YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — The oldest hotel in the world’s first national park had a distinct aroma of fresh paint as summer guests began arriving this week. But the major renovations being wrapped up at Yellowstone Lake Hotel go far beyond new paint, as workers are completing a two-year, $28.5 million makeover that has focused on restoring the iconic property to its historic elegance.
“This has been one monumental effort on the part of a whole bunch of people,” said Jim McCaleb, general manager of Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the park’s prime concessioner. Xanterra operates Lake Hotel and other lodging and dining properties in the park, and funded the renovations as part of its operating agreement with the National Park Service.
McCaleb and Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk hosted a ribbon-cutting Tuesday to show off the improvements to Lake Hotel.
“It’s a graceful, elegant hotel,” Wenk said, “and my favorite place to stay and dine in the park.”
Wenk said that views of the lake and Mount Sheridan — with a less-crowded dining room serving great food — make the hotel a prime spot for a quiet lunch.
Perched along the north shore of Yellowstone Lake, the hotel is far from major attractions like Old Faithful and the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River, so it’s usually less crowded, hosting visitors who typically move at a slower pace.
The hotel first opened in 1891 as a three-story clapboard structure with 80 guest rooms. Between 1903 and 1937, a series of expansions led by architect Robert Reamer turned the hotel into a 210-room Colonial Revival style lakefront complex beloved for a its Ionic columns and genteel sun room, which still hosts string quartets and pianists performing for visitors taking a sweeping view of the largest alpine lake in North America.
Adding bathrooms to each guest room has cut the current room count to 153.
Other improvements made during the most recent renovation range from all new fixtures, finishes and furniture to major structural work that included seismic stabilization.
For hotel guests Chuck and Maryellen Rubenstein of Westchester County, New York, the new rooms were a hit.
“They’re very smartly furnished with warm colors, and just what you would expect them to be like,” said Maryellen Rubenstein, who spent two nights at Lake during a five-day trip through the park.
Chuck Rubenstein said the lakeside view made the room “worth every penny” of the $300 nightly rate, but he thought it was unfair to have to pay an additional $12 for daily Internet service.
Like many hotels in national parks, Lake Hotel has no televisions, air conditioning or wireless Internet. But the renovation included hard-wiring each room for Internet service provided through a third party. A new business center also offers computers with free online access and printers.
A new cell tower in the Lake area has also improved mobile phone coverage in and around the hotel, although national park visitors overall are divided as to whether better connectivity is a good thing.
Other changes made during construction were meant to make Lake Hotel more comfortable and in keeping with what visitors might expect from a modern hotel, but also to realign the property with its original Colonial Revival style, said project architect Dennis Johnson, of A&E Architects in Missoula.
The new look “has a contemporary feeling, but is very compatible with the historic character of the building,” Johnson said.
That includes black-and-white subway tile in bathrooms throughout public spaces and guest rooms, and a color scheme that uses darker woods and craftsman style touches that evoke the first three decades of the 20th century.
Like many other park visitors, the Rubensteins said the sprawling yellow hotel seemed out of place along the shoreline of Yellowstone Lake, especially when seen for the first time.
“When we first saw it driving by, we passed it, thinking it wasn’t the right place,” Chuck Rubenstein said. “It’s not impressive from the back, although the lobby and rooms are very nice.”
Guests in the early days were brought by horse-drawn wagons and carriages to the porte-cochere at the front of the hotel, rather than the current arrival point at a rear parking lot.
The architectural style was originally intended to provide a familiar sight to East Coast visitors arriving after a long train trip, Johnson said.
During a press conference Monday for local reporters, travel writers and others, McCaleb said the hotel’s east wing opened June 20 “after a tremendous amount of work and effort.”
Some of that work was still continuing, as construction workers rushed to post permanent room numbers, hang hallway signs, finish carpentry, touch-up paint and complete other last-minute work.
The short construction season was a major challenge, said Patrick Marble, with Dick Anderson Construction of Helena. Much of the interior work was done during the winter months, when workers and supplies had to be ferried in by snow coaches or snowmobiles.
As many as 100 workers spent weekdays in dorm rooms and temporary housing in the Lake area, returning home on the weekends, Marble said.
“That was the biggest challenge, keeping those guys going,” Marble said, as cabin fever took its toll after months on the job, with temperatures sometimes dipping as low as 36 degrees below zero.
But the weather for Tuesday’s celebration was picture-perfect, with warm, blue skies and a cool, gentle breeze rolling off the lake.
Wenk remarked how such a day must have been exactly what the hotel’s original planners had in mind, and said he looked forward to later this year, when Yellowstone Lake Hotel is expected to be designated a National Historic Landmark.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or email@example.com.