People have been traveling through Yellowstone and interacting with it for more than 10,000 years. The evidence of this interaction between people and nature is not always easy to see. But one type of evidence that is visible are Yellowstone’s historic buildings. There are more than 750 historic structures in Yellowstone, from turn-of-the-century sheds to stately hotels. Historic buildings are evaluated by experts, and those that are of exceptional value nationally are designated National Historic Landmarks. Yellowstone has five National Historic Landmark buildings: the Old Faithful Inn; the museums at Fishing Bridge, Madison, and Norris Geyser Basin; and the Northeast Entrance Station.While these buildings may be less known than Old Faithful Geyser, less sought after than a grizzly bear, and less photographed than a moose, they are an integral part of Yellowstone. The architects of these buildings were inspired by the park’s natural setting, and the buildings were designed to be a part of nature rather than separate from it. Yellowstone’s historic landmark buildings are all a type of architecture called rustic design, which uses native materials in proper scale and avoids rigid, straight lines and over-sophistication. This design gives the visitor the sense that these buildings were constructed by pioneer craftsmen with limited hand tools. The most common native materials used in rustic design structures are logs, stone, and wood shingles. Rustic design became an important early National Park Service design philosophy that was used through World War II.
The Old Faithful Inn is the first building that was constructed in a national park using this architectural style. The enormous log and frame hotel, built in 1903-1904 a short distance away from Old Faithful Geyser, is a masterpiece in gnarled logs, rough-sawn wood, and massive stonework. The architect Robert Reamer, working for the Northern Pacific Railroad, was given the mission of designing a building with an identifiable character. The result was the creation of a special hotel with a sense of place as identifiable as the park itself. The Old Faithful Inn is one of the few remaining log hotels in the United States. Its influence on American architecture, particularly park architecture, is immeasurable.
The Madison (1929), Norris Geyser Basin (1929), and Fishing Bridge (1930-31) museums, designed by Herbert Maier for the American Association of Museums and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Foundation, served as the models for hundreds of state and county park structures built in the West and Midwest during the 1930s Depression work-relief programs. Maier’s belief that any building in a national park was a “necessary evil” forced him to strive hard to make his buildings harmonize with the surrounding landscape. These Yellowstone museums appear to be placed within rather than upon the landscape, with the scale and roughness of the buildings a reflection of the surrounding environment. The buildings seem to have grown of their own accord, with rock walls cropping up out of the earth but strongly tied to it through the horizontal emphasis of the design.
The Northeast Entrance Station, constructed in 1935, is a classic log entrance station. It is the best example of its type of structure remaining today in the entire National Park System and is an excellent example of National Park Service design philosophies. The National Park Service viewed such an entrance station as a way to introduce visitors to the special place they were about to enter. Through the entrance station, the National Park Service hoped to both “invite and deter, encouraging use while discouraging abuse of the park.” The building was not only the physical boundary but also the psychological boundary between the rest of the world and the area set aside as a permanently wild place. While an entrance station was also considered important functionally for collecting fees, counting visitors, and providing the first visitor contact in a national park, it was also considered symbolically important, creating a sense of place and identity.
It can be hard sometimes to see how nature and culture interact, particularly in a place like Yellowstone. We come looking for nature–we usually don’t look to see how nature influences us or how we influence nature. Yellowstone’s special National Historic Landmark buildings can help us see this influence.