Yosemite National Park Study Points To Safety Concerns At The Ahwahnee

Numerous life-safety code violations exist in The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park. NPS photo.

The Ahwahnee Hotel, the flagship lodging in Yosemite National Park, has numerous public safety issues revolving around seismic stability and fire protection for guests and employees. While park officials have come up with a plan for renovating the historic structure, they have no timetable or stated funding source for addressing the violations.

Violations cited in The Ahwahnee Comprehensive Rehabilitation Plan range from inadequate escape routes from the hotel's second floor and antiquated electrical wiring to insufficient fire detection and alarm systems and building components that might not withstand seismic events in the Yosemite Valley.

Concessionaire Delaware North referred Traveler to park officials for answers to questions concerning the ongoing safety of visitors and employees until this work is completed. Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman has not responded to Traveler's requests for answers or other information.

Opened in 1927 as the park's flagship hotel, one luxurious enough to attract both royalty and celebrities, the Ahwahnee down through the years has not been kept up to the latest building and safety codes. As a result, despite appearances, the hotel is out of compliance with "building, fire protection, and seismic safety standards," needs better protection of its historic integrity and "character-defining features," and could be made more energy and water-use efficient through either repairs or upgrades.

According to the comprehensive plan, the necessary renovation could take up to 20 years to complete and cost at least $52 million. Along with addressing the safety and seismic concerns, the plan would tackle other "operational" issues such as storage space, plumbing upgrades, and additional office space for hotel staff. The project would also reorganize the kitchen's layout, address the "poor condition" of the Ahwahnee's historic appearance, remove "non-historic" features in the hotel bar, and improve efficiencies in the hotel's energy and water systems.

Some comments received by the park when the document was in draft form raised concerns over why the hotel had been allowed by the Park Service to deteriorate.

“While reading The Ahwahnee Comprehensive Rehabilitation Plan, I became increasingly shocked about the condition that the Ahwahnee is in. Many of the issues are not evident to a visitor and it is horrible that such an iconic building has been so poorly maintained that it has gotten to this condition," wrote one individual.

Another said the park's preferred approach to addressing the issues gave the agency, in essence, an open checkbook.

"Alternative 3 appears to express a 'carte blanc' cost to the Awhahnee's 'improvement'," the person wrote. "I see no controls on expenditures, but rather an open interpretation to rehabilatation.”

In response, though, park planners said much of the work was "code-driven" and that the preferred approach "would meet code requirements and provide for historic rehabilitation in a cost-effective manner."

Among the needs cited under the park's preferred alternative in The Ahwahnee Comprehensive Rehabilitation Plan:

* Meet current codes for an evacuation route from the grand hotel's East Wing second floor by replacing the existing spiral staircase with a new interior stair to the first floor. This option will require the loss of two guest rooms, and "will be combined with action to reconfigure Ahwahnee Bar."

* "Improve and extend existing emergency access route to the west and south sides of the hotel to comply with fire code specifications."

* Provide code-compliant fire department access routes to outlying cottages.

* Re-key all the rooms for master key access to all hotel rooms in case of emergencies.

* Correct improper grounding of the hotel's "main electrical panels and provide new grounded systems and shortcircuit protection with upgrade of electrical system where accessible."

* "Replace accessible cloth-wrapped wiring with code compliant metal clad cable. Replace corroded conduit runs in kitchen with material suitable for the wet conditions."

* "Extend new hotel fire sprinkler, detection, and fire alarm systems to cottages and employee dormitory."

* Upgrade the seismic stability of columns and granite veneer in the dining room.

* In the kitchen, "remove temporary shoring and replace deteriorated sections of slab subject to failure and as needed for seismic upgrade; replace all flooring tiles."

* Buttress stone chimneys in the hotel and cottages.

* In the hotel's Great Lounge, inspectors recommended that the two-story gypsum block walls be braced with an internal steel frame.

Various ADA requirements need to be met, including automatic door openers for the hotel's main doors; reversible ramps at ground floor exterior entrances; "two additional accessible guestroom suites in the East Wing, one with an accessible balcony over Ahwahnee Bar kitchen;" and expanded public restrooms that retain accessibility features.

But how quickly that work can be addressed remains to be seen. If the hotel were closed to the public for the repairs and upgrades, it could take two-and-a-half years, the documents note.

That time-frame, though, was calculated strictly for cost estimates, the park's planners add in the environmental assessment prepared for the project. More likely, "the time needed to implement this alternative may be up to 20 years, depending on the availability of funding," they note.

The Ahwahnee is not exactly as it appears. Gilbert Stanley Underwood, the renowned architect who, along with his colleagues of the day, gave us "Parkitecture," designed the hotel at the request of then-National Park Service Director Stephen Mather. In drawing up his plans, the architect used slight-of-hand, figuratively speaking.

Underwood, who never graduated from high school yet wound up with an undergraduate degree from Yale University and a master’s degree from Harvard, wasn’t tightly wedded to “Parkitecture.” He could ably design charming park lodges imbued with rustic touches of logs and rock and arts-and-crafts flourishes while also creating coldly efficient federal buildings. His federal courthouse in Seattle came to define “federal Art Deco,” while the poured-in-place concrete that went into the Anchorage federal courthouse was dubbed “New Deal Concrete.”

And, from time to time, the architect found good use for concrete in the national parks. When he designed the massive and breathtaking Ahwahnee Lodge, Underwood used weathered granite for the exterior walls and concrete in place of timbers and planks. By pouring concrete into wood-lined forms and then staining it so it would appear to be redwood in both texture and color he created “shadowood,” a technique that he returned to a quarter-century later when he designed Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park.