By Steve Ainsworth
From Issue 15
Some 200 million years ago during the Mesozoic Era, the Pacific plate of the earth’s Crust began its inexorable collision with the American continental plate, a geologic event that continues to this day. As the heavier sediments of the Pacific sea floor, laid down over the eons, slide beneath the lighter continental rock, they are reduced to molten magma by the intense pressure and friction. This magma sometimes forces its way through fissures to the surface in the form of volcanoes. If it does not reach the surface, it cools and may form massive blocks of granite.
In California, this granite over time has been forced upward in magnificent block tilt formations. Eroded by wind and rain, and repeatedly scoured by glaciers, what remains today is one of the most awe-inspiring (and most-photographed) mountain ranges on the planet — the Sierra Nevada, or “snowy range,” as the first Spaniards in the area named it. The Sierra Nevada runs 400 miles north to south and more than 80 miles wide in places, and it boasts a crown jewel — Yosemite Valley, destination of more than 4 million visitors each year. And with the possible exception of ardent backpackers and mountaineers, visitors probably agree that the most agreeable place to stay in Yosemite is the Ahwahnee Hotel.
On first approach, the Ahwahnee’s ruggedness is impressive. Built in the Rustic tradition, it looks like a six-story fortress made of granite and redwood (actually, concrete stained to look like redwood) surrounded by geologic wonders: Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, the Royal Arches and Glacier Point. Nestled in a restored grove, once a golf course, amid young pines and wild flowers, or dusted in winter snows, it is one of the highlights of any visit to the valley. Even if you can only spend a few hours dining or shopping — or socializing in the Indian bar — you soak up the sense of history and luxury that is the story of the Ahwahnee. Once inside you immediately recognize the influence of the British Arts and Crafts movement, but the hotel has a distinctively American ambiance. Everywhere are visual references to American Indians, the first residents of Yosemite Valley. The name Yosemite was mistakenly thought to be the local Indian name of the valley. It stuck, though it turns out that the name refers only to one branch of the Ahwahnichi, a Miwok people who lived throughout the region. The name Ah-wahni means “large, gaping mouth.”
The Ahwahnee’s hardwood floors, massive stone fireplaces, the windows capped with stained glass renditions of American Indian patterns, the sheer spaciousness and scope of the public rooms, the many American Indian and Persian rug hangings, all conspire to make visitors feel welcome in a formidable, forbidding environment.
The Ahwahnee Hotel is a dimly lit, cool and almost cavernous place to be. The public rooms — in particular, the dining room and the Great Lounge — are enormous, with high-beamed ceilings lit by dim chandeliers and antique lamps. The ceiling beams and floor tiles bear accents of Indian patterns and colors. Yet punctuating the gloom in each of these great rooms are floor-to-ceiling windows which afford breathtaking views of the valley and its astonishing scenery.
The Ahwahnee was completed in 1927, some say as the rather rude result of a visit by the Lady Astor, an American-born woman who became the first British female member of Parliament. She was so appalled by the amenities at the then-only hotel in Yosemite, the Sentinel, that she turned and fled without spending a night. The director of the National Park Service at the time, Stephen T. Mather, decided a luxury hotel was needed to replace the decaying Sentinel. With the National Park Service, created in 1916, having trouble attracting enough visitors and congressional funding to support Yosemite National Park, Mather hoped more attractive accommodations would bring the elite tourists and their dollars.
Mather was an enthusiast of the Arts and Crafts style. In rebellion against the industrial blandness and sameness of architecture that was filling the urban centers at the turn of the century, Mather wanted to return to an environmentally based aesthetic. He hired another enthusiast, Los Angeles architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who reportedly was at once brilliant and difficult. His job, according to writer Shirley Sargent, a longtime Yosemite resident and historian, and writer of more than 30 books about Yosemite, was to build a hotel that “fits into the environment.”
After many arguments and delays, he built it and they came. Herbert Hoover was the Ahwahnee’s first celebrity visitor two weeks after it opened in 1927. John E Kennedy was the only president to stay in the hotel while in office, hut former presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan both stayed there. Winston Churchill stayed there. Eleanor Roosevelt stayed there. The list of international and Hollywood celebrity guests seems endless. It’s rumored Robert Redford even worked there. Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, visited in 1983. Jack Benny did radio shows about his visits. Part of “The Caine Mutiny” was filmed there, as was the memorable “Here’s Johnny” scene with Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” It wasn ’t always financially successful — author Gertrude Stein admired its vast emptiness, devoid of people, in the Depression year of 1935, a condition you will not find today (to get a room, you must make reservations almost a year in advance.) But it has been famous from the outset, and one of the reasons has been the Bracebridge Dinner.
Based on a story by Washington Irving, the annual event recreates a Christmastime festivity in Yorkshire. The first fill-fledged production was put on in 1928 by Don Tresidder, the first president of Yosemite Park and Curry Co., who with his wife, Mary, operated the Ahwahnee under the auspices of the National Park Service. It is an elaborate, costumed and merry feast. In the early years, the part of the Lord of Misrule was played by Ansel Adams, famed photographer, and his wife played the role of the Housekeeper. Adams, who played the piano as well as the camera, became the producer of the event in subsequent years until fame overtook him and he could no longer devote the time he once had. The Christmas pageant is still performed each year, but you can gain admission only by applying to a lottery from Dec. 1 through Jan. 15 for the following year’s performances (call 209 252-4848 for details).
Indeed, the crowds are the biggest drawback to a visit to Yosemite. Any busy weekend will find gridlock on the narrow roadways and overcrowded eateries. Even though the Ahwahnee has only 123 guest rooms, it has its own shuttle stop to let off thousands of tourists every day who come to wander the grounds or dine in the large, fine restaurant (breakfast and lunch attire are casual; at dinner a coat and tie or dress are recommended). But when the shuttle shuts down for the night, and the quiet settles in, as the moon rises over Half Dome you may hear the owls in the trees, and distant movement in the rocks high up. With a little concentration, you might be able to imagine Yosemite the way John Muir must have experienced it. But unlike Muir, when you stay at the Ahwahnee, you can then toddle off to a nice soft bed.
Steve Ainsworth is a writer who enjoys bungalows, baseball, and gardening – When he is not busy with corporate public relations he resides in Northern California and is a contributing editor to American Bungalow.