Friday, August 21, 2009
Lake Hotel was my first location in Yellowstone. When I arrived to sell souvenirs in the gift shop in 1988, the building had just undergone a three-year renovation and everyone was going around cooing about how beautiful it looked. It was my first sight of the building, but they told me how it had been allowed to become something of an eyesore during the 1980's. The new concessioner, TW Recreational Services, had agreed to pour a bunch of money into the hotel and the results were good.
The building itself neatly recapitulates the cultural history of Yellowstone. It open in 1891, financed by the Northern Pacific Railroad. Although the NPRR didn't operate directly inside the park, they did carry most of the traffic -in fact, they were the driving force behind creating a national park in the first place - and were willing to invest money in making Yellowstone a desirable destination. It began as a rather plain building, but was remodeled in 1904-1905 in a colonial style that sounds bizarrely out of place in the Rocky Mountains, but is remarkably affective nonetheless.
In the early days, well-heeled visitors would pay for packaged tours that took them from hotel to hotel on carefully-scheduled stagecoaches (after 1915, in open-topped buses), where they would be greeted by singing hotel employees. Each of the western national parks had a grand hotel: the Ahwahnee in Yosemite, the Many Glacier in Glacier, or El Tovar at the Grand Canyon. Yellowstone's grand hotel was not the one at Lake, but rather the Canyon Hotel (which no longer survives).
Lake Hotel itself only barely survived. Throughout the 1920's and 1930's, more visitors were bringing their own cars to the park and chose to sleep in the cheaper campgrounds and lodge cabins. The hotels, built to cater to the wealthy and genteel, were fast becoming anachronisms is this new world of mass consumer culture. One wing of the hotel (oddly perpendicular to the rest of the building) was torn down in 1940 and there were even plans to demolish the entire structure except the kitchen, which would become part of a "new Lake Lodge" complex consisting entirely of cabins.
But WWII intervened. There were few visitors and no money for new construction. Then, when the war ended, the visitors returned in hordes. In 1941, park visitation had topped half a million for the very first time; after 1947, over a million visitors were arriving every year. Those people needed beds, so the notion of tearing down a perfectly functional building was scrapped and Lake Hotel was saved.
With the demise of Canyon Hotel, and the refurbishing effort of the 1980's, Lake Hotel is now the fancy-pants accommodations in Yellowstone, with lakeside rooms running $216 and a nightly string quartet in the sun room. I don't have that kind of money, so it's a good thing I worked there. It's still one of my favorite places in the world.