YELLOWSTONE LAKE, WYO. — The National Park Service is observing its centennial this summer, but it was a grand old hotel 25 years older than the Park Service that kicked off the season’s festivities in Yellowstone National Park on Friday.
Dozens gathered at Yellowstone Lake Hotel to celebrate the structure’s designation last year as a National Historic Landmark, and to mark 125 years since the hotel opened to the public in 1891.
Since then, the hotel has seen its ups and downs, including closures during two world wars and the Great Depression. At one point, park officials even debated whether fixing up the dilapidated structure was worth the expense.
Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said he recalled when the hotel’s uneven hallways resembled an undulating golf green, and said he had years ago seen places where its crumbling foundation didn’t connect to the structure above.
Jim McCaleb remembered working as the Lake Hotel manager in 1981, when “the windows sagged, and so did the mattresses.”
That era “was not Lake Hotel’s finest hour,” said McCaleb, now general manager of Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the park’s prime concessioner. Xanterra operates Lake Hotel and other lodging and dining properties in the park.
Now, after a 2-year, $28 million makeover completed in 2014 that focused on restoring the iconic property to its historic elegance, Lake Hotel is “all new all over again” and “shining like a new penny once more,” McCaleb said.
Those improvements included installing all new fixtures, finishes and furniture, as well as major structural work that included seismic stabilization.
The hotel first opened in 1891 as a three-story clapboard structure with 80 guest rooms. Between 1903 and 1937, a series of expansions led by architect Robert Reamer turned the hotel into a 210-room Colonial Revival style lakefront complex beloved for a its Ionic columns and genteel sun room, which still hosts string quartets and pianists performing for visitors who enjoy a sweeping view of the largest alpine lake in North America.
The renovation also added bathrooms to each guest room, reflecting changing tastes in travelers now compared to the customs of more than a century ago. That dropped the room count to 153. And though the rooms lack televisions and air conditioning, in another nod to the modern era, each room is now hard-wired for Internet service.
Perched along the north shore of Yellowstone Lake, the hotel is far from major attractions like Old Faithful and the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River, so it can be less crowded, hosting visitors who typically move at a slower pace.
But this year is already shaping up to be a busy one—even in the Lake area—with early indications that the Park Service’s centennial could draw even more visitors to Yellowstone than last year’s record of more than 4 million.
Steve Iobst, deputy superintendent for the park, said visitation figures so far this year are already trending ahead of last year’s record pace. Friday was the first day the park’s South Gate was open for the season, and morning traffic at that entrance stretched for more than half a mile, said Jody Lyle, the park’s head of strategic communications.
Wenk said park planners have hired extra seasonal staffers to help handle the anticipated summer crush. An in-house social scientist will also be working this summer to learn more about visitor expectations in the park, Wenk said, with an eye toward figuring out potential ways to help alleviate the traffic and crowding that many cite as their least favorite part of a trip to Yellowstone.
But most of the dozens of people who turned out on Friday to help Lake Hotel celebrate its 125th birthday didn’t seem worried about summer crowds.
“It’s delightful to see them recognize the importance of these grand public spaces and how valuable they are to all of us,” said Laurel Rhodes, a veterinarian from Livingston, Mont. who was staying at the Old Faithful Inn, but drove over to Lake Hotel for the day’s festivities.
Rhodes moved to Montana last year from Hawaii, but was already becoming familiar with much of Yellowstone, including a winter trip that she said yielded great wildlife viewing.
Rhodes said she is still discovering new places in the park, and was pleased to learn about Lake Hotel’s historic significance.
“It’s really wonderful,” she said from a prime spot in the hotel’s sun room, overlooking Yellowstone Lake. “I didn’t even know this place was here.”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].