Monday, May 29, 2017

Picturesque Rustic

Wallowa Lake Lodge (all photos by me)
My wife and I recently returned from a much-needed five-day vacation in northeastern Oregon’s Wallowa County. This incredibly scenic region—a dramatic confluence of prairies, soaring snow-capped mountains, glacier-carved lakes, and deep canyons—is remote and sparsely populated. The principal industries include agriculture, ranching, and lumber, though many locals increasingly view tourism as a key economic driver. I’d visited the area several times previously, as my wife has ties there that date back to the arrival of the first white settlers during the 1870s. Her family still owns 160 acres of pastureland a few miles east of Joseph, as well as an additional 40 acres in timber on the flanks of Mount Howard. 

Our vacation reconnected my wife to a place resonant with childhood memories, one within which she delighted during breaks away from school in Bend. It provided me with a relaxing respite untethered from electronic connections back to my work in Eugene. Rather than stay at the family ranch, we chose lodgings at the historic Wallowa Lake Lodge, a short drive away, situated at the south end of the lake and near the trailhead into the magnificent Eagle Cap Wilderness. 

Wallowa Lake
Having grown up a city boy, I’ve never been one inclined toward “roughing it.” Despite its rustic appeal, the Wallowa Lake Lodge provides home-away-from-home comfort with the amenities and hospitality of a 5-star hotel. Originally constructed in 1923 and subsequently expanded in 1926, the Lodge proper houses 22 guest rooms. Additionally, there are eight cabins, each featuring full baths and kitchens, stone fireplaces, and big views of the lake and spring-fed wetlands. There are no room phones, televisions, or Internet service. Unlike the endemic placeless-ness of chain hotels, there is nothing predictable about the lodge for first time visitors, other than the expectation of a remarkable sojourn. We stayed in one of the cabins rather than in the main lodge, though the lodge is the focus of this blog post. 

Wallowa Lake Lodge

The Wallowa Lake Lodge is not the product of academy-trained architects; instead, the straightforward design is the handiwork of builders James Amey, his son Clyde, and J.Ross Leslie (for the original 1923 building), and later W.C. Kelly (for the 1926 addition). Regardless, the lodge betrays the builders’ good instincts through its placement, simple forms, and respect for the spirit of the place. The care for and attention to details is clear. The exterior is enlivened by the horizontal, vertical, and diagonal patterning of board & batten siding. Inside, the lodge is warmed by exposed wood paneling, Arts & Crafts detailing, and antique furnishings. 

Lobby, Wallowa Lake Lodge
The cabin we stayed in was crafted in a similarly rustic style, though the lodge operators built it and the others during the 1940s. Like the lodge, the cabin’s design is straightforward and unaffected. It served as a perfect base for our stay in Joseph. We retired in the evenings to the comfort of a real bed after exploring the environs or visiting with family at the ranch. Each morning, I enjoyed the pleasure of a freshly brewed hot cup of coffee while taking in wonderful sights, sounds, and fresh air from the cabin’s adjoining deck. The cabin immersed us in a setting a world apart from our home in Eugene. Our vacation was rejuvenating and relaxing thanks in no small part to our choice of accommodations. 

Relaxing on the deck of our cabin, Wallowa Lake Lodge
The Wallowa Lake Lodge is one of many landmark inns built during the early decades of the 20th century that have come to exemplify the National Park Service Rustic” style of architecture. Other noteworthy structures include the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park, the Ahwahnee Hotel at Yosemite National Park, the Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier, and Glacier Park Lodge in Wyoming. Here in Oregon, the Oregon Caves Chateau, Crater Lake Lodge, and Timberline Lodge embody the essential characteristics of the great lodges. All fit snugly within spectacular surroundings, even though many are sizable buildings. Their architects designed them to harmonize with the majestic landscapes of which they are a part. They most often combine handcrafted native wood and stone in a relaxed, frontier-inspired fashion. Their lavish embellishments frequently feature natural and Native American motifs. 

Much of the appeal of the old lodges is rooted in their authenticity and their contribution to the natural sites of which they are an irreducible part. Moreover, they provide intimacy and communion with nature through their architecture. They offer environmental nourishment. This is a characteristic of the lodges that is difficult to replicate in artificial settings. For this reason, I find it impossible to believe Walt Disney World’s Wilderness Lodge would be appealing. A sanitized, synthetic, and sentimentalized form, Disney’s Wilderness Lodge is nothing more than an ersatz misappropriation of the National Park Service Rustic vocabulary. It is most assuredly inauthentic. 

Author Christine Barnes published several copiously illustrated books showcasing the National Park lodges, of which I own two volumes. The books in turn spawned the PBS-produced Great Lodges of the National Parks television series in 2002, for which Barnes served as a consultant. The books and TV series glowingly featured the famous lodges but showcased several lesser-known examples too, including the Wallowa Lake Lodge. Of the many documented by Barnes, my wife and I have also previously vacationed at the Lake Quinault Lodge in Olympic National Park and Timberline Lodge. Despite including “. . .of the National Parks” in her titles, both Timberline Lodge and the Wallowa Lake Lodge are not U.S. National Park Service properties; the Lake Quinault Lodge(1) is located within Olympic National Park in Washington state. 

Lake Quinault Lodge
Interior beam detail, Lake Quinault Lodge
Cupola, Lake Quinault Lodge
Our goal is to visit many more of the historic lodges catalogued by Barnes. We find vacationing at the great lodges not only enjoyable and refreshing, but enchanting journeys back in history to boot. Their picturesque and rustic style of architecture has undeniably contributed to the mythos of the American West. They are worthy of our best preservation efforts.  

(1)  Architect Robert C. Reamer designed the Lake Quinault Lodge. Reamer is best known for designing Yellowstone Park’s Old Faithful Inn.

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