Friday, February 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine / Northwest Living

Mountain Magic: In lodges, a Seattle architect honors the adventurous spirit

In the late 1970s, I was doing research on Robert Chambers Reamer, the distinguished Seattle architect best known locally for The 5th Avenue Theatre and The Seattle Times headquarters building on Fairview Avenue and John Street. I'd had the good fortune to correspond with his daughter, who then lived in North Carolina, to glean some personal reminiscences, but found that few people had written about him or his work.

Nationally, his claim to fame had come early in the 20th century with his remarkable Old Faithful Lodge at Yellowstone National Park. It was through an excellent article, "Mountain Architecture of R.C. Reamer," that I learned of the scope of his work there and the genius that turned rustic materials — logs, shingles and stone — into cathedrals in the wild. David Leavengood, the Montana architect and teacher who wrote that piece, eventually found his way to Seattle, where he evokes in his public and private work a respect for the values that Reamer set forth in his mountain architecture.

"I'm sure it came from my teaching days in Bozeman," says Leavengood. "I still remember stopping at Yellowstone Park for the first time as an adult. Old Faithful is, in my experience, the mother of all lodges."

Leavengood was familiar with summer lodges in the Poconos and the Adirondacks from the 19th and early 20th century, and he believes these would have influenced Reamer. "But at Yellowstone, the lodge gets scaled up to the size of the Rocky Mountains. That's probably what intrigued me most. The shingles aren't just 18 or 20 inches. They go to 36 inches. The spans are greater, and the beams are double or triple those of smaller lodges on the East Coast. I thought it was magical to have that kind of perspective."

Leavengood speaks of the "magic" of lodges in terms of their multiple messages. "The first one is shelter. The windows get scaled down. The wall you walk through is the one that separates the elements from the refuge that you experience inside. Refuge is defined by the fireplace, by the comfortable furniture. The front door, usually a plank door, is heavily constructed with a lot of iron for a sense of security. That's an important message.

"Then there's the whole fantasy-storybook aspect of lodges. That has a lot to do with people searching them out. They go on vacation, exploring, spending relaxing time with family. It's an opportunity to put fantasy into their lives. Lodges — the good lodges — always communicate that aspect."

The hand-hewn quality of lodges often has to do with the fact that the designers are not always professionally trained. In remote regions, the builders are ranchers — cowboys who get a notion into their head, seek out available materials nearby and assemble it as simply as they can without the refinements that architects might bring to it. For Leavengood, "that's the Western spirit." But this architect's efforts bring considerable sophistication to the rough-and-tumble functionalism of Western ranch-home tradition.

"I got discovered while teaching in Montana. You do one log, heavy-timber building with stonework and a rusticated vocabulary and your name gets passed around. Small cabins grew into bigger personal lodges, then into ranches with horse barns and outbuildings. These are communities, and we are doing all the infrastructure and land reclamation, along with designing the buildings." The firm has a branch in Jackson, Wyo., and does more work in Wyoming, Oregon, California and Montana than it does in Washington.

What distinguishes lodges from primary residences is that, as second or third homes, they are places of relaxation and recreation, of getting away from it all. Most of these buildings are centered about a great room, which derives from the parks-lodge prototype.

Leavengood points out the challenges of building such large structures in remote, often mountainous areas where topography and site must be resolved long before the house is designed.

"Frequently we build at 8,000 to 9,000 feet elevation. We study these sites for a year or more in terms of snow cap, drifting snow and good sun orientation. The clients come predominantly in summer for fishing and hiking, but they also come in the winter, so they have to have access. Some have caretakers. These structures have to accommodate wind loads up to 100-mile-per-hour gales, along with the lateral loads of a seismic event . . . So there's a real sense of weight, of protection from the elements, because these buildings are heavy."

Adding to the complication is that these 8,000- to 16,000-square-foot buildings are constructed twice: They're put up off site, then taken apart, hauled onto their permanent home and rebuilt.

All the buildings that come out of Leavengood's office these days are built with recycled materials. Most of his clients want that for character. But for some, it is also about having a sense of responsibility for the environment and its disappearing resources. Recently, the architect tapped into a stash of lumber from dismantled World War II hangars in Alberta, Canada.

One apparent plus of building in remote areas is the freedom to design, which is not so easy to come by in urban and suburban areas. "There's not a lot of oversight or scrutiny by design boards," Leavengood says. "Short of reviews for plumbing and electrical, we have the latitude to go back to 19th-century roots and develop strong and wonderful buildings."

With everything handmade, from lighting fixtures and cabinetry to the wrought-iron andirons in front of the hearth, Leavengood's lodges and ranches not only remind us of the philosophy of the Arts & Crafts movement but also of the romance of the West.

Lawrence Kreisman is program director for Historic Seattle. He is the author of "Made to Last."

Lodges worth a look or a stay

Northwesterners are fortunate to have easy access to some marvelous lodge architecture within a few hours' drive. Others in Oregon and Montana beckon for longer vacations.

Olympic Peninsula

Lake Quinault Lodge, in the Olympic National Forest, is R.C. Reamer's only lodge building outside of his work at Yellowstone. It was built during his Seattle career, in 1926 (the same year his 5th Avenue Theatre opened).

Lake Crescent Lodge (originally Singer's Tavern), 1912

Rosemary Inn, 1914

Mount Rainier National Park

Paradise Inn, designed by the Tacoma firm of Heath, Gove and Bell, was opened in 1917.

Mount Hood National Forest

Timberline Lodge, with Gilbert Stanley Underwood as consulting architect (he had designed the famed Alwahnee in Yosemite), was opened in 1937. This outstanding Works Progress Administration-era project is a homage to the talents of artists and craftspeople.

Crater Lake National Park

The National Parks Service was faced with the dilemma of a deteriorating Crater Lake Lodge, only partly completed in 1915 and accommodating a variety of additions into the 1930s. In 1989, rehabilitation began and was completed in 1994. Some parts of the building were removed, and others gutted and rebuilt in keeping with the 1920s style.

Glacier National Park

Lake McDonald Lodge was designed by Spokane architect Kirtland Cutter and Carl Malmgren as the Lewis Glacier Hotel in 1913-14; it later was renamed.

Glacier Park Lodge, designed by St. Paul architect Thomas D. McMahon in 1912, was inspired by the Forestry Building at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland.

Many Glacier Hotel, 1915, was also designed by McMahon.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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