A vintage postcard of the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park (Postcard courtesy of Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles).
Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, was such a remote destination that early visitors camped or stayed in dilapidated, hastily built accommodations.
As railways were built to provide access to the area, demand grew for more and better housing. The Old Faithful Inn was not the first hotel built – the Mammoth and Lake hotels are older – but it is arguably the first example of a new style of architecture that would eventually be called “National Park Rustic “. This style originated from a movement that strove to connect architecture to the surrounding landscape, incorporating natural materials and the “feel” of outdoor spaces into building design. Although it did not exist as a category at the time, the architect of the Old Faithful Inn, Robert C. Reamer, succinctly summed up the style by describing his approach to (at the time) radical design :
“I built [the Inn] in harmony with the place where it is. No one could improve on that. To disagree with the landscape would almost be a crime. Trying to improve it would be an impertinence.
Old Faithful Inn was built in 1903-1904 for the bargain price of $140,000, mainly due to the use of local materials. The Home Office granted a special permit for tree harvesting, which resulted in the use of local lodgepole pine for much of the building’s construction timber, including the unique knotty pine supports for the balconies interiors. Blocks of rhyolite were cut from a lava flow that formed a cliff near the black sand basin to provide the stones for the building’s foundations and the four-sided chimney which, at over six stories, is the focal point from the main hall.
The building is the largest log structure in the world – the lower level of the inn alone required 10,000 logs!
The hostel survived – not completely unscathed – two major earthquakes that occurred in or near the park. In 1959, the hostel was rocked by a 7.3 magnitude earthquake just east of the park at Lake Hebgen. In 1975, the area was again shaken by a magnitude 6.1 earthquake centered near Norris Geyser Basin. The 1959 earthquake caused some of the building’s brick and stone chimneys to warp or collapse, and the upper part of the main building itself twisted slightly – the chimney in the main hall displaced 1.5 inches from the plumb of the event. The chimneys were rebuilt and the roof repaired, but the crow’s nest at the top of the hall where musicians played for the enjoyment of visitors in the evenings, as well as the soaring widow’s walk, became dangerous to access. These areas are still closed to visitors today, but visible from below. Reassuringly, in 2004 the entire hostel was reinforced with steel supports as part of a seismic safety refit.
In 1988, the inn was again threatened by natural events when the largest fires in the park’s history burned for four months. These fires were actually 51 different fires which led to a total burned area of approximately 800,000 acres. The North Fork Fire, ignited by a careless cigarette on July 22, came within a few hundred meters (yards) of Old Faithful Inn. The roof sprinklers (installed by chance the previous year), the efforts of firefighters to continuously hose down the building with water, and the firebreak around the building consisting of parking lots and the surrounding geyser basin saved the building of the fire during a firestorm on September 7. , 1988. That day, fires surrounded Old Faithful Inn on all sides, and at one point all roads exiting the area were blocked. Miraculously, no one was hurt in the effort to save the inn.
Recognizing the Old Faithful Inn as one of the “first rustic structures in the country and one of the grand old hotels in America”, the structure and surrounding historic buildings were designated a National Historic Site in 1982. Ongoing efforts to preserving the building led to the Inn being designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987. This designation is for buildings considered “nationally significant in American history and culture,” a distinction that the Old Faithful Inn shares. with approximately 2,600 properties in the United States.
There are many examples of rustic National Park-style buildings in Yellowstone, including four museums built in the 1920s (Norris Geyser Basin, Madison, Fishing Bridge, and Old Faithful museums), as well as the Old Faithful Inn.
The next time you pass through Yellowstone, consider adding a stop at one of the national park’s examples of rustic architectural style. Enjoy the natural materials designed to blend into the beautiful surroundings and appreciate the “radical” design choices of these welcoming and comfortable structures. And appreciate that the Old Faithful Inn has survived 118 years of events in Yellowstone, including great earthquakes and wildfires – it’s more than a human life, but barely the blink of an eye in geologic time.
Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly chronicle written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week’s contribution is from Lauren Harrison, postdoctoral researcher at the US Geological Survey.
The Yellowstone National Park post even has its own style of “Parkitecture” which first appeared on Daily Montanan.