YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Nearly two years into a planned $22 million renovation expected to be completed in spring 2008, the Old Faithful Inn opened for the season Monday, with an enthusiastic crowd waiting outside the front doors.

"When those doors opened, it was like a geyser going off, all the people rushing in here," said Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the company contracted by the National Park Service to manage the historic hotel.

'Feel the rush'

"That's when you get that tingle, and you feel the rush yourself, and you know we're back for another season," he said. "People are already perched in the usual places, following the usual routines. It's like we didn't skip a beat."

Part of that familiar routine included a predictable moment many tourists spent standing in what hotel workers call the "sweet spot," a section of the dizzying 5-story lobby where the sheer scale of the place first sinks in.

"It was great to see people walk into the sweet spot and look up," said Mike Keller, director of operations for Xanterra, and a former manager of the hotel.

Stop and stare

So named because visitors stop there to stare up, turn around, and take in the inspiring view, the sweet spot's 102-year-old floorboards were noticeably worn and sunken.

"That whole floor was replaced this spring," said Keller.

"But I'm sure over time, the sweet spot is going to come back again."

"Where else in the world can you find a building that was made like this?" asked Dick Chace, visiting with his wife and friends from Massachusetts. "Nowhere," he said with a smile, answering his own question.

"I got the last room available for tonight when we called two months ago," said Al Caliendo, visiting with his family from Florida. "It's amazing."

Allen Fossenkemper, of Arizona, came to see the collection of rustic furniture featured in the inn.

"The arts and crafts style is all about the form following the function," he said. "Nowadays, we try to hide the function when we build something."

Hiding some functional features of the hotel, like exposed wiring and sprinkler systems, was an important part of the renovation, now about two-thirds complete, said Peter Galindo, project manager for the Park Service.

A century of heavy traffic, extreme temperatures and heavy snow loads, along with a 7.5 magnitude earthquake in 1959, necessitated work ranging from the cosmetic to the structural.

"It has been a really good, collaborative process," Galindo said of working with Xanterra and general contractor Swank Enterprises of Kalispell.

Contractors were racing over the weekend to finish final touches in guest rooms throughout the east wing of the "Old House," as the hotel is called.

"There were 10 of us working with three plumbers all weekend" to install sinks in dozens of east wing guest rooms, said Larry Kline, a Swank construction worker who logged 83 hours on the job last week.

Kline has worked for two years on the project, including long, lonely winters when the property was closed to guests, as it will be again this year, after the first week of October.

"We were out here this winter working on the roof when it was 41 below," he said. "It's good to see the crowds again."

Contact Ruffin Prevost at rprevost@billingsgazette.com or (307) 527-7250.

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