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When the Ahwahnee Hotel was Briefly Mid-Century Modern

Postcards, a rarity within today’s electronic immediacy, offer an opportunity to see history in ways that may not be caught in websites or search engines. Their purpose supplanted by smart phones and selfies; postcards use to be a way of telling loved ones “wish you were here.” While many are relegated to the recycle bin, piled in antique stores, or reside in the back of people’s drawers or shoe boxes, some are being collected and republished within roadside history books, offering a glimpse into a past we might not remember.

During my last visit to Yosemite, I picked up one such book, Yosemite’s Historic Hotels and Camps, by Alice van Ommeren. The pocket history is a part of Arcadia Publishing’s Postcard History Series that looks at historic sites through the lens of travel postcards. The narratives are light, which compliments the tone of the postcards displaying only the positive sides of Yosemite’s evolution. Van Ommeren walks readers through traveling to Yosemite at a time when paved roads did not exist through the building of nearby Mid-Century ski lodges for the growing sport.

The Ahwahnee Hotel, built in 1927 and designed by Los Angeles architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood, is categorized as National Park Service rustic architecture, or "parkitecture," despite the luxuries and comfort it has to offer. But scanning through the hotel’s postcards, there is a noticeable eclecticism, leading me to question if “rustic architecture” is based on a perception of rusticity rather than an aesthetic study. For example, the Great Lounge was decorated in “Native American, Middle Eastern, and Art Deco styles” with German Gothic chandeliers floating overall. What were once structures built from timber, the Ahwahnee employs faux bois concrete instead. Rustic but modern.

As part of the eclectic interior, the Great Lounge’s immense fireplace was adorned with a Persian rug above the mantel, but in 1943, when the Navy temporarily converted the hotel into a convalescent hospital, the rug was replaced by a Mid-Century Modern mural by Fran Spencer Reynolds. A handsome composition but far removed from the rustic aesthetic. Looking online, I have not seen any other references to this mural, likely because its installation was as brief as the Navy’s occupation. Once the hotel returned to public use, the mural was painted over, a smaller rug now in its place.

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