By Jack Waller Explore Big Sky Contributor
I’m one among a multitude of admirers of Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful Inn.
Designed by architect Robert Reamer in 1903, the inn is a monumental example of rustic architecture. For well over a century, it’s been a destination for millions of visitors, and the voluminous subject matter of devoted scholars, historians, writers and photographers.
One essential element of its rustic appeal is what I call “architectural tree art,” the extensive use of lodgepole pine tree trunks both on the building’s exterior and interior.
Reamer’s design, especially in the lobby, combines the shapes of both the straight and the contorted types of the species, Pinus contorta , var., latifolia. The magnitude of Reamer’s structural and decorative uses of these trees evokes amazement, awe and a sense of architectural mystery.
In the late 1980s, three seminal events led to my becoming a tree art furniture maker. I moved to southwest Montana to live in a lodgepole pine forest; I visited Old Faithful Inn for the first time; and I read Craig Gilborn’s Adirondack Furniture and the Rustic Tradition.
“Tree art” and “tree art furniture” are terms I first learned from Gilborn. For the most part, they refer to the use of recognizable tree shapes in the design and construction of rustic architecture and in furniture making, respectively.
Public access was closed in the late 1940s for safety reasons, due to the large numbers of inn visitors. Now twice a day, a group of four people can, by reservation only, accompany a bellhop to the inn’s rooftop either for the morning or evening raising or lowering of flags.
Ascending to the lobby’s upper levels, a procession that has been closed to the public for many years, we arrived at the pinnacle of the lobby’s vaulted ceiling, and arrived at the crow’s nest. From its great height in the peak of the vaulted ceiling, it overlooks all the interior architectural tree art – the lobby floor, the surrounding column-brace-beam frameworks, and the lower balconies with their interconnecting staircases, catwalks and platforms.
A small, enclosed, cage-like structure, the crow’s nest epitomizes the inn’s architectural tree art. As a tree artist, I recognized the recurring motifs that I’ve identified in my own work: swan necks, tuning forks, alpenhorns, shepherd’s crooks and arches. I also saw there the mastery of the carpenters/tree artists who executed these elaborate designs.
The crow’s nest door is positioned near an exit staircase, with another door leading outside and up to the summit of the inn – a long, rectangular roof platform with panoramic views of the Old Faithful geyser basin.
During the tour I realized an essential element of Reamer’s plan was to provide all guests with the experience – both physical and psychological – of elevation, procession and ascension, all culminating on the rooftop.
Jack Waller’s tree art furniture is currently exhibited at Creighton Block Gallery in Big Sky. His forthcoming book is titled, Contorted Lodgepole Pines: A Poet’s Tribute. He is currently in negotiations to exhibit his work in the inn’s lobby.
Old Faithful Inn
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
Architect Robert Reamer designed the Old Faithful Inn asymmetrically to reflect the chaos of nature.
Built during the winter of 1903-04, the inn is a rustic log and wood-frame structure nearly 700 feet in length and seven stories high. The lobby has a 65-foot ceiling, a massive rhyolite fireplace, and railings made of contorted lodgepole pine. Wings were added in 1915 and 1927.
With 327 rooms available to guests today, the inn is one of few remaining log hotels in the U.S. Its influence on American architecture, particularly park architecture, has been immeasurable.