Understanding Underwood

Understanding Underwood

Known for his rustic lodges and grand depots, Gilbert Stanley Underwood changed the architectural landscape of the American West—and his rambling 1928 Hollywood Knolls home is just as modest as he was.

by Ann Scheid

Gilbert Stanley Underwood was a quiet man who preferred to live a quiet life. Aloof and serious about his work, he was prolific in his Los Angeles practice, yet unsung as the architect of many American landmarks. So it seems fitting that when he built his own Spanish Revival-style family home in the Santa Monica Mountains, it was both close to, yet secluded from, the lure and luxury of Hollywood.

Here, in a rugged canyon between Mulholland Highway and Cahuenga Pass (which would become home to the Hollywood Freeway in 1940), a network of roads wend through a rolling landscape, curving down to a sparkling reservoir (created by the adjacent Mulholland Dam, built in 1924) commonly known as Lake Hollywood. In the midst of this wild terrain, emigré architect Franz Harding first laid out the upscale Hollywood Knolls neighborhood in the early twenties, touting its Old Europe setting. Yet, the real draw was its varied topography, open parkland and city views, which created a unique environment—at once urban, yet close to nature and seemingly removed from the increasingly sprawling metropolis below (not to mention the nearby movie studios in both Hollywood and Burbank).

Built in 1928, Underwood’s Mediterranean abode, sited at the top of the hills, meshes the needs of a twenties suburban lifestyle with the charm and romance of California’s Spanish heritage—red-tile roof, white plaster walls, prominent wooden beams. A massive vertical wood-plank front door with hand-wrought iron hinges opens to an entry hall flanked by spacious living and dining rooms that are first glimpsed through dramatic pointed archways. A wrought-iron grille screens the large living-room window from the street, while a bay window extends the dining-room space.

To complete the architectural look, hand-hewn exposed wood rafters, unusual wide-plank floors, and wrought-iron light fixtures further emphasize the rustic hand-crafted quality evoking Old Spain. Arched doorways lead to the breakfast room and kitchen, while the house’s L-shaped floor plan frames a walled courtyard and covered terrace accessed through French doors in the living room. Upstairs, three light-filled bedrooms offer treetop views.

This quietly elegant home and its low-key location are also emblematic of the architect’s legacy. For while little has been written about the man, his list of highly visible works and significant American landmarks is remarkably long. Though Underwood may have preferred to remain unsung, living just outside the Hollywood limelight, his work—more than that of most architects—managed to influence the lives of millions of American tourists and international travelers alike with his designs for some of the most famous national-park lodges and railroad depots in the western United States.

To name a few is akin to architectural name-dropping: Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone (1923), Bryce Canyon Lodge in Utah (1925), Zion Lodge in Utah (1927), the Grand Canyon Lodge on the north rim (1928), the Union Pacific Railroad’s luxurious Lodge at Sun Valley in Idaho (1936), Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming (1954)—and perhaps his most monumental achievement, his rustic grand dame, the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite (1927).

His list of train stations, post offices, court houses and federal buildings (including the striking 1937 U.S. Mint building in San Francisco) is equally impressive. His work for Union Pacific Railroad included the Grand Overland Station in Topeka, Kansas (1927), as well as depots in Abiline, Kansas (1929), Gehring, Nebraska (1929), Shoshone, Idaho (1929), Greeley, Colorado (1930), culminating in his spectacular Art Deco Union Station in Omaha, Nebraska (1931). Yet, the name of Gilbert Stanley Underwood remains under the radar. 

Born in Oneida, New York in 1890, Underwood was raised in San Bernardino, California. Starting at 18, he worked as an apprentice to various Southern California architects, including Franklin Burnham, Arthur Benton and Arthur Kelly. While studying architecture at the University of Illinois, he met and married Mary Elizabeth Smith. Underwood later received degrees in architecture from Yale and Harvard, where he won important prizes for his work.

Following graduation from Harvard, the Underwood family, which now included a son, moved to Los Angeles where the architect opened his office in 1923. During his studies, Underwood had developed friendships with Paul P. Kiessig and Daniel Hull, who had trained as landscape architects at Illinois and Harvard, respectively. Hull had become an assistant to Stephen Mather, director of the National Park Service, and Kiessig was brought in as an assistant to Hull. These friendships would lead directly to Underwood’s later commissions to design buildings in the national parks.

First, however, Underwood concentrated on developing his private practice in Los Angeles. Early on, Underwood landed a major commission, the Grand Olympic Auditorium (1925), at the time one of the largest public spaces in the city. A major sports venue in downtown L.A., it became home to boxing in the thirties and was immortalized by poet-novelist Charles Bukowski before succumbing to wrestling events in the sixties and seventies. It still stands on South Grand Avenue.

Another prominent Underwood building,  Wilshire Tower (pictured, right) was built in 1928 and covers an entire block at Wilshire and La Brea. The 10-story central tower is composed of receding blocks, set back as the tower rises. Rich Art Deco sculptured bas-relief panels decorate the Wilshire Boulevard entrance. In its day, the retail wings were occupied by Desmond’s and Silverwood’s clothing stores, while the tower originally housed medical offices.

Despite Underwood’s success in Los Angeles, it was his ties with the National Park Service that would advance his career and build his reputation. Government funding for national park structures was scarce in the twenties, but the desire to promote tourism in the West prompted the railroads to step in. The Santa Fe Railroad had already completed a lodge at the Grand Canyon’s south rim, and the Great Northern Railway had earlier built an enormous lodge at Glacier Park. Anxious to have access to year-round tourist destinations, the Union Pacific Railroad formed the Utah Parks Company to develop destinations in southern Utah at Cedar Breaks, Bryce and Zion canyons. These early efforts helped Underwood refine his version of rustic architecture, a style that has become the dominant style and image in our national parks.

Working for the Utah Parks Company, Underwood designed Bryce and Zion Lodges and cabins in 1924 to house park visitors traveling on the railroad’s “loop tour.” According to Underwood biographer Joyce Zaitlin, Underwood developed his own version of the rustic style, using native materials, stone and large timbers to form massive volumes, interspersing them with large glazed areas. This technique allowed the buildings to blend with their surroundings, highlighting the grandeur of the natural setting, while simultaneously opening the indoor spaces to light and views and lightening the massiveness of the structures. Following Mather’s direction to preserve as much of the landscape as possible, Underwood also kept these early lodges relatively small, housing most tourists in rustic cabins scattered in the forest and reserving the lodges primarily for dining and social interaction.

In the meantime, Underwood received his most important National Park Service job, the Ahwahnee Hotel at Yosemite (since 2016 known as the Majestic Yosemite Hotel due to an ownership dispute over the name). Mather realized that many people were unwilling to visit a national park if they had to “rough it” in tent cabins or rustic hotels without private facilities. His solution was a 100-room inn, set against an imposing cliff in a remote area of Yosemite Valley, a location chosen to minimize the impact of the large hotel building on the landscape and to reduce the concentration of visitors in the central valley area.

Underwood began work on the Ahwahnee drawings in his Los Angeles office in July 1925, first designing a wood-and-stone structure, only to have to change it to steel and concrete to meet fire regulations. Logistical challenges included trucking all materials and equipment from the rail terminus in Merced into the valley and providing housing and supplies for the nearly 250 laborers and craftsman who eventually worked on the site.

In the design for the Ahwahnee, Underwood applied the methods of his previously successful rustic park designs in Utah and at Yellowstone, but on a much grander scale. To integrate the six-story building into its surroundings, Underwood broke up the massing into blocks that echoed the gigantic rock formations behind it. Huge trees surrounding the building also minimized its size. Underwood transformed the appearance of the concrete walls by specifying rough-sawn boards for the concrete forms to replicate wide board horizontal wood siding, and then had the rough concrete acid-stained to a golden brown, effectively simulating wood. Roof elements were finished in the same manner, with concrete rafter tails jutting from under the eaves, recalling California Arts and Crafts-style buildings.

The plan was also innovative, placing the visitor arrival and registration desk off to the side to devote most of the space to a grand lounge and a dramatic dining room. The timber framing of the dining room, lined by giant tree-trunk pillars supporting enormous timber trusses, created a grand cathedral-like space, its tall windows framing views of nature, while the soft lighting from its candle-like iron light fixtures added to its romantic atmosphere. The whole is a fantasy of nature concealing the steel frame that provides the supporting structure. It is surely one of the most spectacular dining rooms anywhere.

Even before the completion of the Ahwahnee, the Union Pacific and the National Park Service approached Underwood to design a lodge on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, intended as the last of the railroad’s loop-tour lodges. The site was even more remote than that of Yosemite, 200 miles from the railroad. But the Union Pacific’s experienced and efficient organization had the lodge completed in less than a year.

Again Underwood created a site-specific design. Perched at cliff’s edge facing south across the canyon, the Lodge seemed to grow out of the stone face of the cliff. Tapered stone pillars rose from the canyon wall to frame large plate glass windows. Here the inspiration was the adobe cliff dwellings of the Southwest, assembled in layers receding back from the cliff’s edge and ending ultimately in a stone “watch tower.” Broad terraces at canyon’s edge allowed guests to get closer to the view. Guests stayed in rustic log cabins nestled among the trees. Unfortunately the Lodge burned down in 1932, just four years after its completion, leaving only the stone pillars standing. The replacement building, while maintaining Underwood’s basic plan and interior spatial relationships, substituted gabled roofs for the original flat roofs and omitted the central tower. These alterations compromised the original pueblo-derived image.

At the same time, Underwood was busy with projects in Los Angeles. Union Pacific had hired him to design a new station “in the old Spanish manner” in East Los Angeles, intended to serve Pasadena, East San Pedro and Anaheim. The station served UP passengers for over a decade, until the opening of Los Angeles’ Union Station in 1939.

But the company had another big project in mind—a Union Station in distant Omaha, which would become one of Underwood’s most impressive and significant buildings. This was his Gesamtkunstwerk—the architect was able to design not just the exterior, but all decoration, furniture, fixtures, lighting and sculpture. The elegant design, with Underwood’s trademark massive vertical piers alternating with tall windows, was assessed in a 1931 article in The Union Pacific Magazine as “perhaps the most daring effort at creating a railroad station in the ‘new’ modern manner. . . .” The article went on to describe the exterior architecture as “strong and vital . . . almost brutal in its expression . . . with a simplicity which is almost Greek in character.”

Heroic sculptures of the heads of railroad workers atop the massive exterior piers symbolized the railroad and the dignity of labor. Meanwhile, the interior also featured luxurious materials: Imported stone from Europe, silver and gold leaf highlighting ornamental carvings, and light fixtures and other metal trim in antiqued bronze. Huge medallions in the terrazzo floors mark the crossings of the axes of the floor plan.

As the twenties came to a close, Underwood had an increasing number of large projects on his drawing boards, including a 150-room million-dollar hotel in Yuma, Arizona, as well as a smaller inn, the oceanfront Laguna Beach Hotel, which opened in 1930 and still overlooks the Pacific surf today.

The October 1929 crash that launched the Great Depression sent building activities into a tailspin, but it took some time for reality to catch up with the overblown plans fueled by the boom. In 1930 alone, half a dozen Los Angeles projects by Underwood were announced in the Los Angeles Times, including three downtown skyscrapers as well as a multi-story hotel. The investment total for the projects was estimated at almost $4 million, which would have provided Underwood with plenty of work and income for some time.

With such prospects, Underwood expanded his downtown Los Angeles office, looking forward to completing the many projects announced in the Times. However, there was little work to be had. The only known work completed from this period was the small commercial building on Wilshire Boulevard across from Hancock Park (now home to the Craft and Folk Art Museum). The year 1932 was increasingly bad. City records show that Underwood retained his office on South Spring Street through 1934; but in 1935 it is gone.

That same year, Underwood moved his family to Washington, D.C., where he took the job of supervising architect for federal buildings on the West Coast. This would lead to Underwood’s designs for a Los Angeles federal courthouse and new quasi-Mission Revival post office. Underwood’s designs for federal buildings in the late thirties and forties reflected the prevailing taste for stripped Moderne, appropriate to the fiscal restraint of the period and also acknowledging the impact of the International Style. His landmark buildings of the period included the Neo-Classical San Francisco Mint and monumental multi-storied federal buildings in Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. These displayed Underwood’s favorite pattern of solid vertical glazed openings alternating with massive vertical piers, echoing the massing first expressed so elegantly in the Ahwahnee dining room.

Why Underwood has never been recognized as a major twentieth-century architect remains to be seen. Maybe it’s that his buildings are not identified with place, but scattered across the country; this may have led to his work being seen as isolated buildings, not as part of one body of work. Also, he worked primarily in the first half of the twentieth-century when modernism became the architectural style of choice, rejecting the practices of the past, and some of the more traditional architects along with them. Unlike the modernists, Underwood was not identified with a personal style, but adapted his designs to the problem at hand and to the needs of the client.

Yet, viewing Underwood’s own home in Hollywood Knolls is a reminder of the intrinsic value of his many works that still stand today. Collectively, they represent his significant contribution to our architectural history—not only as the creator of historic landmarks in our national parks, but as a contributor to the urban landscape of Los Angeles and the designer of important Federal buildings. His Union Station building in Omaha, once a gateway to the American West, has been faithfully preserved and now houses the Durham Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian that’s dedicated to the preservation of America’s western history. It’s only fitting that Underwood’s ongoing legacy should be a part of that.


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