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Lodges of the American West (Repost - January 27, 2011)

by Bennett Owen

Gilbert Stanley Underwood

The name may not be instantly familiar but for anyone who has traveled the west, his legacy is. For he, more than any other visionary of the 20th century crafted a uniquely western brand of architecture whose grandeur derives from its perfect harmony with the most stunning natural landscapes the west has to offer.  Underwood designed many of his lodges in the 1920s and 30s as the Union Pacific Railroad sought to attract passengers on its western routes.  It was a romantic and luxurious era of train travel as Underwood’s UP terminal in Omaha attests…an art deco temple that is nothing short of sublime. 

But it’s his lodges that truly capture the imagination and symbolize the taming of the rugged western frontier. Nearly a century later, they draw us every bit as much as the natural wonders at their doorstep, having become an integral part of the landscapes they inhabit.  One has to wonder whether Yosemite would really be complete absent the Ahwahnee Hotel. 

Ahwahnee Hotel. Image courtesy of fortherock.

Would Old Faithful pale slightly without the magnificent lodge standing watch nearby?

Old Faithful Lodge Interior. Image courtesy of Seattle.Mushroamer.

Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon, Jackson Hole, the list goes on and on, in all a distinguished portfolio of greatness that has not only stood the test of time but become part of our national heritage.  In the coming days we’ll take a closer look at the legacy of Gilbert Stanley Underwood, starting with a structure you’ll rarely see in its “Shining,” Chateaux-like entirety…


Every workman on the job was thrilled by his work because he felt that his creative skill was becoming an integral part in a very significant whole…” Margery Hoffman Smith, Timberline Lodge, 1938

10 months out of the year it looks like this…

Timberline Lodge in the Snow. Image courtesy of H.L.I.T.

In summer, nature reveals it for a short while. 

Timberline Lodge in Summer. Photo courtesy of Gary Randall.

Though not the principle architect, Underwood laid the groundwork for this depression-era masterpiece, a WPA project destined to become the largest public structure in America built entirely by hand.  Constantly battling the elements, workers had to clear three feet of snow from the building site just to get started.  Construction began in June 1936 and FDR dedicated the lodge just 15 months later. 

Image courtesy of

The Lion’s share of WPA projects were infrastructure…dams, bridges and roads…so Timberline Lodge was a departure and the iron and woodworkers rose to the challenge, training their rough-hewn skills under the guidance of master artisans.

Seasoned Italian masons did the stonework… 

Entry Way to Timberline. Photo courtesy of Gary Randall.

Velkommen. Photo courtesy of Gary Randall.

And the imposing fireplace with six warmth-giving hearths is the very centerpiece of the lodge.

Timberline Panorama. Photo courtesy of Gary Randall.

One of the architects, WI “Tim” Turner, wrote, “The shape of the central lounge was inspired by the character and outline of the mountain peak. It was our hope not to detract from the great natural beauty of the area.”

The style has been described alternately as “Oregon Rustic” and “Cascadian.”

As for the interior, Margery Hoffman Smith was in charge of design, filling the lodge with hand-woven linens and seat coverings that reflected the mountain wildflowers, and woodcarvings and artwork with pioneer and Native American motifs.  

Northwest Window. Photo courtesy of Gary Randall.

Oregon Trail Oxen. Photo courtesy of Gary Randall.

Ram's Head. Photo courtesy of Gary Randall.

Stylized Iron Ram's Head. Photo courtesy of Gary Randall.

In the 70 years since, a small cadre of craftsman has maintained Timberline in keeping with the original vision.  Much is preserved…and some improvements have been necessary.

And here you can hear Timberline compared with the Taj Mahal…This is an advert for a book, Timberline Lodge: A Love Story - Diamond Jubilee Edition, with some nice shots and interesting archival footage. The book, by the way, was edited by Jon Tullis, with photographic and design contributions by Gary Randall, many of whose photographs you'll find on this page.

Yes, Timberline’s exterior was used as the Overlook Hotel in the movie The Shining … no, none of the scary bits were filmed inside. And still, the dreaded “Room 217” from Stephen King’s novel is the most requested room at Timberline. 

A final note.  Over 130 lives have been lost on Mount Hood in the past century, including one of America’s worst climbing disasters in 1986. Now that’s really scary.

For More Information:  
Friends of Timberline
Craft in America


State of the Union Station

By Bennett Owen

We have tried to express the distinctive character of the railroad: strength, power, masculinity.” -- Gilbert Stanley Underwood – Architect, Union Station – Omaha, NE

Union Station, Omaha Nebraska,  (1931). Credit: Loco SteveIn the early 1900s, the heyday of train travel, architectural temples were erected throughout the west, bidding a grand and glorious welcome or a fond farewell to all those who rode the rails. Though train travel has diminished, the stations still stand. Many now serve other purposes and yet they remain monuments to a golden age.

Union Station, Los Angeles, California, (1939). Credit: destination-southern-californiaUnion Station, Kansas City, Kansas (1914). Credit: NomadicpursuitsUnion Station, Ogden, Utah (1924). Credit: oldroadiestrip.blogspotUnion Station, Portland, Oregon (1896). Credit: National Transportation Enhancements ClearinghouseUnion Station, Washington D.C. Credit: SzekeBy the way, the term ‘Union’ meant that the station was being used by more than one railroad line. 

To continue reading about the architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood:

Lodges of the American West


As a Matter of Fact I WAS Brought Up In A Barn!

By Bennett Owen

Credit: archive

These barns are truly noble.

We come honestly by our barnyard bona fides. Our Grandpa was a rancher and gifted builder, responsible for one of the most beautiful barns in Beaverhead County. In those days hay was for horses and horseplay was for haylofts and I doubt that in his wildest dreams Grandpa could have imagined humans might someday want to inhabit his equine temple.

Credit: archive

A few weeks ago we began mulling the idea of converting a different old barn at the X-N into a vacation getaway…seeing no reason to stall any longer we began to research only to find out that converting barns into homes has truly evolved into a (forgive me) ‘cottage’ industry. Well-established on the east coast, the trend is becoming more popular out west as well, spurred on by the idea that these structures are a kind of architectural icon.

It’s amazing how much know-how and pride went into them…and how imagination can transform them. Consider these:

Credit: Dwell Magazine

A converted barn and bunkhouse on Jackson Land and Cattle:


By they way, this property is for sale but my computer doesn’t contain enough zeros to note the list price.  

Credit: 1Kindesign


Our needs aren’t quite so lofty as these…and still we hope that someday soon, when we tell the kids to ‘hit the hay,’ they can do so literally.



Cabin Fever

By Bennett Owen

When I was a kid, the X-N was about as close to a real life fairytale as you could get… a beautiful cabin painted red with bright white trim set back in a picturesque vale at the foot of the Pioneer Mountains.  It was surrounded by Aspen groves and willows that shrouded nearby Billings Creek….painstakingly manicured stone paths, wooden walkways spanning the creek and always a wisp of white smoke wafting from the chimney.

Credit: ©

It was also the summer home of our great Aunts; the “Aunties,” were four ageless dowagers who had outlived numerous husbands and who seemed to be in competition with one another to be the last one standing. That honor finally went to Aunt Marge, who passed away recently at 103.  At least that’s what the birth record stated.  The Aunties were never to be trusted on matters of age.

Credit: ©

Lately we’ve been thinking it’s about time our kids had their own hideaway, so recently we took a stroll across the old property to see what might still be salvageable after so many years of neglect. And we came away with a variety of possibilities for a fairytale cabin:

1 - The Barn – beautiful woodwork, the hayloft for sleeping…this is my sister’s personal favorite and we have, over the years, come to the conclusion that ‘she is always right.’

Credit: ©

2 – Eugene’s Cabin – The only thing our distant cousin left behind. It’s small and in disrepair and the smell of the Velvet Tobacco will never go away…that for me is reason enough to renovate this rough hewn jewel.

Credit: ©

Credit: ©

That thought led us to Miller Architects in Livingston, Montana  specialists in just the kind of home away from home we’ve been dreaming of. Right now we have little else to show but vivid imaginations, some sketches and a lot of number crunching… and of course winning the lottery.  In case that happens, here is what we have in mind:

This is what the barn might look like:

Credit: Miller Architects, Bozeman, MT

And Eugene’s cabin:

Credit: Miller Architects, Bozeman, MT  


Ahwahnee – New Lustre for the Crown Jewel – Part II

By Bennett Owen

Photo courtesy of Chris Dunstan

The magnificent façade only vaguely prepares the unsuspecting visitor for what awaits inside…an unlikely yet sumptuous amalgamation of art deco, American Indian and oriental influences housed in magnificent, monumental great rooms:

The California Room, The Writing room and the Dining room with its 34-foot high ceiling:

Photo Courtesy of Steve Corey

And in the Great Lounge, a fireplace big enough to park a model T in:

Photo courtesy of Ellipses Public Relations

Phyllis Ackerman and Arthur Upham Pope did the interior design, fighting pitched battles with Underwood to bring their marvelous vision to life.

Ms. Ackerman’s single most important victory was the design for the stained glass ceiling to floor windows in the Great Lounge…she described Underwood’s original plan an “execrable fenestration…” Obviously her skills at interior design far outweighed any knack for diplomacy.

Photo courtesy of Rennett Stowe

Ackerman and Pope were given carte blanche, responsible for all design specifications -- colors, floors, fabrics, rugs, beds, mattresses, linens, lighting fixtures, flatware. And the result was nothing less than sublime.

Photo courtesy of Ralphman

Ahwahnee made its debut on July 14, 1927 with a gala opening attended by the rich and famous of the day. By the time they departed, the hotel was all but stripped bare:

"...the beautiful people of the era, departed happily... laden with memories and ‚mementos’ ranging from pewter ink stands and ash trays to hand-loomed blankets and bedspreads! Among the items included in the astounding theft were prized Indian baskets which had been displayed on the mezzanine near the elevator...."

Gosh, and I still feel guilty for stealing a hotel bathrobe as a honeymoon memento.

Photo courtesy of The Restaurant Ware: Collectors Network

Little of the original decoration remains but renovations have been true to the vision of the creators.  The Ahwahnee is considered the crown jewel of National Park residences and as of March 17th (2011) that crown must include emeralds, as the grand hotel emerged from a month-long hibernation on Saint Patrick’s Day.  It was the last push in a multi-year refurbishing of the interior, along with a less publicized and vaguely ominous-sounding project termed ‘seismic retrofitting.’ 

For more information, the following websites are outstanding and indispensable:

American Buddha Online Library: Ahwahnee Hotel

Oriental Rug Review: The Grand Gesture

The Gilbert Stanley Underwood showcase will continue here at My-West…as soon as I can replenish my supply of superlatives.

Sunset on Half Dome. Photo courtesy of jurvetson