The Ahwahnee, A Collaborative Model for the Future

Now that the first major phase of fire/life safety improvements is complete, one of the most gratifying commentaries is to hear visitors to the historic hotel say they can’t tell where the work was done. Randy Fong, division chief, project management, Yosemite National Park

Exterior building with mountain face in the background.
According to A Sense of Place, Design Guidelines for Yosemite Valley, The Ahwahnee Hotel was listed in the National Register in 1977, and was designated a National Historic Landmark for its significant architecture in 1987.

The arts of the whole world have been called together to give The Ahwahnee character and color. —Carl Parcher Russell, 1947.

In August, 2012, with the last jackhammer silenced, and the construction dust settling in the twilight, arriving guests from around the world smiled in awe as they approached the massive doors of The Ahwahnee Hotel, totally unaware that a massive retrofit/life safety project had just been successfully completed.

“The Ahwahnee Hotel Fire Protection and Rehabilitation projects exemplify the challenges of fire protection in our nation’s iconic places and the enormous success that can be achieved through collaboration between fire safety and historic preservation interests,” stated Don Coffman, Yosemite National Park fire marshall.

The Ahwahnee Hotel has stood majestically in Yosemite Valley for 85 years. It has hosted a wide variety of guests, including kings, queens, presidents, honeymooners, and world travelers. During World War II, the hotel was converted to an rest and recovery facility for injured soldiers. It is as well recognized as famous geological landmarks that are also a part of Yosemite’s unique character. In the winter, guests warm themselves in front of the massive fireplaces in the “great room.” In the summer, visitors enjoy the great expanse of the facilities. Donald Tresidder, president of Yosemite Park & Curry Company (YP & CC), stated in 1927, “It was decided from the beginning to make the Ahwahnee environmental in its architecture, rather than to follow any definite period.”

Challenges were many and great as fire officials began to recognize that the Ahwahnee Hotel had many deficiencies that posed hazards to guests’ safety and protection of the hotel from potential fire damage. This park icon, which stands six stories high, features 99 rooms and dining facilities, and hosts thousands of visitors a year for special events. Discussions began regarding the life safety concerns and property protection. Questions included how to continue work behind the scenes while guests were enjoying the experience of The Ahwahnee, and how to minimize closure time.

There were many interested parties in this iconic restoration project, including Yosemite National Park, NPS historic preservation authorities in the Pacific West Region and Washington offices, the concessionaire Delaware North Companies (DNC), and the California State Historic Preservation Office. They were tasked with the challenges of bringing the fire alarm and sprinkler systems up to code, increasing the number and design of exits, updating emergency radio communications within the hotel, property protection, and life safety, all while balancing the historical integrity and economic issues. In meetings, the group learned that all involved had the same ultimate goal--to preserve and maintain the historic architectural integrity of The Ahwahnee for generations to come. The greatest challenge of all was to maintain the viability of the building during a major retrofit project.

The work still required closing the hotel for six weeks. As myths of damaging fire sprinkler systems were dispelled and everyone understood the historic values at risk, the level of trust increased, and a collaborative model was born between fire protection and preservation interests.

The Ahwahnee fire protection and fifth- and sixth-floor egress projects, providing a second exit from the two top floors and assembly areas on the south Mezzanine, were completed between September 2010 and January 2012. These projects provided complete coverage of fire sprinkler, fire detection, and alarm systems, an emergency responder radio communications system, smoke and fire protection features throughout the hotel, and improved fire department access. The combined costs for these life safety and fire protection improvements totaled $9.6 million. Careful planning and monitoring saved $2.2 million in construction costs.

Opportunities for Improvement

Interior view of the great room.
Ahwahnee Great Room after life safety work was completed.

While the hotel remained open for the majority of the project, the brief closure provided additional opportunities to improve accessibility, visitor experience, critical building stabilization, systems repairs, and operational enhancements. This marks a major step forward in the awareness and commitment toward fire protection for Yosemite and a model for future fire protection projects. Randy Fong, division chief, project management for Yosemite National Park, remarked, “Now that the first major phase of fire/life safety improvements is complete, one of the most gratifying commentaries is to hear visitors to the historic hotel say they can’t tell where the work was done.”

Throughout this massive project, Yosemite National Park has supported the many voices that have helped restore this national landmark. At times the oversight audiences were challenging. Park leadership had the tenacity to push this project forward as an integral part of the 2020 Strategic Plan. New levels of understanding and cooperation developed due to respect and appreciation for the values of those involved. This is what success looks like for future generations.

According to Dan Jensen, Yosemite DNC president, “The collaborative effort between the NPS and DNC provided a combination of skill, creative energy, and resources, which produced not only improvements to life safety, but also an upgrade to guest rooms and common areas. It was a pleasure to be part of this partnership, and the result is something that is a credit to both organizations.” The greatness of the Ahwahnee Hotel has been appreciated and inspirational for generations. Being tasked with maintaining such a magnificent treasure is a shared responsibility.

The next phase of this project is the Ahwahnee Comprehensive Rehabilitation Plan. This plan will require several phases to enhance accessibility and earthquake protection, additional improvements to existing egress systems, fire department access to outlying cottage buildings, and replacement of the building’s utilities systems. These additional phases are enormous in scope, cost, and value.

“We are stewards of natural and cultural heritage. We must preserve and protect our heritage resources. The protection and preservation of historical properties is integrated into applicable park planning, operations, and project management,” stated Yosemite National Park superintendent Don Neubacher. Knowing that all involved parties were once able to sit at the table and make decisions that were sound for all their areas of specialty helps us understand that this next dream of additional fire/life safety improvements will become a reality for Yosemite National Park's crown jewel, the Ahwahnee Hotel.