BY FRED LEESON
It is with considerable embarrassment that someone who has lived in the Pacific Northwest for most of 50 years admits to making a first visit to Mt. Rainier National Park.
The explanation, feeble though it may be, is that it’s so easy to lump the three big Pacific Northwest mountains into the same category – Mt. Hood, Mt. Saint Helens, Mt. Rainier. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Except there is nothing “yadda” about Rainier. It is taller, fatter, more dramatic, more daunting, more scary. Likewise, the surrounding scenery is more dramatic, more beautiful, more incredible. It represents nature at its best – and its scariest. When the day comes when that active volcano does what volcanoes ultimately do, much of Tacoma, Seattle and everything in between will be at risk. Until then, everything about the park makes it eminently worthy of being the fifth addition to the U.S. National Park system back in 1899.
So now we’ve got all that “nature” stuff out of the way, let’s talk buildings. The only category in which Mt. Hood exceeds Rainier is in its signature building. Timberline Lodge stands head and shoulders above Rainier’s Paradise Inn in design, materials and craftsmanship.
Given its historical context, well it should. Timberline was a Depression Era public works project intended to provide jobs for artisans of many stripes. The results are spectacular, from the materials and overall design down to the doorknockers and woven fabrics on the chairs. Finished approximately 20 years earlier in 1917, Rainier’s Paradise Inn was assembled much more hurriedly with an eye more toward profit than to creating and preserving great art.
The history of Paradise Inn is closely linked to Stephen Mather, a wealthy businessman who developed and promoted the old “20 Mule Team Borax” laundry soap. After becoming a millionaire, Mather turned his attention to the young National Park system, which was still substantially undeveloped early in the 20th Century. Mather, whose manic-depressive personality helped make him a success in business, pressured the federal government so strongly that he eventually was appointed to the Department of the Interior as the founding head of the National Park Service.
Mather is often credited with insisting on the “National Park Rustic” style of architecture, of which the Paradise Inn is an early example. Elemental building forms and indigenous materials were his hallmarks. Yet Mather had to have been influenced by the Old Faithful Inn of 1903-04, a substantially more grandiose example of rustic splendor.
Knowing there was no federal budget for park improvements, it was Mather who created the idea of giving private companies exclusive operational rights in return for building park amenities. Mather met with members of the exclusive Rainier Club in Seattle hoping to find an entrepreneur or group of entrepreneurs willing to build a lodge at Mt. Rainier. As the story goes, their initial recalcitrance was overcome only after Mather, who was well-familiar with the corporate powers of Chicago and New York, threatened to go East to find backers. The Mt. Rainier National Park Company was formed to build Paradise.
Thus the Paradise was designed and built in less than two years, and intended to turn a profit. Which it did, approximately $20,000 in its first year. The building was designed by Tacoma architect Frederick Heath. The structure was formed from Alaskan cedar trees that had suffered years before from a forest fire. The steeply pitched roof was designed to deal with heavy snowfall, ranging from 19 to as much as 34 feet in a winter. Dormers let light in at the second story; French doors add light and accessibility at the ground floor. Large stone fireplaces sit at either end of the 112-foot long lobby.
Overall, the lobby is a wonderful place, mercifully well preserved. Closer inspection of the materials and details will not amaze you, however, the way that Timberline Lodge does. Paradise also is marred by bass-drum-style light fixtures that are not original and that are a poor fit proportionally. Historic photos in the building give only a glimpse of the originals. One hopes that someday a more fitting chandelier solution will be found. Fortunately, that’s a comparatively easy fix.
Ironically, the Park Service strayed from its “rustic” style just a few hundred feet away from the Paradise Inn in the 1960s with a futuristic visitor center. Its circular rotunda was described as a flying saucer or a squashed wedding cake. Its flat roof did not fare well under the heavy snows, presenting a classic example of strong-willed architecture thumbing its nose at nature. Nature won. The flying saucer building was torn down in 2008. Some people who had grown up with the flying saucer professed sorrow at its demise; an impartial glance at its photograph can only lead to the conclusion that the building was wrong on multiple levels. It has been replaced with a new visitor center featuring a steeply pitched, alpine style roof.
Another older building deserving of architectural appreciation lies on the eastern, sunnier side of Mt. Rainer at the complex called Sunrise. The Sunrise Visitor Center is a two-story, rectilinear log cabin with a beautifully log-trussed roof that is flanked by two block houses, which also appear to be log cabins. In fact, the block houses (the southern completed in 1930 and the northern in 1943) are wood-framed buildings with log-slab exteriors. They are not open to the public. The visitor center, also finished in 1943, is composed of real logs. Federal stimulus money paid for cleaning and restoration of the visitor center, completed earlier this year. The work included new orange and honey-colored clear vertical grain fir flooring, which is as soft as it is beautiful. One hates to think of it being stomped into gouged grayness, which now doubt is its ultimate fate.
The Sunrise complex, originally called the Yakima Park Stockade, was designed by Ernest Davidson, a self-taught landscape architect, and Paul Brown, architect, both NPS employees. They both wanted an indigenous form to the buildings. To their credit, they studied building forms of the native Yakima tribe, but found nothing that could be adapted to the required uses. They chose the stockade form in honor of the early Hudson Bay Company outposts in the Pacific Northwest. A stone fireplace, perhaps the great cliché of the rustic style, sits at the northern end of the room, while the mostly-glass southern façade offers an impressive view of Mt. Rainier. The clean and gleaming woodsy interior gives on the feeling of standing inside a beautiful wooden musical instrument.
If you’ve been to Mt. Rainier before, you don’t need to be told to go again. If you’ve never been there, GO. And don’t miss the buildings. They’re worth the visit, too.
Fred Leeson is a Portland journalist and president of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation/Architectural Heritage Center.