Remember more than five years ago, in early 2016, when a historic sign leading to The Ahwahnee Hotel was stolen less than two days before the National Park Service controversially renamed several landmarks, including The Ahwahnee?
The national landmark lodge dating to the 1920s temporarily became the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, due to a legal battle with the outgoing park concession corporation, Delaware North. The Ahwahnee and other historic place names in Yosemite were restored in July 2019.
The original Ahwahnee sign was never recovered, but a historically accurate replica of the original metal sign, topped by a black bird that disappeared from the original sign in the 1930s or 1940s, again graces the old stone gatehouse leading to The Ahwahnee.
Workers with the Yosemite Historic Preservation Crew installed and unveiled what they believe is an accurate replica of the original Ahwahnee sign on Friday morning. Metal worker Scott McGrath, 51, of Mariposa, made the replica sign at his studio in Mariposa in recent weeks, and his wife, Madelyn McGrath, 47, finished painting the sign this week.
“It’s a complete replica of what used to be here,” Scott McGrath said Friday, standing next to his work a few minutes before it was hoisted up onto the roof of the old stone gatehouse and bolted in place.
McGrath said he modeled the new sign from an old black-and-white photo of the original sign that included the black bird on top. Madelyn McGrath credited the National Park Service with providing a stencil to guide her painting. She said she used flat black, chrome yellow, and titanium white to paint the new replica sign.
The Ahwahnee Hotel opened for business in Yosemite Valley in 1927. The original gatehouse dates to 1930.
The original Ahwahnee sign was designed by Eldridge Spencer and located at the gate, researchers said in an Ahwahnee Cultural Landscape Report published in 2011. The original sign “appears to remain from the proposed period of significance, although it is missing the metal eagle that historically was mounted to it,” and it “exhibits some of the design motifs of the hotel interior and contributes to the historic character of the landscape,” Ahwahnee researchers said.
The old stone gatehouse and the sign were included specifically in a 1986 National Historic Landmark nomination for The Ahwahnee, which earned the designation the following year. The gatehouse is also listed as a contributing structure in a Yosemite Valley Historic District nomination.
Matt Bablitch, the Yosemite Historic Preservation Crew supervisor, said Friday workers spent weeks this past summer remortaring the interior and exterior of the stone gatehouse because the original mortar dating back had deteriorated over the past 71 years. All the restoration work was done by hand and the remortaring was completed earlier this week. Researchers focused on matching the historic mortar, and recommended using local sand they believe was used in the original mortar.
“Historic preservation here is critical” in Yosemite, Scott Gediman, a public information officer for Yosemite National Park, said Friday before the new sign was unveiled. Bablitch agreed and said the money used to restore the old stone gatehouse and create the replica sign came strictly from National Park Service maintenance funds.
Bablitch listed members of the Yosemite Historic Preservation Crew as preservationists Rob Morrow and Robbie Pitts, maintenance worker Ryan Alme, and carpenter Jeremy Simmons.
The Ahwahnee Hotel was first built to serve upscale guests nearly a century ago, when the wealthy could afford to pay premiums for exclusive lodgings and services. To this day the current park concessionaire, Aramark Corporation, touts The Ahwahnee as “one of the crown jewels of national park lodges,” which was “designed and built in the 1920s with the specific goal of attracting well-to-do clientele.”
The Ahwahnee’s list of famous guests includes former presidents, royalty, and celebrities. Historians and people-watchers say Herbert Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt stayed at The Ahwahnee, as well as Judy Garland, Lucille Ball, Charlton Heston, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Boris Karloff, Kim Novak, John F. Kennedy, Joan Baez, Mel Gibson, and Brad Pitt. Royals who have stayed at The Ahwahnee include Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, Queen Ratna of Nepal, King Baudouin of Belgium, and the British royals Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.
Ahwahnee room rates advertised on Thursday by Aramark ranged from $518 to $1,221 a night. The landmark building and its grounds offer views of Royal Arches, Tenaya Canyon, Half Dome, Glacier Point, and Yosemite Falls.
Aramark says The Ahwahnee is “a must-visit destination” in Yosemite Valley “for its dining, décor and architecture that complements the natural setting of the park.” The truth is many Yosemite visitors never go to The Ahwahnee: they go to Yosemite to admire views of the rare, glaciated geology and waterfalls, to walk trails, and climb rocks.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.