CRM Journal

Book Review

Weaver of Dreams: The Life and Architecture of Robert C. Reamer

By Ruth Quinn. Gardiner, MT: Leslie and Ruth Quinn, 2004; viii + 199 pp., notes, photographs, appendices, bibliography, index; cloth $39.95.


Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park (1902-04) has become something of an icon in the past quarter century with the renewed appreciation of rustic design. The same has not occurred with the hostelry's architect, Robert Reamer, who remains scarcely known. Weaver of Dreams may not rectify the situation, but it does offer an array of new material on this elusive figure and indirectly raises important questions.

Quinn's book is a labor of love. Though not trained as a historian, she has pursued archival sources in many parts of the country to reconstruct a life long forgotten. Her diligence, coupled with her focus on facts, gives the text a solid base upon which scholars may wish to explore further.

The Reamer that the author presents makes such inquiry tempting. Old Faithful Inn is a startling design, employing a vocabulary of log and stone developed over the previous two decades in the Adirondacks, but still largely a private, privileged mode, here inflated to monumental proportions and given the rigor of a well-studied Beaux-Arts composition. Reamer retained domestic allusions, which seem vaguely tied to Swiss chalets, but also suggest an archaic classical temple. Significantly, the exterior eschews the boxy character endemic to sizable resort hotels since the early 19th century.

Inside, Reamer did embrace a hotel idiom, but developed it in a novel way. The multi-storied atrium, which gained legendary status at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco (1873-74) and had been stylishly updated at the Brown Palace in Denver (1890-92), was translated from a quintessentially urban form to an extravagantly rustic one, with a Piranesian forest of logs. At one corner, Reamer set an immense, freestanding stone chimney more akin to an elongated blast furnace at an early ironworks than any interior contrivance. Throughout the effect is one of fantasy, but also of conquest—a quasi-genteel, quasi-heathen celebration of subduing nature (and the continent) for the benefit and pleasure of the well heeled.

How did Reamer do it? Had he been to a great Adirondack camp? Was he a guest at the Grove of San Francisco's Bohemian Club, a redwood forest primeval used for artistic indulgences of the most lavish sort? How familiar was he with the work of the nascent Arts and Crafts Movement? Had he studied the folio volumes of winning designs for the Prix de Rome and other French academic contests? Chances are slim on most counts from what biographical information Quinn has assembled. Reamer's background was limited. As an adolescent he trained with architects and furniture makers of no particular note in the Midwest, and his own work once he began practice in San Diego in the mid 1890s was of a thoroughly pedestrian cut.

So what happened after his principal client put him in contact with Henry Child, the entrepreneur who developed Yellowstone's tourist infrastructure? Was it Child who gave his young architect exposure to a world he had never known before? Did Child, through his many railroad connections, know Collis Huntington, who had commissioned one of the first large Adirondack camps, or Thomas C. Durant, whose son, William, was weaving the dreams of Huntington and other moguls in the North Country? The Child-Reamer relationship was a productive one, for it continued over several decades. Or might the inspiration have come from a prominent guidebook writer, whose claim to authorship Quinn notes? Whatever the origins of stimulus, Reamer was up to the task, utilizing sources that he would have known mostly from images and transforming them into an extraordinary, original design. Moreover, this opening performance was by no means the last memorable one.

After brief stints elsewhere, Reamer returned to Yellowstone in 1906 to prepare several unrealized designs for the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, each increasingly unorthodox and abstract. The final scheme (1909) makes Old Faithful Inn seem timid by comparison. A pavilion plan of huge dimensions is capped by vast, unrelieved hip roofs. Articulating the masses are cyclopean, canted towers that dwarf their chimney prototype at Old Faithful—part elongated blast furnace again, part semi-ruinous pyramid, part natural outcropping. Fronting the main block is a four-story colonnade of tree trunks, repeated around the atrium inside, with waterfalls cascading down the corner towers! Reamer's subsequent scheme for the Grand Canyon Hotel at Yellowstone (1910-11), by contrast, is more a bristling mass of conventional hotel elements. The public rooms, however, form a grand, cascading sequence of horizontal space, articulated with massive wood framing rendered in a forcefully abstract fashion.

As he was maturing, Reamer clearly was looking at a range of contemporary work. Louis Curtiss in Kansas City and Charles Whittlesey in Los Angeles—colleagues who likewise catered to railroad and national park concessioners—were likely important in this regard. The Grand Canyon's interiors bear some affinity with the ones Frank Lloyd Wright would later create in concrete for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, while the Mammoth's stone towers make it tempting to think Reamer knew of Henry Hobson Richardson's Wyoming monument to Oliver and Oakes Ames, who financed the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Sadly, Reamer did little rustic work after World War I. By 1918, he had relocated to Seattle, where he would spend the duration of his career. Designs from this later period seldom bear an individualistic stamp. Reamer did retrieve his free spirit in the fantasy world of the movie theater. The interior of Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theatre (1925-26) ranks among the most spirited of a flamboyant genre, using "Chinese" motifs in an unabashed display of popularized opulence. The more modest Mount Baker Theater in Bellingham, Washington (1926-27), has an especially imaginative, pictorial exterior composition that makes it an urbanistic tour de force. What a pity he could not have done more.

Weaver of Dreams raises many interesting questions, and perhaps that is one of the book's major contributions. Quinn's biography indicates Reamer was a modest, self-effacing man. In demeanor and looks he would hardly seem to be such a weaver of dreams, yet he was by no means the first architect of such temperament to pursue unconventional courses in their work. Such figures underscore the importance of resisting stereotypes in analyzing creative production. Reamer's Yellowstone legacy, which was instrumental in setting the direction of design in the national parks for over three decades, also reinforces the importance of pursuing leisure in remote places as a springboard for innovation in design.

Richard Longstreth
George Washington University