Many guests arrived by private plane, landing at the adjacent airstrip, for the preview opening of Gaffney’s Lake Wilderness Lodge on Thursday, June 22, 1950. The 2,400-foot long grass airstrip, “with ample tie-down space for private planes,” was just one of the modern facilities touted by the Lake Wilderness resort.
The new Lodge, the centerpiece of the resort, opened to the public on June 24. Architects Young, Richardson, Carleton & Detlie described the building as being based on “modern Swiss Alpine architecture”—now, of course, we see it as one of the early buildings of Northwest regional modernism. The Lodge won a Washington AIA Honor Award in 1951; the next April it was one of only three buildings to receive national AIA Honor Awards. Today, Lake Wilderness Lodge recalls the emergence of mid-century modern architecture in the Northwest and reminds us of the history of the region as a vacation destination as well as its urbanization over the last sixty years.
In the early 1900s, property owners along Lake Wilderness, which had previously been the site of a large sawmill, opened their land as a hunting and fishing camp. Tom and Kane Gaffney had acquired the land by 1926 and the next year advertised Lake Wilderness Grove with picnic grounds, a sandy beach, furnished cabins, recreational facilities and other attractions including a large dance pavilion and a roller skating rink. The resort prospered, even during the Depression, as it was away from the city yet much closer than any of the national parks. In 1949, the Gaffneys initiated major improvements including the new Lodge. Construction began in October 1949 and was completed the following June.
The design of the 85-by 271-foot lodge is particularly dramatic with a large, glazed dining room opening to a cantilevered concrete deck with a view of the lake and beyond to Mount Rainier. The primary materials of the exterior are the smooth-finished light-colored stucco contrasting with hand-riven, dark stained cedar boards. The broad gabled roof was originally topped with light-green, marble chips.
The most notable feature of the interior is the 35-foot tall cedar tree trunk, five feet in diameter at the base, sculpted by Northwest master woodcarver Dudley C. Carter (1891-1992), who drew upon Northwest Native American motifs for the design. Serving as the primary structural column in the center of the lobby, this sculpture is surrounded by a free-standing curved staircase that links the ground/beach level, the main lobby (where the lounge and dining room were originally located) and the mezzanine. The ceiling of the lobby dining room is Douglas-fir with exposed fir beams—one of the earliest applications of this motif that would become ubiquitous in the regional Northwest modern architecture of the 1950s and 1960s.
When Lake Wilderness Lodge opened in 1950, publicity described it as the “most modern and beautifully appointed resort in the Pacific Northwest.” In addition to the rooms in the east wing of the Lodge, there were both new and old cabins along the lake. The main dining room in the lobby accommodated 125 with additional space on the outdoor deck in fair weather. The lower level outdoor fireplace and barbecue pit provided more informal dining.
The Gaffneys said the opening of the North Bend-Tacoma Highway led to their decision to expand the resort, but the new highway was also a harbinger of the future suburban development that would eventually reach Lake Wilderness. The property remained in private hands just sixteen years, then King County purchased the resort to use as a public park. Over the years the dance hall, roller skating rink and cabins were removed.
In 1997, the Lodge was designated a King County Landmark as a significant example of “post-war Northwest architecture.” The same year Maple Valley incorporated as a city, and six years later the city acquired Lake Wilderness Park. Koppe Wagoner Architects designed the conversion of the residential wing of the Lodge to city offices and meeting rooms.
In 2008-9, Maple Valley turned to SHKS Architects for restoration/rehabilitation of the exterior and Makers Architecture & Urban Design for the interiors. The project included restoration of the exterior materials, repair of the cantilevered concrete deck and handrail, seismic upgrades, insulation to improve energy performance and restoration of historically significant parts of the interiors.
In 2011, Historic Seattle recognized Lake Wilderness Lodge with a “Best Rehabilitation Project” award for the “exemplary approach to renovating a significant mid-century Modern building, providing needed upgrades while respecting the integrity of the original design.” The Lodge now serves as a popular location for events (especially weddings), as well as seminars and conferences.