Monday, December 15, 2014

Timberline Lodge: Mt. Hood's Alpine Lodge of Art

Artist unknown. Painting of Mt Hood hanging inside Timberline
Mt. Hood, brilliant white with snowfields and glaciers, is one of the great beauties of the Cascade Mountains. Against blue sky, it rises spectacularly to the east of Portland. But it disappears just as often, like a god retreating into his gray, misty cloak formed by the fogs of the Columbia River and its rain forests, which block the eastern horizon from the city.
U.S. Forest Service photo by George Henderson. Mt. Hood and Timberline Lodge 1943.

Those who travel Mt. Hood above the tree line, as any devoted skier does, are greeted by the historic Timberline Lodge. This U.S. National Historic Landmark is one of many rustic lodges that provide fine accommodations for visitors to National Parks and Forests. It exudes a sense of yesteryear comfort. Certainly I'd expect to pull up my stool at the bar next to Bing Crosby in his ski togs and scarf.

Timberline was built, however, to relieve the hardest necessity, having risen over the period of fifteen months between 1936 and 1938. It was a project of President Roosevelt's Depression Works Project Administration. The WPA lodge construction put hundreds of Oregonians to work. Timberline is the largest of all the national, publicly-owned lodges. 
Timberline Lodge, Oregon Encyclopedia, Oregon Historical

Perhaps the most special thing about it though, is that it was funded by the WPA's Arts category. The building was constructed entirely by hand, by Oregonian laborers, craftsmen, and artisans. Works by its fine artists hang on the walls. 

Everything in Timberline—at the levels of framing, exterior design (shake shingles, carved entry door, cast iron fittings), interior decoration (tile floors, mosaic and carved wall mountings, purpose-made furniture with locally-fabricated textiles; carved beams and newel posts)—everything shows the hand that made it. And there were many hands. We are used today to glamorous and comfortable lodging with beautiful design, and sometimes even to original art on the walls. But to find a place with the sense of large completeness resulting from the detectable efforts of individuals is rare. The idea of Timberline is closer to the idea of a cathedral than to a luxury hotel brand.
Front door, with painted carving, wrought iron
fittings and decorations

Inside the hotel, the sense of handmade manifests itself in the approachability of every detail—furnishings and structural features alike. This hospitable feeling is communicated positively by the warmth of the materials. There is nothing high-gloss, cold, or shiny like stainless steel, marble, or glass. This is, of course, because with the goal of featuring Oregon's resources—its natural materials are on display. Wood, rawhide, loomed textiles, forged metal, and stone form the heart and the slow, steady pulse of the building.

Lodge interior, 2d level
The sense of slow time is indeed an important aspect of the place since, everywhere you turn you encounter the results of manual labor and craftsmanship. This may strike you, as it did me, as quite evident; if it does not, I think there is no escaping it subliminally. Foundations and walls of boulders impress in a way that concrete never can; support beams that reveal the character of the material and the judgments made by lumber workers involve the viewer and the dweller uniquely in consciousness of time. You are aware of time as muscular labor and patient craftsmanship, themselves the result of long training  and practice. You also feel the tug of the building's details themselves: It's not worth resisting the impulse to stop and admire the gifts of beauty and care where we expect none to be lavished. 
2-storey stairwell carving of pioneer travel
on the Oregon Trail

In Timberline Lodge, every detail is designed to fit together; nothing miscellaneous has been introduced. This made me think of my experiences of Frank Lloyd Wright houses—houses so thoroughly thought out that the furnishings and ornaments are designed for their effects in particular, designated places. Each building is designed inside and out.

In Wright houses, my aesthetic admiration is usually overcome by a sense of the repression the architect's sensibility would place over the lives of the occupants. I have a sense that life would be channeled by the house's strict aesthetic; that my life would be a rebellion against the beautiful tyranny of the architect.

Eagle newel post at Timberline Lodge
Timberline Lodge certainly has a defining aesthetic, and it's easy to believe that many find the rustic pine and stone roughness deeply not to their liking. In general, in fact, I am one of those. But the idea of this building is not defined by one artist's aesthetic. Rather, it is a series of coexisting narratives, all of which fit comfortably within the generous theme of "Oregon." Throughout the building, one sees that the artisans, craftsmen, and fine artists have taken their inspiration from their state's wildlife, colors, landscape, Native American culture, pioneer heritage, folk stories, not to mention the natural resources that provide the materials they use. One has a spacious sense of place and the many sources of "place." This is in contrast to a place designed inside and out by one person, where "place"is a single mind. 

Simply from moving about Timberline Lodge, I could find nothing that identified any of the artists responsible for the artworks that gave me such pleasure and collectively created such a potency of warmth and wellbeing. The newel posts, for instance, each of a different creature, had such character and charm. Were they from the same hand? I believe they were, but whose it was I don't know. The building, while financed as a public art project, was not intended to glorify artists, but to employ them as the workers they were.
Pelican newel post at Timberline Lodge

Will people ever stop questioning the benefits of government funding for the arts? It's difficult for me to imagine a time of enlightenment when this might happen. 

handwoven upholstery
But Timberline Lodge certainly struck me as an admirable art project, fully funded by the government in the bottom of America's worst economic era. I like it that it represents art as a cooperative undertaking, where many artists worked literally under one roof. These artists were laborers for pay, as artists always have the right and need to be. Here they worked anonymously but with evident joy on a communal project that would form an exquisite and vital whole of great use, delight, and benefit to all.

Detail of wildlife mosaic inside front hall of Timberline Lodge