Alright. Now begins a series of posts documenting (and inspired by) Themerica travels, summer 2017 edition. The first major stop on our journey east was Glacier National Park in Montana. I had been the summer prior, but this was the first visit for my fellow roadtripper David Janssen, Jr. It's a truly majestic place, and although it sits down at number ten for most visited National Parks, I'd easily place it up there with Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon.
The park lies along the Canadian border, adjacent to that country's Waterton Lakes National Park. In 1932 Waterton Lakes was combined with Glacier to form the world's first International Peace Park. There are several historic hotels and chalets within and around Glacier, including the three main lodges indicated here on the map.
If you are unfamiliar with the lodges of the National Parks, they are sort of a genre all to themselves. Built in the first few decades of the twentieth century (including notable entries within National Forest land such as Timberline that were part of FDR's public works projects during the Great Depression years), these lodges stand exclusively in the Western United States.
What's curious is that despite being designed and built by different teams, on different sites, in different years, the National Park Lodges (NPL) share a kind of meta-aesthetic. I've seen it referred to as "Parkitecture" at various places online—and I love a good portmanteau—so I'll use that term. A fantastic, in-depth piece was written in 2009 for the Society for Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD) by a designer who's worked for the park service for over four decades, so I'll quote right from it:
Although never intended as a primary expression of identity, architecture has long helped define the NPS style. Two relatively recent periods of intense construction account for the architectural forms associated with national (and state) parks. The first was the result of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression’s later years. The genre (sometimes called “parkitecture”) was similar to the rustic Adirondack style used in the East, but is characterized by the stone and rough-hewn timbers most often used in Western parks, or the adobe used in the Southwest. The work is largely the legacy of architect Herbert Maier, who worked as a consultant to the NPS during the 1920s and 30s and later as an employee. Despite an appeal that endures today, the rustic style of architecture was rapidly abandoned after World War II [emphasis added].
The look and feel of these lodges loom large enough in the public's imagination to have formed the basis for an award winning series on PBS, and two volumes of companion text. If you've visited even one of these lodges, you know what I'm talking about.
Lake McDonald Lodge
Constructed in 1913 and opened the following year, Lake McDonald Lodge is the smallest of the three sites I visited in Glacier and sits near the western entrance to the park.
The lodge was designed by noted Pacific Northwest architect Kirtland Cutter. Although he fashioned the exterior in a Swiss Chalet style (very similar to his Idaho Building for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair), the interior spaces—particularly the central lobby—echo the other National Parks Lodges with an emphasis on grandness, natural materials, and Native American crafts and artworks.
At first this felt somewhat incongruous to me, but then I realized that the exterior Swiss style is in excellent balance with the surrounding landscapes. And it's very intentional, as we'll see below; Glacier National Park was marketed by the railroad companies to the domestic travelling elite as "America's Alps" and "The Switzerland of North America," particularly by Louis W. Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway. In the first half of the twentieth century, it was a way for the well-to-do to 'visit Europe' without getting on an ocean liner for an extensive voyage.
The interior spaces is where the NPL "Parkitecture" DNA is truly expressed, in contrast to the European facades outside. From the lighting to the furnishings, floor carpets to antiques, it would be easy to imagine this lobby at any other NP in the West. You can find similar raw wood railings and natural tree limb staircases, tones and colors, even fabrics and leathers at El Tovar or the Ahwahnee Hotel.
Many Glacier Hotel
On the far eastern side of the park sits the Many Glacier Hotel. This is Swiss style of Lake McDonald done writ large, and in a far grander setting.
As I mentioned above, Glacier was intentionally marketed to wealthy tourists as an alternative to making the long journey to Europe; this grand hotel and its surrounding environs make good on that pitch.
The Great Northern Railway built all of Glacier Park's hotels through a newly organized subsidiary, the Glacier Park Hotel Company. Louis W. Hill chose the Many Glacier valley for the largest of the hotels.
The hotel was built a year after McDonald opened and for decades it was the single largest in Montana, having some 240 guest rooms in its wings. Many's overhanging roofs and balconies are painted a rich, deep brown, with white and gold trim. The traditional Swiss Cross of Helvetia—white on a red shield—is the hotel's coat of arms, and is used on signage throughout, as well as on the door of every guest room.
As I've explored elsewhere, sometimes you get themes within themes, nested like Russian Matryoshka dolls, sometimes themes are blended together like a stew, and other times they sort of resemble Venn diagrams with only partial criteria overlapping. There is also this notion of volume knobs or mixer sliders; at certain times a theme is 'dialed up' and other times it is 'turned down' in relation to others in the medley. At Lake McDonald, the Swiss exterior and "Parkitecture" interiors are fairly in balance. Here at Many Glacier, the European elements are dominant, even on the inside.
Glacier Park Lodge
Despite its name, the third major site I visited is actually just outside the park's boundaries on the eastern side. Glacier Park Lodge is most closely tied to the NLP DNA, and does not retain any of the Swiss chalet elements present at the other sites.
The lodge was ostensibly designed by noted Midwestern architect Samuel L. Bartlett, but in actuality Louis W. Hill of the Great Northern Railway dominated the entire process. The man was obsessed with the hotels the company was now building in Glacier National Park, and he even stepped down as company president to oversee them. Glacier Park Lodge is very much in step with the Western grandeur of Yosemite's Old Faithful Inn. Three story log balconies, covered by broad hooded gables, are finished in dark paint with bare window trim under dark green roofs.
The playbook is consistent: a massive open lobby space adorned with raw timber columns and railings. Chandeliers done in a lantern style. Native American patterned carpets and upholstery. Framed landscape oils fill the hallways.
It's almost as if somewhere at National Park headquarters, there is a large, dusty three-ring binder holding all the key brand standards to these properties. There isn't, but it sure feels that way.
Some have gone even further. There are companies such as Pendleton Wools who have transformed (the more cynical might say, exploited) the design elements they provided to various lodges under exclusive contract into complete branded product lines years on. Which brings up the issue, where is the line drawn between theme and brand? Or, as architects and artists would say, between school, style, program, and movement?
Along with Native American designs, the buffalo remains a constant motif in the park lodges of the West.
The public certainly recognizes the U.S National Parks as a brand. And the parks present themselves—in terms of communication design—along the same lines of consistency as you would see in corporate identity work.
Typefaces, colors, shapes, and materials are for the most part quite consistent across National Parks, Monuments, and Forests. Wayfinding and site markers might vary dude to age, certainly. Yet this is a much stronger visual identity than is presented to the public by other government organs—and extremely unique, too. There is no Red White & Blue, no Stars & Stripes, no "Big D.C." nationalist branding. It's friendly and instantly recognizable.
What happens when "Parkitecture" becomes thematic design?