A Legacy Since 1938: Timberline Lodge, OR

A masterpiece of American alpine architecture was nearly lost. Then a skier came to its rescue.
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A masterpiece of American alpine architecture was nearly lost. Then a skier came to its rescue.
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Above: Ray Atkeson's darkly emotive 1945 pre-sunrise image of Mt. Hood's Timberline Lodge ranks among the most beautiful snow scenes ever captured on film.

Timberline Lodge surely rates as one of the most gorgeous examples of mountain architecture ever built. Against the backdrop of the 11,239-foot summit of Oregon’s Mt. Hood, the structure appears to be part of nature itself.

Construction of the lodge originated with a 1930s Works Progress Administration (WPA) government program that provided jobs to unemployed Americans during the Great Depression. In 1935, Oregon ski enthusiasts persuaded an eager WPA to allocate up to a quarter-million dollars to build a lodge at the 6,000-foot-high base of the slope. A crew of 350 workers completed the four-story lodge in just 15 months, entirely by hand, inside and out.

And what a lodge it would be. On a massive stone understory, built to withstand the weight of 20-foot-deep snow on Mt. Hood, architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood constructed a central frame of hand-hewn ponderosa pine beams that soared 100 feet into the sky. A monstrous stone chimney capped America’s largest fireplace. Inside, artisans carved stunning stonework and wood bas-reliefs, wove rugs, forged wrought iron and created beautiful stained glass. Their artwork reflected native wildlife and pioneer folklore.

By the time Timberline opened in 1938, with 70 rooms and a vast, imposing public space, it rivaled Yosemite’s Ahwahnee and surpassed the new Lodge at Sun Valley as America’s greatest alpine hostelry. After World War II, however, the lodge fell on hard times. The ski operation faltered. Rooms were being rented to prostitutes, and finally it was forced to close. Neglect and deterioration followed. But in 1955, tender love and care came in the form of Dick Kohnstamm, a native New Yorker and outdoorsman who’d recently moved to Portland.

Kohnstamm refurbished the lodge and the lifts, using family money and government funding. So successful was the restoration that Kohnstamm was elected to the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame, and the Park Service placed Timberline Lodge on its National Register of Historic Places. And so it remains, America’s most majestic slopeside lodge.

John Fry is the author of The Story of Modern Skiing.

- SKI MAGAZINE, DECEMBER 2008