An Homage to the Ahwahnee Hotel: 1927–2016

As an iconic Yosemite hotel changes hands, giving up its historic name, author Terry Tempest Williams reflects on its grand and wild past, diving into its roots in one of our nation's first national parks.

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When my husband and I first had drinks at the Ahwahnee Hotel, it was 1981 and we couldn't afford to stay there. We had just hiked nearly 20 miles round-trip with friends to the lip of El Capitan and back. At the top, we'd taken turns hanging our bodies over the precipice, three of us holding onto the fourth to keep gravity from pulling us down. As my husband, Brooke, held my ankles (our two friends holding him), I reached over the ledge, my arms stretched out like wings above the 3,000-foot-high cliff face, with all of Yosemite Valley below me.

An illustrated postcard shows Half Dome and the lush hotel grounds.
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Back then, we didn't know much about Ahwahnee's vibrant history. What we did know were some stories. We had been told by our friends that the Ahwahnee Hotel was a place where couples would go to spend the night before their wedding, with just the granite bulk of Half Dome as their chaperone.

On President John F. Kennedy's visit to Yosemite in August 1962, he was a guest at the Ahwahnee.
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But those romantics were hardly the only ones who came here and thought it their own. The roster of luminaries who have checked into the Ahwahnee since it opened in 1927 range from Gertrude Stein to Charlie Chaplin to Clark Gable to Judy Garland, from Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz to the cast of Star Trek. Presidents have stayed here: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. So has royalty: the Shah of Iran, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate. It is rumored that the gift shop was once opened early so Ted Turner and Jane Fonda could browse. And if the lobby looks familiar, it's because Stanley Kubrick used it as a model for the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.

A 1980s-era postcard pictures the rustic yet elegant dining room.
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Years later, Brooke and I finally did fulfill our dream of spending a night at the Ahwahnee. It was as elegant and romantic as we had imagined, but as we ate our venison beneath the dining room's famous vaulted beams in the deep fading light of fall, we realized that as beautiful as the hotel was, the real masterpiece was the setting itself. And so after dinner, it was not to our room that we returned but to the porch with its view of Half Dome before us.

A vintage key from the Ahwahnee's room 444, which has balcony views over Yosemite Valley.

The creation of the Ahwahnee Hotel is inextricably tied to the creation of Yosemite National Park, which celebrates its 125th anniversary next year. The park was born in a nation divided by the Civil War, and one can imagine what it meant to President Abraham Lincoln, drenched in grief, to sign the Yosemite Grant Act on June 30, 1864. At a time of unfathomable losses, protecting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias was a way to preserve some beauty for future generations. This was the first time in American history that the federal government had protected parkland specifically, to preserve its wildness for all to enjoy.

A view from Glacier Point circa 1890, photographed by John Lawson Stoddard.
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But for various reasons, Yosemite National Park remained under the governance of the state of California, and it quickly became apparent that the state's interests were at odds with the interests of the land itself. Yosemite was fast becoming an amusement park, attracting visitors who drove through the tunneled trunks of redwood trees to see burning embers thrown off Glacier Point in a nightly ritual known as the Firefall. And so in the spring of 1903, John Muir, the Scottish naturalist and president of the newly formed Sierra Club, sent a personal invitation to President Theodore Roosevelt to come camping in Yosemite. Roosevelt accepted. The two men slept beneath the stars for three nights, their trek culminating at Glacier Point, which offers the iconic eagle's-eye view of Yosemite Valley. Muir discussed with the president why "a unified Yosemite" mattered and why federal management offered better protection of America's wildlands. Roosevelt must have listened to his friend because three years later, in 1906, he not only returned Yosemite National Park to the American citizens but would go on to establish five more national parks, 18 national monuments, 150 national forests, and 51 federal bird reservations, placing a total of 230 million acres in the public trust. "It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral," Roosevelt wrote about his Yosemite experience, "far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man."

A hotel postcard, circa 1931.

But unlike Muir and Roosevelt, not everyone was able to—or wanted to—camp outside on bedrock. Stephen T. Mather, head of the National Park Service in 1926, understood that these early visitors—many of whom were among the country's wealthiest—were dissatisfied with the rustic conditions. He decided that Yosemite deserved a hotel grand enough for the Rockefellers, DuPonts, and Astors, and imagined a lodging that would "match the scenery" of the park yet also serve as a showcase of art and culture for the leisure class. And so was born the Ahwahnee Hotel, named after the valley's first inhabitants, the Ahwahneechees of the Miwok Tribe. The hotel would be, he said, the pillar of "rustic national park architecture," built on a scale never to be attempted again in a national park.

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Before the construction of the Ahwahnee, the National Park Service director Stephen Mather (center) joins his staff at the proposed hotel site, May 1926.

Mindful of fire and earthquake concerns, and guided by an active board of trustees, architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood constructed his hotel from 5,000 tons of rough-cut granite, 700 tons of steel, and 30,000 feet of timber. Concrete was chosen as the exterior material, poured into molds to simulate a wood grain, then stained to resemble wood. Sited on the Great Meadow, the Ahwahnee would be seven stories tall and 150,000 square feet, a massive stone cairn that would stand as the park's compass point.

A vintage postcard captures the light-filled hotel dining room.
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The interior of the hotel was the vision of Arthur Upham Pope and Phyllis Ackerman. He was a former professor of aesthetics, she a design critic. Neither had much experience in actual interior design. But what Pope and Ackerman lacked in practical skills, they made up for in their understanding of the tastes of the wealthy. The interior of the Ahwahnee was a sensation, with base notes derived from Native American design and the Arts and Crafts movement, including Indian-inspired linoleum tiles on the entryway floor and woven baskets, hand-stenciled beams, and stained glass windows by Jeannette Dyer Spencer in the Great Lounge. But the final design went far beyond state boundaries, incorporating art and influences from 22 countries, among them priceless kilim and soumak rugs from Persia, antique pottery and tapestries from Asia, and wrought-iron chandeliers from Germany. Pope and Ackerman created a sophisticated and eccentric aesthetic that honored Yosemite itself as a place of pilgrimage.

A vintage postcard pictures the Ahwahnee lobby.

Local artists were enlisted, such as Robert Boardman Howard, whose mural of the plants and animals of Yosemite is reminiscent of "The Unicorn Tapestries," (beautiful works from the Middle Ages now housed in the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City). Jeannette Dyer Spencer also created the iconic basket mural above the Elevator Lobby fireplace using Miwok baskets as her template.

A dining room menu from 1951 features work by the legendary Ansel Adams, one of many menus using the photographer's iconic images.

This tradition of local artists' work appearing in the hotel has been perpetuated through the decades with visitors now exposed to more contemporary artists such as landscape photographer Ansel Adams, who did many of the Ahwahnee Hotel's publicity photographs during the Depression, when times were tough; to the Japanese artist Chiura Obata, who painted the Yosemite landscape like no other. Obata and his family were relocated to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah, during World War II, where he started the Topaz Art School, inspiring other prisoners to turn to art and nature for solace.

Sailors recline on the hotel's front lawn during the Navy's occupation in 1943.
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World War II also figures into the history of the Ahwahnee Hotel. From 1943–1945, the U.S. Navy occupied the Ahwahnee Hotel and leased it annually for $55,000. The hotel became the U.S. Naval Convalescent Hospital for soldiers wounded or disabled during their service. It was a perfect place for rehabilitation. The Great Lounge was transformed into the Great Ward with wall-to-wall beds. The hotel that was built to accommodate 200 guests in "rustic luxury" was now housing between 700 to 800 men and a staff of hundreds in the most dire of conditions.

Ansel Adams took color photographs before the military occupation began with a hunch that it would appear very different after the Navy left. He was right: The hotel was left in shambles.

A hotel matchbook.

The soldiers may have been successfully rehabilitated in those two years, but the Ahwahnee Hotel now needed a rehabilitation of her own. It took most of 1946 and $140,000 to restore the hotel back to its original splendor.

Through the decades up to the present, the Ahwahnee Hotel has been an ongoing story of restoration, including the restoration of those who have visited the hotel and Yosemite National Park.

El Capitan, a Yosemite landmark.

When Brooke and I witnessed the Yosemite Valley for the first time, I believed we had found the Garden of Eden. I remember Yosemite Falls like a line of light falling from the sky. Deer grazed peacefully along the Merced River. El Capitan and Half Dome were gods turned to stone. Would you believe me if I told you a rainbow arced over the primordial scene?

Another park icon, Vernal Falls.

And when we walked up the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls, we were not alone. We were part of a walk baptized by beauty, where awe was a communal experience, not a solitary one. It was here that I began to understand that our national parks are truly places of pilgrimage. The Ahwahnee Hotel is part of that pilgrimage—a place where comfort and wildness converge to create a memory palace within the frame of Yosemite Valley.

El Capitan. Half Dome. Tuolumne Meadows. These iconic place names belong to the majestic legacy of Yosemite National Park. Add the Ahwahnee Hotel to this litany of landmarks and you begin to see a portrait of a park that is both ecologically and historically significant. The Ahwahnee Hotel fulfills the conservationist and writer Wallace Stegner's great challenge, "to create a society to match the scenery."

A hotel memento—the reverse side of a photograph—marked by a nostalgic guest.

But somewhere between the night of February 27 and the morning of February 28, of this year, the historic sign with the name "Ahwahnee Hotel" that has hung outside the stone building for decades was stolen. It was a fitting end to an era. Not only was the sign stolen, but the hotel's very name has been hijacked by the former concessionaire, Delaware North, who is laying claim that they own the trademarked name of the famed hotel. Unless the National Park Service agrees to pay them $50 million dollars, they aren't going to give it back. Delaware North has now entered into a legal dispute with the National Park Service and the United States Government, who owns the land.

The Ahwahnee Hotel, 2012.

On March 1, 2016, the Ahwahnee Hotel was given a name change: it is now the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. What remains majestic is what remains wild. No one can own the golden light that strikes Half Dome at dawn and dusk. No one can possess the enduring presence of El Capitan rising from Yosemite Valley.

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It is a terrible irony that the very name "Ahwahnee" that was taken from the native people who inhabited these lands has been taken away from the stone structure built to honor them. Colonial America has been transformed into Corporate America. 

A vintage postcard.

Even so, our national parks, on the year of their centennial, are the closest thing we have in this country to sacred lands. Yosemite remains a breathing space where we can remember what we have forgotten: We are not the only species that lives and dreams on the planet. Awe is not a commodity, wonder is not a commission taken from beauty. The Ahwahnee Hotel remains a refuge, not a name to be owned, but a place to be cherished within the eloquence of its architecture that mirrors the majesty of its history, both human and wild.

Tempest Williams's forthcoming book is being released this year to honor the centennial of the National Park Service.

 Terry Tempest Williams is the award-winning author of fourteen books, including Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, and When Women Were Birds. Her latest book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks, will be available June 7 ($27, macmillan.com). 

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