Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Built Environment: Parkitecture in Yellowstone National Park

The tradition of structural creation in Yellowstone National Park particularly fits the idea of "parkitecture," which is variously defined as the often rustic, always romantic styles of architecture and decor intended to celebrate and enhance the experience of that particular public space we call a park. What interests me most is parkitecture in natural parks that is intended to resonate with the environment. Sometimes that intention includes the preservation of pre- and historic structures, and more and more lately, as the parks are pressured to better accommodate increasing numbers of visitors and existing structures age, it includes the studied design of new structures along with the restoration of irreplaceable classics.

The granddaddy of parkitecture is of course Yellowstone National Park's Old Faithful Inn that has been accepting lodgers since the summer season of 1904. OFI was designed by the architect Robert Reamer, who is quoted as saying, "To be at discord with the landscape would be almost a crime. To try to improve upon it would be an impertinence.”  His genius touched many other major structures in Yellowstone, including the now deceased original hotel at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and the still flourishing Yellowstone Lake and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotels.

Old Faithful Inn is a triumphant survivor, to wit, just 25 years ago almost to the day, the devastating forest fires of 1988 came treacherously close to igniting the world's largest log structure. Disaster was miraculously avoided by the effectiveness of the sprinkler system, installed only the year before, combined with the massive efforts of firefighting crews to keep the exterior drenched until the wind direction changed.
Since then, the Inn has undergone extensive rehabilitation and deep renovation, including incorporation of much more sophisticated fire suppression systems, and shoring up of the foundations and massive stone and log infrastructure to better resist the almost constant small, and occasional large, earth quakes shaking the region. 
Today it is difficult to get a good head-on view for photographing the front-central exterior inn, in part because of the exuberant growth of lodgepole pines and because area directly in front of the inn is relatively sunken.
But within the Inn's doors is a most stunning lobby of proportions not dissimilar to the many grandiose natural features of the park.
Only Reamer could carry off such splendorous rusticity.
A great place to sit and restore trail-sore feet is in front of the 85-foot floor-to-roof lava stone  fireplace with its firescreen depicting the stylized plume of Old Faithful geyser just a few hundred feet beyond the Inn's east wing.
Even the dining room at the Inn is renowned for its "I want to be there" appeal aimed right at people like me and KLK. And yes, the menu includes bison stew and trout, needless to add, both from farmed sources. 
The Inn still accommodates overnight guests, and we were fortunate enough to nab a room there this June. The modern decor makes pleasant, if simplified reference to the rustic Prairie-Craftsman style of the building, with details successfully echoing the tastes of Reamer's day. 
OFI is extraordinary from every angle, inside and out.
There is no question in my mind that it was very wise to invest in the conservation of this extraordinary building through its numerous trials and tribulations over the past 109 years: the ordinary vicissitudes of time, fires, earthquakes, budget cuts, and competing priorities. May it last another 109 and many more than that.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Built Environment: Parkitecture Grand Teton National Park

I've blogged on the subject of "parkitecture" both in the context of founding mother "parkitect" Mary Colter, and the wonderful Parkitecture Flickr group (now up to 192 members and 1,982 exemplary photos I might add) to which people post their images of  endearing man-made structures -- historic, pre-historic, and contemporary -- that add to the aesthetics, function,  and appeal of our national (and other) parks and public spaces.

Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks are both especially replete with such buildings and structures. This year, for example, we stopped by the historic Cunningham Cabin in GTNP: 
The Cunninghams settled in the area in the 1880s, toughing out baking summers and long, cold and snowy winters on the sage flats of Jackson Hole; the soil is poor, and water unreliable. Indeed it was drought that finally did in their enterprise.  Now all that remains of the homestead ranch is this "double pen" style cabin, but oh my, without question, the view is still beyond compare.

Among GTNP's many other very old structures is the White Grass Dude Ranch, a mile or two up the stony, rutted, alternately dusty and gummy-mud road to Death Canyon trailhead. I first came upon White Grass in 2006, when the buildings were barely still upright and the marmots made homes in the cabins, emerging through holes in the roofs to safely check on interlopers (me).
That day I was the only person wandering around the stunningly beautiful "park" (wide open flat area), and there was no information, either on site or on the internet, to clue me in as to what I'd stumbled upon. Flash forward to 2013, now with an informative sign near the side of the road and heartening progress towards preservation:
A homestead of about the same era as Cunningham's, White Grass Ranch first accommodated paying guests -- tourists to be sure -- in 1919. Though sold to the National Park Service in 1956, its owner at the time continued to operate it for dudes until 1985. Mouldering and neglected for the next 20 years, finally now, as noted on the National Park Service's Grand Teton National Park website, "...the National Park Service, National Trust [for Historic Preservation], and the Western Center for Historic Preservation seek to rehabilitate not only the thirteen remaining cabins, but the cultural landscape as well." But it's even better than that: the prime mover in the project, the Western Center for Historic Preservation, is " education and resource center dedicated to the preservation and maintenance of cultural resources in our Western national parks. The center promotes leadership in preservation education and skills development with government partners, non-profits and educational institutions committed to the same goals." The project at White Grass is a working laboratory that trains volunteers and National Park Service personnel in the conservation and restoration of historic structures. Once completed (2016, if all goes well) it will continue to be used as a training facility for what I consider to be one of the most worthy of possible goals of the National Park Service, the preservation and rehabilitation of historic and rustic buildings. Next year when we go back I'll have updates.

Grand Teton Park also has several contemporary, and equally significant structures; I've previously blogged about the newest, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve Center.  Notable among other very recent GTNP builds is the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center at Moose, Wyoming,  which opened just inside the main entrance to the park in 2007.  Designed by architectural firm of Bohlin, Cywinski Jackson, it represents quintessential 21st century parkitecture in its visually successful resonance with its natural the environment, the backdrop of the Grand Teton range. This is the inspiration the designers had to work with, as viewed from the visitor center parking lot:
And how they echoed it in the roof-line from the Japanese-style-like front entrance:
 And how it looks from the opposite site (mountains to my back):
And what visitors see from the inside as they stroll through the educational exhibits on the geology, wildlife, and cultural history of Grand Teton National Park:

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Man-made wonders: Jackson Hole Aerial Tram

Not only are the natural wonders of the greater Yellowstone area feasts for the heart and soul, but so   are a remarkable number of the man-made objects and structures. For the first time in many years, this June KLK and I picked an opportune day to ride the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram from Teton Village (a metastatic ski resort of expensive condos, romantic luxury homes, good and not-so-good restaurants, spas, outdoor sports vendors of all kinds, and an ever-enlarging cement parking lot blotting that little spot in Bridger-Teton National Forest immediately south of Grand Teton National Park) to the top of North Peak of Rendezvous Mountain. It had been 7 or 8 years since we last rode the original tram, which opened in 1965 to serve skiers and snow boarders in the winter and hikers and sightseers in the summer, but we remembered the experience of being gently lifted 4,139 vertical feet above Jackson Hole as thrilling.
Original Jackson Hole Aerial tram, 2005
The old tram, with its small capacity and ever-increasing maintenance needs, was replaced in 2008 by a beautiful 100-person cabin and new supporting infrastructure, bottom-to-top (here's a fascinating blog about the process). This was our first ride on the new tram, the mechanics of which were built by the Swiss (who else?) company,Doppelmayr CTEC.  This is what the new workings look like at the base:
Now I know how it feels to be inside a somewhat oversized Swiss watch.
Waiting our turn.
Leaving the resort below...a corner of Teton Village in the foreground, a bit of the flats of Jackson Hole in the middle, and the Gros Ventre Range in the distance. 
It's a long way up to 10,450 feet. Because there are year-round services at the top, there is road (not open to public vehicles) that makes a great 7-mile hiking trail. There are foot races up, but we, being normal, have ridden the tram up and walked down.
Picture 100 happy sardines -- I mean happy skiers and their skis and poles and snow boards and bulky ski suits -- crammed in there. Better than the old 50-person tram, to be sure. We're above the treeline, ascending more vertically along the last stretch and up close and personal with Corbet's Couloir, a sheer rock face that in winter becomes a suicide drop on every hot-dog skier's do-or-die list.
Corbet's Couloir. Aren't you inspired to ski right off that cliff?
There's another Swiss watch at the top.
And a fancy communications get-up on the roof of Corbet's Cabin. 
The angle of view is so wide it's a little hard to pick out from the ledger which peak is which, but to be sure, the pointy one touching the sky is Grand Teton.

Some serious geologic uplift, subsidence, and at one time, glaciation going on, too. Click on the photo to enlarge for detail.
Here's KLK at Corbet's Cabin (the building with the prickly communications gear on top), best place on earth to score a hot cocoa with a view. Also not a bad place to have a hot dog and chips, use the restroom, get warm on a cold day (which this was not; on a windless, sunny summer day it's nearly shirtsleeves -- with sunscreen -- up there). 
That flat-topped peak is the rim of Cody Bowl, where you can hike or ski. When the wind suddenly started to gust aloft, we reluctantly rode back down, below treeline here now. People often report seeing wildlife -- moose, bears, marmots, soaring raptors, apparently unperturbed by the big red box sliding up and down overhead -- in this area. This trip we zoomed past a mule deer doe, alas, too quickly to get a photo.

I am not a religious person, but there is something about being at the top of a tall mountain that makes me feel close to The Divine.
 Grand Teton peak viewed from Rendezvous.