of the male chorus since 1934 and musical director since 1946. Until 1956, there was only a single performance. The number of performances gradually increased to a total of eight. Fulton died unexpectedly on Christmas Eve in 1978. His wife, Anna-Marie, and his daughter, Andrea, took over that year and produced the show. In 1979, Andrea Fulton assumed the role of director, which she continues to this day while also playing the role of housekeeper.
In 2011, the Bracebridge dinner celebrated its 85th Anniversary. Travel + Leisure magazine awarded Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel as one of the best hotels in the United States for the holidays  for two consecutive years (2011 and 2012). For much of its history, tickets to the event were difficult to obtain. In prior years, the scarce tickets were awarded to applicants by lottery. In 1992, there was a reported 60,000 applications for the coveted 1,650 seats. In 1995, the organizers of the traditional dinner accepted ticket cancellations because the park could have been shut down due to the national budget impasse. In 2013, reservations are accepted in the order received.
The Great Lounge is one of the main public spaces in the hotel. The space is quite large and spans the full width of the wing and nearly the full length (minus the solarium). There are two large fireplaces on either end of the room made from cut sandstone. On either side of the lounge are a series of floor to ceiling plate glass, picture windows ornamented at their tops with stain glass.
Interiors of the Ahwahnee Hotel were adapted for the 1980 horror film The Shining by Stanley Kubrick. Designers at Elstree Studios incorporated the hotel's lobby, elevators and great lounge into sets for the Overlook Hotel.
The Ahwahnee has hosted many famous guests, including Steve Jobs, Queen Elizabeth II, Walt Disney, Charlie Chaplin, Gertrude Stein, Ansel Adams, Lucille Ball, Will Rogers, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and the Shah of Iran.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Ahwahnee Hotel.|
- "The Official site for The Ahwahnee hotel". DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite - the National Park concessioner. 2008. Archived from the original on 28 May 2008. Retrieved 2 June 2008.
- Architecture in the Parks: A National Historic Landmark Theme Study: The Ahwahnee Hotel, by Laura Soullière Harrison, 1986, at National Park Service.
- "Dining Out: Ahwahnee Hotel Kitchen (Yosemite, California)". Cooking For Engineers. January 22, 2005. Archived from the original on 6 August 2006. Retrieved 7 July 2006.
- The Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite. Virtual photo tour, history, more. Lots of photos.
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