The Rebuilt Crater Lake Lodge: A Feast for the Eyes... and Palate

(c)1995 by Fred Flaxman
(This article first appeared in the August 1995 edition of the Jefferson Monthly.)

Just before the rebuilt Crater Lake Lodge opened to the public on May 20, 1995, my wife and I were asked to come to a press preview of the new facility. The invitation included dinner, overnight accommodations and breakfast the next morning. It was an offer we couldn't refuse, especially since Crater Lake National Park in Oregon is one of our favorite places to visit. By chance we made Crater Lake Lodge trivia history by being the first two people to register through the front entrance (one or two couples snuck in through the back door first). Here's our report:

From the outside, the Crater Lake Lodge looks very much as it did when it was closed down suddenly six years ago. Even inside, the big public rooms appear much as they were then, with their huge stone fireplaces and bark-covered walls. But looks are deceptive. The Crater Lake Lodge you can visit today was not just remodeled, redecorated or reinforced. It was totally reconstructed from the basement up by the National Park Service at a cost of more than $15 million.

In 1915, when the lodge first opened, it was the only hotel overlooking the magnificent blue waters of the crystal clear volcanic lake. It still is. But, in 1989, just as the summer season was about to begin, engineers warned that the lodge could collapse of its own weight at any moment, and its old doors were never again opened to the public.

While some original materials, such as the volcanic stones, were salvaged for reuse, very little of the original building could be saved. The Great Hall wing was dismantled and rebuilt. The rest was gutted. A steel structural support system, modern utilities and life-safety systems were incorporated into the new facility. Telephones and televisions in each room were intentionally left out.

Although we never stayed at the old Crater Lake Lodge, I have seen pictures of what it looked like, including historic shots from the 1920s and 30s. It was very primitive, basic and simple. If people who were there in those days carry with them fond memories of the old place, it is probably because of the conviviality of the company they kept and the irresistible charm of the lake, rather than because the lodge was such a beautiful place to visit. Unadorned light bulbs used to hang from the ceilings. The iron beds were so poorly built in 1935 that guests were liable to roll out. Which explains why they didn't need, and weren't provided, alarm clocks. The furniture is far more comfortable today, and the fixtures quite a bit more attractive.

Carol Edelman, the Portland-based interior designer responsible for how the lodge looks today, said that when her firm first took on the assignment, she thought the task was going to be to restore the building to its appearance during some golden age. But, as she researched the building's history and studied the photos from earlier days, she realized that there was no such period. The lodge had always been strapped for funds and things were done as cheaply as possible.

"The old lodge really wasn't that memorable," she told me. "There were interesting bark walls and stone fireplaces, but that was about it. Our job turned out to be to create what could have been intended, but was never carried out."

The big stones of the fireplaces were taken apart, numbered, and put back together in the same spots, but the walls had to be replaced with new bark. Edelman visited several other Northwest mountain lodges, and gave a great deal of thought to what made them special, interesting and comfortable.

She decided not to zero in on one year and try to recreate what the Crater Lake Lodge might have looked like then, but rather to consider the building as it might have evolved over the years, with one manager purchasing mission-style furniture, another adding twig chairs, a third buying some woven-fabric seats. The end result is a mixture of styles and eras which reflects the tastes of the decades before the lodge was demolished.

The first thing my wife noticed on entering the reception area was what she thought was a painted floor, cleverly matching real rugs in the Great Hall. The floor was not painted, however, which, I guess, would have worn out very quickly. The rug design was created with pieces of colored linoleum fired on a backing. It's an old idea, Edelman told me, that's being done again. Edelman created the designs herself.

My wife also was quick to notice how well the green and white color scheme seemed to blend with the environment. "We tried to continue the experience of the outside indoors," Edelman told me. Blue was used sparingly in discreet touches. I guess that was to avoid any unfavorable comparisons to the unique and incredible color of the lake outside.

My wife and I made Crater Lake Lodge trivia history a second time when we were the very first to be seated and served in the dining room. This wasn't completely by chance. No one was more eager to eat by 6 p.m., when those doors opened, than I was, and I have the expanding waistline to prove it.

In my experience, restaurants with fantastic views don't usually pay much attention to the food they serve. They don't need to. The views are all that is necessary to fill the tables. But the dining room in the new Crater Lake Lodge appears to be the exception which proves the rule. The impressive views of the lake are matched by the food, which my wife and I both compare favorably to the best we have ever experienced. And there is a delightful emphasis on using Oregon produce, including hazelnuts, Oregon blue cheese dressing, Oregon wines and -- my favorite -- Oregon berry pie. All this is served by young, polite, attentive, well-trained, friendly waiters and waitresses.

The atmosphere of the dining hall is warm and rustic. There is a large, stone fireplace at one end in which gas flames burn artificial logs. Three ponderosa pine trunks serve as decorative center supports for the large room. White table cloths on the 20 tables are set at catty-corners over green linens, and the servers are dressed in matching green cummerbunds, green bow ties and white shirts and blouses. The diners, thankfully, come dressed any way they choose, from tie and jackets to sports shirts.

As for the price, our two dinners would have come to $62, including one glass of wine, if we hadn't been treated by the private company which operates the lodge. There's a cafeteria a few yards away in Rim Village with much lower prices. Of course, neither the cafeteria's food nor its views are anything like the lodge's. Reservations are a must for dinner at the lodge, but can only be made earlier the same day. Lunch is first come, first served, and should be less expensive.

The lodge now, as before, is geared to tourists who plan to stay only a night or two and enjoy the natural environment. It is not a destination resort. There is no swimming pool, no game room. The rooms don't even have closets or chests of drawers. So, when we finished our leisurely dinner at 8:30, there wasn't much to do but watch the sun set on the lake or read and relax in the Great Hall in front of yet another huge stone fireplace. In July or August we would have taken a romantic moonlight walk along the lake, but in May there was still 15 feet of snow on the rim.

We didn't last very long before we returned to our little room on the top floor. The views of the lake from the two windows were so stunning, it was difficult at first to notice anything else about the interior surroundings. The windows were set in a dormer alcove, and there was a most appropriate window seat on which to relax and enjoy the sights.

Historic photos of Crater Lake adorned the walls, which were covered with wainscotting typical of the 1920s. The bed, like all of the beds in the lodge, was queen size. The only other furniture in our room was a small night table, filled to capacity with a lamp and small clock radio. There wasn't enough space to empty out my pockets, never mind unpack our one small suitcase. Part of the long window seat had to be expropriated for this purpose.

In 1929 the lodge had 105 sleeping rooms, but only 20 had private bathrooms. Now the lodge has only 70 rooms, but every one has a private bath. Rooms similar to ours rent for $119 plus tax per night. Across the hall, where the views are of mountains and valleys rather than the lake, the rents are $114. There are four suites with lofts which go for $169 per night for up to four people. For reservations call 541-594-2255.

If you find those rates a bit pricey, there are other accommodations available in the park, though none of them are right on the lake. Mazama Village offers cabins for two for $74 per night through September 14, $59 per night from Sept. 14 to Oct. 14. And there are 198 tent and RV spaces which go for $12 a day.

It is hard to believe that anyone would want to watch television here, but doing without a phone is another matter. Once in bed we discovered that the room was too hot, and the heating system much too noisy. But we had been told by the gracious bellhop who accompanied us to the room that the heat and air conditioning were computer controlled. There was nothing we could do to adjust it, but he could be called on to make small changes if we were not comfortable. That's when we first missed a means of calling for service.

We heard the next morning -- following an uncomfortable, overly-heated night -- that another guest had cut herself and desperately needed a bandage. As there was no way of telephoning for help, she proceeded on her own to the front desk, trying her best not to drip blood on the new carpets along the way.

There being no phone to call for room service the next morning, nor table to eat breakfast on in our room, we gladly went back to the beautiful, rustic dining room for our first meal of the day. Then, before checking out of the hotel, my wife and I enjoyed the interesting exhibit of the history of the Crater Lake Lodge, mounted by the National Park Service to the left of the lobby on the main floor. On display is an overly-optimistic report from the Medford Mail Tribune, dated July 25, 1910, stating that the new lodge "will defy the ravages of the elements for all time to come." Nowhere in this exhibit is there a prediction as to how long the new structure will last, but it's safe to say that it will be there when you decide to pay a visit.

A Quick History of the Old Crater Lake Lodge

(from the National Park Service exhibit at the lodge)
  • 1902 Crater Lake National Park established.
  • 1903 Park promoter William Steel proposes that a hotel be built.
  • 1905 A road is completed to the caldera rim.
  • 1909 Construction of the lodge begins.
  • 1910 Locomobiles (early motorcars) transport visitors to the caldera rim.
  • 1913 Lodge construction is 40% completed.
  • 1914 Snow causes large sections of the roof to collapse.
  • 1915 Crater Lake Lodge opens June 28. Dinner is served in the dining room.
  • 1916 On Aug. 7 the lodge is packed. Guests without rooms sleep in the Great Hall. Kerosene lamps and candles are the only lights upstairs.
  • 1917 The cesspool overflows.
  • 1919 Four fire escapes are installed. Guest room doors have no keys.
  • 1921 In the evenings violins are played in the Great Hall.
  • 1922 Construction work on the lodge annexes begins.
  • 1924 New rooms in the lodge annexes open.
  • 1924 A November storm rocks the upper floor like a ship. Snow blows in around windows and between shingles.
  • 1928 Work begins on an awning-covered terrace on the lake side of the lodge.
  • 1929 Guests complain about inadequate room furnishings.
  • 1929 The lodge has 105 sleeping rooms, but only 20 have private baths.
  • 1930 Lodge lights, powered by a generator, are too dim for reading or playing cards. There is no heat in the rooms.
  • 1933 Sod is laid and shrubs are planted near the lodge entrance. Long winters and dry summers make growing difficult.
  • 1935 The lodge's iron beds are reportedly so poor that guests are liable to roll out.
  • 1938 A laundry is completed in the basement. In previous years linens were sent to Medford or Klamath Falls.
  • 1941 Inspectors express continuing concerns about fire safety. Nineteen female employees are living in small rooms in the attic without baths or proper fire exits.
  • 1942 The lodge closes July 27 and remains closed during World War II.
  • 1943 An engineer calls the lodge "a fire trap of the worst sort."
  • 1947 A ski bowl south of the lodge is equipped with a gas-powered rope tow.
  • 1950 Large wood columns are installed in the Great Hall to help support the ceiling and walls.
  • 1953 A report on lodge conditions documents numerous structural and maintenance problems.
  • 1955 The new "Caldera Room" cocktail lounge opens.
  • 1960 Wine is served in the dining room.
  • 1965 The roof is re-shingled.
  • 1967 The National Park Service receives title to the lodge from the concessionaire.
  • 1968 A fire sprinkler system is installed. Steel cables are installed to help withstand snow loads.
  • 1975 The lodge closes early in the season due to the contamination of the park's drinking water supply.
  • 1980 The NPS holds public meetings on the future of the lodge.
  • 1981 The lodge is entered in the National Register of Historic Places.
  • 1984 Public meeting confirms strong regional support for saving the lodge from demolition.
  • 1988 The NPS announces that the lodge will be rehabilitated.
  • 1989 Engineers report structural instability. The lodge does not open for the 1989 summer season.