Monday, September 5, 2011

Timberline Lodge

Timberline Lodge (all photos by me unless noted otherwise)

A few months ago I listed Timberline Lodge as one of my ten favorite buildings in Oregon, despite not having visited the landmark. Such is the power of its mystique, majestic setting, and history that I could not leave it off my list. Not unlike the revelation during my childhood that was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, the resort on Mount Hood immediately commanded my attention the very first time I saw its images in print. I instinctively knew Timberline Lodge was a special place.

My wife and I finally vacationed at Timberline this past August, staying three days and two nights to soak in the ambiance, breathe the mountain air, and set aside our workaday cares. We occupied one of the private queen-bed rooms on the third floor, enjoying expansive south-facing views. Mt. Jefferson (40 miles to the south) prominently occupied the vista during the day, while the eerie glow from massive wildfires on the Warm Springs Reservation colored the night sky. Above the tree line, colorful mountain wildflowers complemented the silvery gray of the lodge’s exterior and the alpine terrain. We had plenty of time to explore the hotel and its environs, making side trips to scenic Trillium Lake, Government Camp, and Little Zigzag Falls.

Timberline Lodge, view from south

Timberline Lodge is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. A common misconception is that it is owned by the National Park Service, and is a National Park Lodge; it is not. The facility is leased from the Forest Service and operated by the family-owned R.L.K. & Company, a corporation devoted to its preservation.(1)

Many of you probably have some familiarity with the lodge’s history. It was constructed during the depths of the Great Depression as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) venture. The project employed up to 470 workers on site during the peak of construction, many of them older, highly skilled craftsmen. Remarkably for a building renowned for its hand-hewn rusticity, extraordinary art, and custom furnishings, the total elapsed time between groundbreaking and its dedication by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on September 28, 1937 amounted to a mere 15 months.(2)

You may not be as acquainted with Timberline’s architects. During the 1920s, Pietro Belluschi and a precocious John Yeon submitted separate proposals for expanding the privately owned Cloud Cap Inn on Mount Hood’s north side. Eventually, it became clear there was a greater need for overnight facilities on the mountain’s south flank. Yeon would subsequently develop a scheme for Timberline, which formed the basis of a 1935 U.S. Forest Service proposal to the WPA. The WPA turned down this application because material costs were higher than allowed. The Forest Service subsequently retained Gilbert Stanley Underwood as its architect. Underwood built his reputation upon designs for several National Park Service lodges, including Zion Lodge, Bryce Canyon Lodge, Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge, and the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. His design for Timberline Lodge was executed by Forest Service architects Tim Turner, Linn Forrest, Howard Gifford, and Dean Wright.(3)

Underwood apprenticed with Arts & Crafts masters in California before establishing his own practice. Historians use words like “rustic” to characterize his lodge designs, although Timberline’s promoters avoided that term in favor of “Cascadian.” Native wood and stone, exaggerated scale, and “unsophisticated” decorative motifs were common themes.

The architects’ primary goal was not to detract from the natural beauty of Timberline’s site, nestled at the 6,000 foot level of Mount Hood. Their intent was to blend the design with the mountain surroundings.

Timberline Lodge, upslope view; purple lupine wildflowers are in bloom

The 3-story, 70-room hotel is grand and imposing (especially when viewed immediately from below) and at the same time deferential to the magnificence of Mount Hood’s looming peak. Asymmetrical wings radiate from the “headhouse,” whose conical shape echoes the mountain’s profile. Native flagstone, Douglas fir board-and-batten siding, and cedar roof shakes clad the exterior. The roofs slope steeply to shed the heavy winter snows.

Interior view of headhouse roof framing; note the hexagonal light fixture

Hexagonal in plan, the headhouse accommodates the main lobby, Timberline’s most impressive interior space. The room soars to the peak of the roof, centered on an enormous stone fireplace. Massive hand-adzed wood beams and columns ably shoulder the burden of heavy winter snowfalls. My wife and I could only imagine how the embrace of blazing hearths and the warmth of the pine, fir, oak, and hemlock accoutrements provide welcome refuge for the lodge’s winter visitors.

Carved owl newel post

Intricately hand-carved wood details and stout furniture with pioneer, Native American, and wildlife motifs abound throughout. The traditional handiwork of blacksmiths is equally prominent, featured in wrought-iron furniture and fixtures. In addition to the functional works of art, the WPA Federal Art Project commissioned numerous artists and artisans to create murals, lithographs, oil paintings, tapestries, marquetry, and watercolors. My favorites include Douglas Lynch’s linoleum murals in the Barlow Room, Howard Sewell’s oil-on-canvas homage to the wood and metal workers who built Timberline, and the wildflower watercolors by Dora Erikson that adorned our room. The creative skill of the artists and artisans is an integral part of a very significant whole.

"Metal Workers" by Howard Sewell

I found the interior spaces, particularly the lower lobby, too dark relative to the brightness outdoors. It took some time for my eyes (and my Transitions® lenses) to adjust to the severe contrast. However, this is a minor quibble. If nothing else, the chiaroscuro of light and shade renders the volumes and forms in dramatic fashion. Textures are exaggerated; the materiality of wood, stone, and fabrics accentuated.

Timberline captures the spirit of the trying times during which it was built. It is an enthralling mountain destination, elegant in its rusticity. There’s something almost primal about its architecture and embellishments. I cannot imagine Central Casting serving up a more quintessential aesthetic for a Cascades ski lodge.

Here's Johnny!!!! (studio screenshot from The Shining)

The building’s archetypal features and dramatic, isolated setting fulfilled director Stanley Kubrick’s vision of the fictional Overlook Hotel in his 1980 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining.(4) Kubrick endowed Timberline with (in the words of one critic) "a menacing grandeur," making it seem as if the building was alive. Today, that starring role is part of the hotel’s lore.

The U.S. Department of the Interior designated the lodge a National Historic Landmark in 1977, declaring it the finest example of WPA “mountain architecture.” It has become as much a museum as it is a working resort.

Main Lobby

Our visit to Timberline did nothing to temper or invalidate my substantial expectations about its design. In the minds of many, including my own, it is synonymous with Mount Hood, the Cascades, and even Oregon. Its identity is inseparable from the place of which it is a part. Timberline achieves what good architecture ought to, which is to engage our senses at every turn, shape our perceptions, and heighten our awareness of the world around it. In addition, the lodge lives as an inspiring and enriching monument to the workers who built the structure and crafted its many fine details.

I look forward to visiting Timberline Lodge again someday.

(1) Short of amenities when it first opened, mismanaged, and closed completely during the Second World War, Timberline was seldom profitable. By 1955, the Forest Service sought a new operator to rescue the resort. Richard L. Kohnstamm took the helm, restored the building, added new facilities, returned it to profitability, and eventually founded the nonprofit Friends of Timberline.

(2) The WPA was often derided during the Depression as “Workers Puttering Around” because there was an inherent disincentive to completing projects in a timely fashion. After all, the more time it took to complete a job, the longer it meant you would have one. Timberline proved an exception to the rule, as employees worked quickly to avoid the heavy snowfalls and their impact upon construction activities.

(3) As a souvenir of our visit, I purchased a wonderful book about the history, art, and craft of Timberline Lodge authored by Sarah Baker Munro. Her book is the source of some of my information about Timberline’s genesis.

(4) Stephen King was never a fan of Kubrick’s use of Timberline as a stand-in for his fictional Overlook Hotel. King’s true-life inspiration was the Stanley Hotel in Estes, Colorado, which would be the setting for a 1997 made-for-TV remake of the movie.

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