Friday, May 28, 2004

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — It has survived fire, earthquake and visits by thousands of tourists, but a century after the Old Faithful Inn first opened, this Yellowstone landmark remains as much of an awe-inducing spectacle as the namesake geyser that erupts reliably just outside its windows.

First-time visitors often twirl, open-mouthed, as they take in the lobby. The ceiling soars 76.5 feet high — the height of a seven-story building — with stairs leading to near the top. There are two levels of balconies, with railings made of branches, and a dozen dormer windows set into the sloping roof. A “treehouse” or “crow’s nest,” where musicians once played, perches near the top, and a nearly 20-foot-tall clock overlooks the lobby from a looming stone fireplace.

“To Yellowstone fans around the world, it is the most important building in the park,” says Jeff Henry, a former park ranger and co-author with Karen Reinhart of “Old Faithful Inn: Crown Jewel of National Park Lodges.”

“It breathes history,” says Miss Reinhart, also a former park ranger. “It is a fascinating place and has a fascinating story.”

The inn had every modern convenience when it opened in June 1904. Its 140 original rooms, designed to attract wealthy guests, offered electricity, heat, plumbing and fine dining. Although a visit to the park was considered a wilderness expedition, visitors to the inn dressed up for dinner.

Today the inn has 325 rooms, some of which were booked nearly 20 years ago for this centennial season.

The building’s soaring yet rustic design, by architect Robert Reamer, is an example of what later was referred to as “parkitecture” — modern buildings constructed so that they seemed to grow from, or be connected to, the land, says the National Park Service’s Andy Beck, project architect for inn restoration work between 1980 and 1983.

The Park Service refers to the inn as one of a few “historic log hotels” left in the United States, although Mr. Beck describes it as simply rustic, saying most of the building is wood frame. Two wings that were added onto the “old house” in 1913 and 1927 are more modern.

That the Old Faithful Inn still stands amid the park’s scarred, steaming landscape is amazing to Lee Whittlesey. The park historian and former ranger can vividly recall the wildfire that threatened to consume the inn, along with the buildings and forest near it, on Sept. 7, 1988.

“I watched with trepidation,” he says, remembering how workers beat out spot fires on the inn’s roof. A sprinkler system had been installed just a year earlier; Mr. Whittlesey recalls how relieved he felt as he watched water course over the building.

“It’s the nicest sight I’d ever seen because, otherwise, I’m sure we’d have lost it,” he says.

Phil Perkins, Yellowstone’s fire management officer, says the inn survived the 1988 fire thanks to a combination of luck and skill. The fire consumed trees and a few nearby buildings; had the wind shifted, the inn might have gone up, too.

Beginning this fall, work is set to begin on a three-year, multimillion-dollar project that likely will be the inn’s most significant face-lift to date.

Among the plans: stabilizing the structure in case of an earthquake like the one that damaged the inn in 1959; fixing the leaky roof and laying new shingles; and renovating older rooms to evoke an earlier era by adding items such as wash basins, says architect Jim McDonald, who is involved with the project.

One of the biggest challenges, Mr. McDonald says, is to make necessary repairs without compromising the inn’s overall look or character.

Through the years, visitors have included six U.S. presidents, the most recent being Bill Clinton.

Rick Hoeninghausen, an official with Xanterra Parks & Resorts at Yellowstone, which operates the inn, says its appeal is easy to explain.

“It’s got character and history behind it,” he says, “and that’s what attracts people to it.”

The availability of rooms at the Old Faithful Inn depends on dates. Rates range from $78 for a room without private bath to $371 for suites. Visit or call 307/344-7311 for details. For information on the park, visit

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