Many of these stories are about unknown or forgotten people who did important things in these parks. Once in a while, however, we encounter something else – a famous person who did something small here. Such is the story of Gilbert Stanley Underwood and Sequoia National Park.
Famous architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood enjoyed a career wherein nearly everything seems to have gone well. Born in 1890 in upstate New York, Underwood moved to California as a child with his widowed mother. He early developed an interest in architecture, and began working as an architectural draftsman in San Bernardino at the age of 18.
He spent several years mastering the basics of architecture in southern California, then a hotbed of “arts and crafts”-style design, then moved to Illinois to pursue a degree in architecture. Underwood had to balance his educational plans with earning a living, and he moved back and forth between working for a number of firms and continuing his education. By 1923, he had earned a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard.
With this degree in hand, Underwood, together with his wife, returned to Southern California, where he opened his own firm in Los Angeles in 1923. There, he reconnected with landscape architect Daniel Hull, whom he had first met at the University of Illinois in 1913.
Hull had by this time been hired by NPS Director Stephan Mather to oversee development and design in the national parks, and after Underwood returned to California, Hull provided Underwood working space in Hull’s Los Angeles office. Soon, this close relationship led to architectural assignments in the national parks for Underwood.
Underwood’s first big job in the national parks was for the Union Pacific Railroad, which in 1923 began the development of concessions facilities at Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks and Cedar Break National Monument. Underwood designed rustic lodges for all three park units.
The Park Service liked these designs so much that Hull began recommending Underwood to other concessions companies. By July 1925, he was at work on a design for a luxury hotel in Yosemite, the facility that came to be known as the Ahwahnee when it opened in 1927. At the same time, Underwood also designed the Grand Canyon Lodge, built on the canyon’s north rim for the Union Pacific.
It was during this intense period of national park work that Underwood received his first and only design assignment at Sequoia National Park.
Sequoia had achieved two major milestones in 1926. The first was the completion of the Generals Highway from Ash Mountain to the Giant Forest. The other was the creation of the Sequoia and General Grant National Parks Company, a new and better-capitalized concessions company.
Out of these two circumstances came the need to design a new commercial village for the Giant Forest area. The central and defining building for the new village was to be a market designed in the new NPS-rustic style, and this commission went to Underwood.
As constructed in 1928, the Giant Forest Market was a modest building when compared to the Ahwahnee or Grand Canyon Lodge, but it nevertheless demonstrated Underwood’s mastery of the NPS-rustic style. The new market’s long, low lines and exaggerated rustic texturing made it a handsome center point for the new village.
Underwood went on to have a long and distinguished career. After 1927, he seldom again designed anything as small as the Giant Forest Market. Among his later projects were the Omaha (Nebraska) Union Railroad Station, the federal courthouse in Los Angeles, and the State Department building in Washington, D.C. By the time he died in 1960, he was recognized as one of his generation’s pre-eminent architects.
Meanwhile, in the Giant Forest, Underwood’s single project at Sequoia National Park quietly fulfilled the purposes for which it had been constructed. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and in the 1990s, when most of the other concessioner structures in the Giant Forest were removed, the old market building was retained, remodeled, and eventually reopened as the Giant Forest Museum.
Today, the Ahwahnee Hotel’s architectural “little sister” continues to serve park visitors while also standing an enduring reminder of Gilbert Stanley Underwood’s contributions to the national park system.
© Wm. Tweed