Mystery on the Main Floor: Oregon White Oak and the Main Floor of Timberline Lodge

By: By Kristin Kaye, Build Local Alliance

Stairway post with a newell of a newborn ram lamb inside the Timberline Lodge. Photo from Wikimedia CommonsYou can’t throw a snowball inside the majestic Timberline Lodge and not hit at least one jaw-dropping design feature. The historic WPA lodge is rife with handmade wonders and stories detailing how they were made. The towering 3-story, Douglas fir central columns, for example, come from Washington’s Gifford Pinchot Forest. A German woodworker charged $25 per column to shape the giant logs into a hexagonal shape using only a foot adze and an axe. His only request was that the log be turned for him
when he needed as he worked. The time worn wooden newels topped with animal sculptures were made from telephone poles. They were originally carved with intricate detail. However, Margery Hoffman Smith, the interior designer, had the woodworkers re-do the sculptures with less ornate detail to better fit with the more casual and rustic design of the lodge.

The tongue-and-groove wood floor of the main lodge is an unusual pattern made from Oregon white oak. Wide and medium-length planks abut narrow planks in an idiosyncratic fashion. It could look like a floor of wood scraps that someone tried to make look uniform. Almost an after thought. And, if historical records are an accurate representation of the importance of a feature, then the floor at Timberline Lodge appears to be a forgotten element.

In trying to track down details about the floor--where the wood came from, the inspiration for the design, how long it took to lay--there has been a compelling absence of information. Credible and noteworthy professionals who preserve and promote Timberline’s legacy include writers who have written volumes on its architecture and interior design; librarians at the Oregon Historical Society who have extensive archives about the lodge and know how to retrieve information on any topic relating to Oregon history; restoration specialists who have restored the floor more than once; archaeologists for the forest service; and marketing and PR folks for Timberline Lodge itself. None of them know or can find records about the history of the floor.

A few facts are known, however. It has some obvious areas of water damage and ski boots have pounded it for decades causing the delicate connections of the tongue and groove to break down over time. It is speculated that when the floor was installed the wood might have been ‘green’ and therefore shrunk a bit as it dried contributing to the frail tongue and groove connections in some areas.

The unanswered questions include: was the floor considered a central design feature? Or, was it an afterthought? Where did the wood come from and why was Oregon white oak chosen? And, do any of these questions relate to the perception of and relationship to Oregon white oak in the mid-1930s when the lodge was constructed?

A view from above, capturing some of the wood flooring inside of Timberline Lodge. Photo from Wikimedia CommonsHistorically, Oregon white oak stands have either thrived or declined depending on prevailing land use practices. Native Americans conducted annual burns to promote certain food plants and animal habitat. Oregon white oaks, especially older trees, happened to survive and even prosper in the frequent burns. When pioneers settled in Oregon in the mid-1800s, however, they displaced Native Americans and the yearly burns ceased. Oak stands were then overtopped and killed? By fast-growing Douglas fir and land development. At the time, the wood was put to good use in buildings, furniture and floors because of its celebrated hardwood qualities. In 1906, mills churned out countless board feet to supply San Francisco with wood flooring after the earthquake. Today, less than 5% of Oregon white oaks still exist.

It is difficult to discern when the bulk of Oregon white oak was crowded out or harvested. However, if it had been largely harvested by the 1930s, it is possible that Oregon white oak grew to be considered a kind of undesirable weed, a random,  slow-growing species that had little value. We do know that since the lodge was built at the height of the Great Depression, money and resources were extremely limited which influenced the choice of materials. Oregon white oak could have been a cheap, but functional choice and therefore simply overlooked as a noteworthy design feature. Perhaps the planks were even wood scraps leftover from building the lodge.

However, restoration specialist John Platz noted that two buildings built around the same time, the Overlook Building in Eagle Creek and the State Forester’s building in Salem, also used Oregon white oak flooring. An alternate possibility is that Oregon white oak was still fairly abundant, perhaps even taken for granted and enjoying popularity as a local hardwood making it a perfect choice as a symbol of Oregon’s natural beauty.

It was the intention of Timberline’s architects and designers to create a style to rival Europe’s Alpine architecture. They succeeded. The architecture and design elements of the Timberline Lodge (and other significant buildings of the time period) came to be known as ‘Cascadian Design’ that describes an earthy, rustic, bold style that reflects the local terrain. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, Oregon white oak became an integral part of the Cascadian Design language that defined an era and a region.