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The Ahwahnee Hotel's 'Great Room' (photo by Sal Maccarone)

How Art Shapes Our Lives: Local Architecture

By Sal Maccarone —

Great architectural achievements always reflect a careful blending of art and science.

The Ahwahnee Hotel is a National Historic Landmark.

Throughout the process of building something great these two disciplines will come together and, by designing and building a structure which reflects certain considerations, all things will work in harmony to produce a three dimensional form of art.

Becoming an important piece of architecture may also become the result. Historically, civilizations are identified with their structures, especially the ones that still remain, such as the pyramids of ancient Egypt or the still-functional aqueducts built by the early Romans.

A well-thought-out building will satisfy three basic concerns: structural integrity, functionality and aesthetics.

The building seems to blend right into the sheer granite cliffs behind.

Our own Ahwahnee Hotel fits into a category of excellence where these architectural principles are concerned (for the purposes of this article I will be using the building’s “original name” given 92 years ago when first built).

I have selected the Ahwahnee hotel because it is a world class example and also because it is so close to where we live. Hopefully, a lot of you have visited this American icon at one time or another. If not, you should make time to go and contemplate this wonderful building.

As a matter of fact, even if you have been there before, it might be fun to go back and look again. This building is more than just interesting. You will also be happy to find that there is an added benefit of your visit — this entire edifice, inside and out, serves as a museum of art and history!

Situated in Yosemite Valley, the Ahwahnee Hotel opened for the first time in 1927. There is a plaque inlaid in the stonework near the formal entrance that reads, “The Ahwahnee – This site possesses National Significance in commemorating the history of the United States of America.”

The building became a National Historic Landmark in 1987. It was designed by architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood who was also responsible for many other National Park buildings.

The Ahwahnee hotel is considered to be a prime example of what is called, ‘National Park Service Rustic Architecture.’

The “wood” elements on the exterior and parts of the interior are actually portrayed by cast concrete which has been colored.

Upon close inspection you will also notice many other artistic influences which include: Art Deco, Native American, Middle Eastern and Arts & Crafts. At total ease with the surroundings, from certain perspectives this building seems to blend right into the sheer granite cliffs behind.

Some very innovative and modern concepts were employed during the original construction in 1926-27. Over one thousand tons of steel supports the superstructure including rebar in the concrete. The “wood” elements on the exterior and parts of the interior are actually portrayed by cast concrete which has been colored.

In the art world this technique is known as trompe l’oeil which is a French phrase for “trick the eye.”

On the outside of the building this “fake wood” approach was employed as a means of fireproofing. As a result, the simulated wood effect is harmonious with the outside surroundings. This same molded concrete process was also used on the interior but, this time, it was done to meet structural integrity standards.

Massive log trusses above are really made of reinforced concrete.

Take a careful look in the main dining room at the massive log trusses above. They are really made of reinforced concrete! Not all is false though — some six thousand tons of cut granite and 32,000 board feet of lumber were also used in the construction.

Here are some more interesting facts to do with the hotel:

During World War II, in June of 1943, the U.S. Navy leased the entire Ahwahnee hotel for use as a medical facility. After a job well done, the naval hospital was decommissioned more than two years later in December of 1945.

Many movies scenes have been filmed at the Ahwahnee Hotel through the years. For example, parts of the hotel’s interior where used in Stanley Kubrick’s pop culture film The Shining in 1980.

Because it has always been a world class property with an international clientele, the Ahwahnee Hotel has catered to some very notable guests and events along the way. Lucille Ball and Judy Garland were reportedly caught playing the piano and singing in the Great Lounge late one night in the early 1950s.

Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Regan and Barack Obama have graced the hotel with their presence. Our dear president Kennedy rolled up in a chauffeured red convertible with his wife Jackie in 1962 — and stayed the night in the Presidential suite.

Great architectural achievements always reflect a careful blending of art and science.

Queen Elizabeth II stayed there in 1983 while visiting California. Walt Disney stayed the night on more than one occasion. The modernist writer Gertrude Stein spent more than a week at the hotel shortly after it was built. In 1991, Steve Jobs and Laurene Powell were married at the Ahwahnee Hotel. Both were quoted as saying, “that was the happiest day of their lives.”

Sal Maccarone is a foothills-based artist and craftsman

Read more about How Art Shapes Our Lives.

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