Upon first glance, few would know Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier National Park has undergone varying stages of major construction throughout its 100-plus-year lifespan. Korsmo Construction of Tacoma is heading up a $24 million renovation to preserve the annex of the Inn, so that 100 years from now, thousands will continue to enjoy the historic beauty, as we know it today.
The aptly named southwest portion of Mount Rainier National Park has inspired a bevy of puns, but instead of being imbued with cheesiness, it forces you to stop and take a look around. At 5,400 feet of elevation, Paradise has 360-degree views of the Cascades, Mount Rainier and blooming fields of wildflowers in the warmer months, and snow the rest of the year. The air is crisp and cool, and the sun warms your back.
It truly is Paradise.
Early guests in the 1900s paid a toll to take the winding, hairpin trail past Carter and Narada Falls and up to Paradise. Prior to the establishment of National Park Service in 1916, individual pioneers of mountain accommodations had established themselves. John L. Reese ran a coffee shop and a tent camp called Camp of the Clouds, and the Longmire family, for which the rural town is named, built a hotel and provided tours up to Paradise.
When Chicago native Stephen Mather, a “wealthy, gregarious businessman,” traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1915, he helped curate a new vision for national parks and sought political support to nurture them, according to his biography on the National Park Service website. He envisioned a park system that offered a more seamless experience for visitors, so the consolidation of concessioners started. Instead of parks being run by a mix of vendors, the parks would be run under the supervision of the National Park Service.
A group of Tacoma businessmen formed and created Rainier National Park Company, and the construction of Paradise Inn began in 1916 for $91,000. A year later, the Inn opened to the public with 37 guest rooms and a dining room. In 1920, the annex portion of the Inn was built with 104 additional rooms. The Inn has since been slightly reconfigured and has 121 guest rooms.
If you walked through the double-door entrance of the Inn 100 years ago, it would look much the same as it does today. The old-growth logs hauled in by horses — the defining character of the main building — are just as impressive as they were the first day it opened. Furniture crafted by German carpenter and winter tenant of the Inn Hans Frahnke has been impeccably maintained — the log-framed piano is the centerpiece of the main building; guests relax at the oversized carved table and throne chairs; and time is kept by the ornate grandfather clock. It’s remarkable.
About 10 years ago, Korsmo Construction embarked on a major project to rebuild the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center and renovate Paradise Inn with seismic upgrades for better stability, updated plumbing and electrical, and refreshed old fixtures and paint.
Similar upgrades are being made currently at the annex portion of the Inn. The crux of the $24 million renovation is a seismic upgrades to keep the timber-built structure from swaying in the event of an earthquake, said Korsmo project manager John Ashworth. Construction for the annex and adjoining snow bridge started in August of last year and will continue until March 2019, giving employees of Rainier Guest Services just enough time to open the Inn for Memorial Day weekend. Though the inside of the Inn is nearly unrecognizable now, once the project is completed, Korsmo will have had an invisible touch. On historical renovations like this one, the goal is to maintain its 100-year-old appearance.
When we visited in late spring, the interior of the annex had been stripped down to the framing and was being carefully reconstructed. The building had been lifted off its foundation and placed on cribbing — stabilizing blocks of stacked wood — while a new concrete foundation was poured. The stone exterior was removed, and each stone was numbered and cataloged with a brass tag so it could be cut down to an 8-inch veneer and reaffixed in its exact, original location. New plumbing and electrical systems were installed, and the windows were removed and will be replaced with thermal-pane glass for energy efficiency.
The Secretary of the Interior has a 240-page-thick manual, detailing exactly how historic buildings can be renovated or reconstructed — down to the paint selection. Paradise was established as a historic landmark, so any construction is painstakingly planned and executed to preserve it.
“This project is exceptionally exciting,” Ashworth said. “The challenges on this are great. The location: I mean, we’re building through the winter on top of a mountain. We have the challenge of getting the supplies up and down here. … And along with the location is the historical element. The fact that this building is 100 years old, and it’s owned by the public — it’s owned by you and I — that puts another particular component on us to do an exceptional job.”
Korsmo works carefully with Mount Rainier National Park’s historical architect, Jared Infanger, who interned at the park in 2012 and vowed he’d somehow return. Infanger took a job as a project manager for a furniture outfitter in Idaho, but came back to Mount Rainier in 2015.
When doing a renovation like this, Infanger said, one of his main concerns is ensuring the character-defining features of the buildings are maintained. In the main building of the Inn, the log-style build is what makes it so unique. Remove those posts, and you significantly alter the character of the building.
Even though the annex was built just three years after the main building, the construction is surprisingly different. The timber frame-style construction looks slightly more modern, but is still deeply rustic. Infanger and Ashworth said materials are being “replaced in kind,” as to not disrupt the original look and feel of the building. The cedar shake roof shingles are being replaced with similar shingles sourced from Canada. The new windows will be nearly identical to the originals, and upgraded fixtures will blend with the 1920s-style. Any materials that could be preserved — some of the wood window frames, crown molding in the rooms, and interior trim — were carefully removed, refinished, and repainted, and will be reinstalled.
Historic preservation comes with some additional costs, but Infanger said it’s well worth it in the life cycle of the building.
“We’ve got old-growth timber in this annex that you can’t get anymore. It doesn’t exist on the planet. And the building has held up exceptionally well,” Infanger said.
The project is a perfect representation of how far the Park Service has come in preserving its buildings and natural resources, said Scott Ramsey, director of sales and marketing for Korsmo. When the Inn was originally built, trees were stripped down and rock harvested for construction. Now the Park Service has stringent rules about noise levels and the physical impacts made to the area.
“We wouldn’t even think about taking trees out anywhere in the area that aren’t absolutely necessary,” Ramsey said. “We want to work really softly.”
He added: “We actually have an amphibian protection plan in place, because there’s frogs and salamanders on this property that we have to be able to work around without doing harm. That’s an unusual thing for us. We have other environmental challenges and considerations for all of our projects, but that was a new one for our team, to get to that level.”
The Park Service has really evolved, Infanger said. How wildlife was maintained even 40 years ago is drastically different from how it’s maintained today.
“We’re always learning new methods of how to better preserve our buildings and structures,” Infanger said. “What’s good today, 10 years from now may be seen as outdated, because we may have found a better method.”
All of the strictness is to ensure that guests 100 years from now will have the same experience as we do today, and just as people 100 years ago did. Paradise is a time capsule of sorts. If you’ve been there, you understand what we mean. There are no TVs, no wireless internet — and there are no known plans to offer it. And though some of its bones have been replaced, its integrity has been preserved.
Paradise Inn will likely be Ashworth’s last project. He’s retiring in August 2019, months after the renovation wraps up.
“It’s kind of a highlight to my career,” he said. “It’s an amazing one to end my career on. It’s something I’ll bring my grandkids and great-grandkids, and they’ll bring their grandkids up here to see it.”
If you haven’t done the snaking drive all the way to the top and walked through those double doors, you owe it to yourself to go. Though the annex is closed for construction, Paradise Inn is still open to the public with some guest rooms available.
Take a seat in one of the cedar log chairs, close your eyes, and you’ll be back in 1917, in a place countless labored to create and would be happy to know have been carried on.