A wealth of ideas and ideals united those who created Yosemite’s magnificent hotel. Essay from Yosemite: A Storied Landscape by Kerry Tremain.

Architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood’s 1925 representation of The Ahwahnee depicts a building that blends in with its environment. He completed several project for National Park Service, developing fluency in an architectural vernacular for the parks that culminated in The Ahwahnee. Underwood Note his intended entrance for the hotel at right, a passageway now occupied by The Ahwahnee Lounge. Photograph courtesy of Delaware North Corporation.


Rich in tradition and sensual pleasures, The Ahwahnee Hotel is also a monument to a certain set of ideas about art and society. 

The grand hotel’s design, from its massive stone exterior to the geometric patterns embedded in its floors and painted on its walls, reflects a worldview that thrived in the early 20th century in and around the San Francisco Bay Area—and in particular at the University of California at Berkeley. Many of those who designed the look and feel of Yosemite’s thoroughfares and buildings, including The Ahwahnee, had been molded by ideas about public art and architecture incubated in Berkeley classrooms and cafes. These artists and architects shared the values of their social set, which stressed the conservation of nature and a broader acceptance and curiosity toward other cultures, and they joined their friends to foster public-minded associations and advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club. Like-minded colleagues also cultivated new concepts in law, biology, and the social sciences that informed policies for managing park visitors and wildlife, particularly after the founding of the National Park Service in 1916 by a group of Berkeley alumni. “It was the air everyone breathed,” says Karl Kroeber, who recalls the many social gatherings at the North Berkeley home of his grandfather, the famed Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. “In many ways, they saw Yosemite as their park.” Kroeber’s redwood home was designed, naturally, by Bernard Maybeck, himself the grandfather of an architectural tradition that courses through The Ahwahnee’s stone walls, stained glass, and ceiling stencils.

As the younger Kroeber’s remark implies, Berkeley’s socially progressive ideals in conserving Yosemite for all the people and future generations contained a tincture of elitism. Their immediate predecessors had, after all, declared Berkeley the “Athens of the West,” where a group of enlightened citizens would throw off the corruptions of the East to create a new vision of democracy and social harmony. That, too, is evident in the way The Ahwahnee was conceived and built. Borax millionaire Stephen Mather relied heavily on his elite connections to drum up support for a national park service and his plans for administering the parks. In 1915, the year before successfully lobbying Congress to establish the National Park Service, he led a group of influential businessmen, journalists, and politicians on a camping trip to the Sierra, and brought along a highly regarded chef, Tie Sing, who served them pan-roasted trout and freshly baked sourdough bread on tables set with white linen and polished silver. The same year, Mather took advantage of the Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco to draw visiting leaders to a National Parks Conference at UC Berkeley, his alma mater. He used the occasion to garner support for a federal agency to administer the national parks, and prevailed upon his wealthy friends to pay for the building of Tioga Road in Yosemite. Mather personally put up half the funds.

In the same vein, Mather argued that Yosemite needed a grand lodge in the style of Europe’s luxurious Alpine hotels for well-heeled visitors who, he insisted, could not be lured by camping under the stars or sharing a hostel bunk. (Mather’s three-tier scheme for full-service lodges, permanent camps with dining halls, and tent campsites remains largely intact.) Mather was convinced that park concessions, including lodging, should be a regulated monopoly, and in 1924 he helped force a merger of the park’s two competitors, The Curry Camping Company and The Desmond Park Service Company, which eight years earlier had promised, and then failed, to build a fireproof luxury hotel in Yosemite Valley. He found allies for his hotel in the leader of the newly merged Yosemite Park and Curry Company (and future president of Stanford), Donald Tresidder, his wife Mary Curry, daughter of the founder of the Curry Company, and in notables on the company’s board such as Harry Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times

Mather and the board ultimately decided on a young Los Angeles architect, Gilbert Stanley Underwood, to design the hotel. Underwood helped develop the “rustic style” that defined national park architecture in the years ahead, and drew heavily on ideas developed by Maybeck—such as the use of trusses to support steep roofs and create soaring interior spaces—and others of the so-called First Bay Tradition. These architects, including Berkeley’s Julia Morgan and John Galen Howard, who founded the School of Architecture at the university, emphasized harmony with the natural environment, local materials, and asymmetry. They drew inspiration from William Morris’s Arts & Crafts movement in Britain, which cultivated local craftsmanship and opposed industrialism and social inequality. Mark Daniels, the first landscape engineer for the park service, had been steeped in these ideas at UC Berkeley, and in 1917 sketched a Yosemite Village master plan that largely prefigured The Ahwahnee’s design.

First principle: Harmonize with the natural environment. Set directly beneath the cliffs of the Royal Arches with views of Glacier Point, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls, The Ahwahnee’s asymmetric design is composed of granite walls that taper as they rise, like a redwood tree. Underwood took pains to have the larger stones stacked at the bottom and the smaller ones at the top, with their weathered faces showing, so as to imitate a natural rock pile. “Viewed from above, the exterior walls form a stylized “Y,” its three spokes emanating from a central core,” writes Keith Walklet in The Ahwahnee: Yosemite’s Grand Hotel. “The shape forms one-third of the perimeter of a hexagon, long recognized as one of the most efficient shapes in the natural world.” The building is situated for maximal sun in the winter and summer shade from the surrounding forest. Snuggled against the mountain, the compact design remains visually arresting while deferring to the natural beauty that surrounds it.

Second principle: Use local materials. Five thousand tons of stone were hauled from surrounding areas by trucks that braved the winding Merced River Canyon road seven days a week for thirteen months. To support the granite walls, Underwood used 700 tons of structural steel—not, obviously, a local material. Redwood or pine beams would have failed to support the stone edifice, and introduced a fire hazard. Instead, Underwood imitated wooden beams by coloring concrete and imprinting it against rough-hewn redwood planks. Underwood’s genius, Walklet suggests, lay in using modern materials to achieve a rustic effect.

The Ahwahnee board made an equally adroit choice of designers to decorate the hotel. Arthur Pope met Phyllis Ackerman on the Berkeley campus, where he was a philosophy professor and she was studying at the School of Architecture. Drawn together by a mutual love of Middle Eastern art, the energetic couple married in 1920, became world experts on Persian kelims, and, according to a contemporary article in the New Yorker, soon was in great demand to decorate the homes of the very rich. The Ahwahnee is their masterpiece. Taking inspiration from their beloved kelims—they commissioned several for the hotel—and Native American motifs from basket designs, the couple transformed the massive building’s interior into a work of art.

In retrospect, Pope and Ackerman’s Native American motif also reveals some of the complicated, even tortured racial views afflicting socially progressive Berkeleyans at the time. California in the 1920s remained a xenophobic place. Although the blatant murder of Native Americans sanctioned in the early years of California statehood had long since passed, successful attempts to suppress Indian language and culture persisted, as did the relocation of tribes and villages, even within Yosemite. At the same time, Kroeber and other anthropologists were in a race to document California Indian languages and cultures that were rapidly being assimilated or extinguished. The results of their prodigious efforts are located at UC Berkeley, in artifacts at the Hearst Museum, photographs and notebooks at the Bancroft Library, and even recordings, originally on wax cylinder, of native languages—often the only record of languages spoken by native speakers—in the California Languages Archive.

Jeanette Dyer Spencer, a Berkeley artist that Pope and Ackerman hired to paint the remarkable stencils that adorn ceilings and some walls of the hotel, consulted those archives to create her designs. Her artwork, and the Native American-inspired mosaics of the lobby floor by Henry Temple Howard—one of two sons of architect John Galen Howard who applied their artistry to The Ahwahnee— echoed the geometric Middle Eastern designs that Pope and Ackerman loved. By explicitly associating American Indian artisans with the makers of rugs, pottery, and other artifacts of the ancient world, Ackerman hoped to show them as “creative artists of ingenuity, sensitiveness and dignity.” Meanwhile, Yosemite Indian basket weavers such as Lucy Telles and Maggie Howard were pioneering new designs for baskets just a few miles from The Ahwahnee. Like the Indian Field Days festivities sponsored by the park service until 1929, in which the women sold their baskets to collectors while being coerced into wearing Plains Indian dresses and posing in front of fake “wigwams,” the absence of living Native American artists in designing The Ahwahnee reflects the painful ironies of the time.

Jeanette Spencer also designed the stained glass panes atop the floor-to-ceiling windows in the Great Lounge. Her husband, Ted Spencer, who trained in architecture at Berkeley and apprenticed in Maybeck’s studio, took over from Underwood as The Ahwahnee’s resident architect, and designed adjacent buildings. Early members of the Sierra Club, the Spencers became close friends with Ansel and Virginia Adams, and with them, directed the planning and design of The Ahwahnee’s Christmas-time Bracebridge Dinner for several decades, starting in 1927. Their daughter Fran created a Mondrian-style mural (since painted over) for the Great Lounge when the Navy returned The Ahwahnee to the park after World War II. For many years, the Spencers remained hotel royalty, with a private residence, until the early 1970s, when Mary Curry died and the hotel changed hands.

If there is one place that offers a clarifying insight into the ideas and craftsmanship that animated Underwood, Pope, Ackerman, the Howards, the Spencers, and their progressive-minded contemporaries in Yosemite and Berkeley, it is the Great Lounge. Since its completion and through its several iterations, guests entering the room for the first time often let out a spontaneous gasp. Set against the grandeur of Yosemite Valley itself, that appreciative gasp signals the enduring achievement of a group of pragmatic idealists who, for a luminous moment, shared an expansive if flawed belief that their public-spirited values, cultural broad-mindedness and personal artistry could harmoniously combine to create something of beauty. And did.

The photos and captions, and not a few of the ideas in this essay are drawn from Keith Walklet’s well-researched and handsome book, “The Ahwahnee: Yosemite’s Grand Hotel,” published by the Yosemite Conservancy. While working as editor of the UC Berkeley alumni magazine and visiting Yosemite, I picked up Keith’s book at The Ahwahnee gift shop, and was happily struck by the many ties to the university described there. I want to thank Keith for generously sharing his photographs (which also appear as part of the “First Light” slideshow), his knowledge, and enthusiasm for The Ahwahnee.

From Yosemite: A Storied Landscape, available FREE on iTunes.

© 2019 Kerry Tremain, all rights reserved.