TIMBERLINE — Seventy-five years is a ripe old age, one that isn’t achieved without a few battle scars.
There was a time when the historic Timberline Lodge, on the north slope of Mount Hood, didn’t appear likely to survive its teenage years.
Built at the 6,000-foot level of Oregon’s tallest peak by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1936 and 1937, the hotel and ski lodge initially flourished. But it closed when the United States entered World War II, and failed to regain the popularity of its honeymoon period once the war was over.
By the mid-1950s, having degenerated under mismanagement into a den of iniquity — one that turned a blind eye to gambling and prostitution even as it left many of its bills unpaid — Timberline was threatened with permanent closure, according to the historical “Timberline Timeline" posted in a lodge exhibit area. The U.S. Forest Service, which owned the land upon which the lodge stood, even considered razing the building and restoring the mountain to structure-free wilderness.
Enter Richard L. Kohnstamm: “He was sort of our Walt Disney," said Jon Tullis, Timberline’s director of public affairs. “The people of Oregon rallied behind ‘RLK’ when he convinced the Forest Service to give Timberline one last try."
At the time, Kohnstamm was 29 years old and a Portland social worker, qualifications that might have made him an unlikely candidate to renovate a grand hotel.
But he had a wealthy family in New York, and that, coupled with a great deal of enthusiasm, earned him a Forest Service lease as the operator of the lodge.
In fewer than five weeks, Kohnstamm had upgraded the rundown lodge sufficiently to reopen on July 1, 1955. It has not closed since. Still in the Kohnstamm family — “RLK" died in 2006, but his son, Jeff, is now the chief operating officer — Timberline celebrated in September the 75th anniversary of the day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated the lodge as “a place to play for generations of Americans in the days to come."
FDR’s New Deal
When Mount Hood National Forest was established in the 1920s, the south side of 11,245-foot Mount Hood was reserved for recreational purposes. The Forest Service planned roads, trails, picnic areas and campgrounds — as well as winter sports sites — but held off on implementing the schemes until funding became available.
President Roosevelt’s New Deal answered the call. Not only did the WPA and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) put tens of thousands of Northwest residents to work during the dark days of the Great Depression, they spread hope and produced a recreational infrastructure that helped shape the region’s future.
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977, Timberline is still used for its original purpose: that of a ski lodge. The second chairlift in North America (after Sun Valley, Idaho) was installed here in 1939. In the early 1950s, a passenger bus refitted as an aerial tramway operated for two years on an overhead cable from Government Camp, six road miles downhill.
Kohnstamm’s timing couldn’t have been better. Skiing boomed as a family sport in the late 1950s and 1960s. And in 1978, when the lodge installed the Palmer Chairlift, rising to an elevation above 8,500 feet, Timberline was able to remain open for skiing through the summer. Ski-racing camps in July and August revolutionized the sport in North America, as Timberline — perhaps not coincidentally — became a financially stable operation for the first time.
Today, the Northwest’s only ski-in, ski-out winter lodge boasts the longest ski season on the continent, closing only during October for maintenance. But of the 1.9 million visitors the lodge now sees each year, fewer than 20 percent (between 350,000 and 380,000, according to Tullis) are skiers.
“We’re more important than that," said Tullis, who edited the diamond-anniversary edition of “Timberline Lodge: A Love Story," a hardcover history book. “This is an icon that resonates with people on the physical and metaphysical landscape of Oregon."
An art museum
Before he came to work at Timberline Lodge 29 years ago, Tullis had been a New York antiques dealer, specializing in early American decorative arts. He was the perfect person with whom to explore the lodge when I stayed for two nights in the week before Christmas.
He pointed out hand-carved animal heads — beavers, bobcats, eagles and many more — upon the posts of each newel on the rustic staircases. Illuminated 1937 paintings of WPA workers surrounded the walls of the mezzanine-level Ram’s Head Bar. Unique stone arches, light fixtures, wrought-iron accents and massive fireplaces of rough-cut stone were everywhere we looked.
Although it is a ski lodge, Timberline Lodge is also a work of art. It was funded as a federal arts project and built almost entirely by hand with local, recycled or repurposed materials.
Famed architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who designed Zion National Park Lodge and the Ahwahnee Hotel at Yosemite National Park, was hired as a consultant. His approach was not based upon contemporary architecture of the 1930s, but on an indigenous regional design that would celebrate the natural environment.
Addressing a concern that American society was rapidly losing the skills of traditional trades, the project paired master craftsmen with unskilled apprentice workers who learned on the job; 450 men were employed on site, with hundreds more men and women put to work in Portland. Everything from door hinges to furniture, carpets to draperies, was made from local materials.
It took just over 22 months to complete the entire project, including the road from Government Camp, at a cost of about $1.2 million.
“There is a strong sense of place here, and along with it, a power of place," said Tullis, reading from an essay he wrote for the lodge anniversary. “It is a unique structure on a rising tide of sameness. Every room is different, from its views to its furniture and textiles. It is as if the lodge has become a part of Oregon’s cultural DNA.
“At a time when people were questioning the American dream, Timberline Lodge stood as a symbol of hope and purpose in a land that had seemed to have lost its promise. Timberline became representative of the notion that when government works with the people, it can provide solutions to some of society’s biggest problems."
Today Timberline Lodge operates on a public-private partnership between the lessee (R.L.K. and Company), the Forest Service and the nonprofit Friends of Timberline, formed in 1975 to preserve the lodge’s decorative arts. Tullis calls it a “collaborative stewardship."
“Preservation here is a work in progress," he said. “We still employ a variety of artisans and top-notch local craftspeople to do the hands-on restoration and preservation work. Honoring the Lodge’s original rustic charm, providing a sense of permanence, is at the heart of our operation. Our future lies in preserving our history."
Dining at Timberline
Perhaps no corner of the lodge maintains the “sense of place" better than the 140-seat Cascade Dining Room. The rustic, wood-beam construction features the original tables and chairs built 75 years ago — or, in some cases, replicated by the same Portland factory where they were first constructed. Over the fireplace is a remarkable wood carving of the region’s wildlife.
The food, which chef Jason Stoller Smith terms “Alpine cuisine," reflects the location. “My mission is to define the food of the region," Smith said. “I study edible foods of the mountain and forests to help me know what is out there. I like what we’re doing. We change the menu about six times a year, and we are continually refining that menu."
Smith, 41, worked as executive sous chef at Timberline in the late 1990s before taking the head job at the Dundee Bistro, in the Willamette Valley wine country, for 10 years. He returned to Timberline in 2009 to succeed his former mentor, chef Leif Erik Benson, who retired after 32 years at the lodge’s helm. And in 2011, he had the opportunity to cook alder-planked Copper River salmon on the White House lawn for 2,000 people.
On my visit, Smith prepared a marvelously creative meal that opened with goose sausage, black truffles and three styles of celery. My entree was a T-bone of lamb in a red-wine reduction, accompanied by a honey-poached pear stuffed with chevre cheese and topped with a malty beer foam. Service was big-city professional from start to finish.
The Cascade Dining Room offers a full breakfast menu and a generous lunch buffet. Casual meals are served in the Ram’s Head Bar, one floor below. Pizzas, soups and sandwiches are also available in the Blue Ox Bar, named for an original mural of legendary lumberman Paul Bunyan’s companion, Babe.
A base for skiing
Timberline added its seventh and presumably final chair lift in 2008, when eight new trails were cut in the Still Creek area to be served by the Jeff Flood lift. That increased the vertical to 3,690 feet from top to bottom.
I enjoyed several hours of skiing in light powder snow among the trees on the downhill side of the lodge. On this blustery day, lift lines were minimal, perhaps because low clouds made for poor visibility on the upper Magic Mile chair. But my guest room was just a quick skate step from the top of the Pucci chair, where I took most of my runs, so shelter was near at hand.
Day skiers are accommodated at the spacious Wy’East Lodge, which has its own cafe and bar as well as rental and repair shops, retail outlets and ski-patrol headquarters.
No further winter expansion is planned. “We are largely built out," said Tullis, “although the master plan does contemplate some additional parking" beyond the 1,000 spaces now available.
But the lodge has big plans for a mountain-bike park. An appeal hearing is scheduled later this month to counter opposition from environmentalists, who dispute a three-year Forest Service analysis which said a bike park would have no significant negative impact.
“We’ve always tried to embrace the next trend," Tullis said. “We practice preservation through use."
Timberline is only one of several ski resorts on the various flanks of Mount Hood. Largest is Mt. Hood Meadows, a 20-minute drive northeast from Government Camp — in the direction of Hood River — off Oregon Highway 35.
“Meadows" has 11 chairs and a 2,777-foot vertical, with a longest run of three miles. Although most of its terrain is rated intermediate, the challenging and north-facing Heather Canyon features cliffs, walls and steep bowls that invite only expert skiers.
I rode five different chairs on my afternoon of skiing at Meadows, finding my best runs on the Hood River Express lift, the resort’s longest at 1,400 feet. In deep powder snow, Kinnikinick gave my early-season legs a good workout.
The other best place to ski at Hood is right on U.S. Highway 26, at Government Camp. Mt. Hood SkiBowl isn’t technically on the mountain, though. Instead, it sprawls across a couple of smaller, forested peaks. And although it’s not large by Timberline or Meadows standards, it’s the perfect place to ski under the lights.
In fact, with 960 illuminated acres and 34 runs, SkiBowl is the largest night skiing area in the United States. When the back bowl is open, giving the resort a vertical of 1,100 feet, it is well worth an after-dinner foray.
In summer, SkiBowl becomes the Mt. Hood Adventure Park, offering family activities such as mountain biking, an alpine slide, a 500-foot zipline and much more. Kids and their parents can enjoy miniature and disc golf, horseback riding, go-karts, canoeing and even bungee jumping.
Prior to my two-night stay at Timberline Lodge, I stayed a night in Government Camp, taking a few evening runs and grabbing dinner and a Cloud Cap amber ale at the Mt. Hood Brewing Company’s Ice Axe Grill.
My room was a chalet at the Collins Lake Resort, which also owns the elegant Grand Lodges — luxury condominium units that accommodate six or more. Collins Lake is the owner of Mt. Hood SkiBowl, so lodging packages may include cut-rate tickets to the area.