A new visitor center is opening at Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park, replacing the 42-year-old facility that many locals compared to a flying saucer.
PARADISE — If the old visitor center here was an alien spacecraft, its replacement looks as if it sprang from the rocky slopes and forests of Mount Rainier itself.
With a pitched gray roof, granite foundations and massive fir and cedar doors, the new building blends with the volcanic landscape and park architecture in a way the funky 1966 edifice never did.
“It’s much more in keeping with the setting and historic character,” said Eric Walkinshaw, manager of the $21.2 million construction project at Mount Rainier National Park.
The new visitor center, at the park’s premier destination, opens today.
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Demolition has already started on the original Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center, which many Northwesterners loved to hate for 42 years. The 60,000-square-foot, circular structure will be reduced to rubble before winter sets in. The futuristic design that earned comparison with a flying saucer is partly responsible for its demise, Walkinshaw said.
Snow collected on the flat, concrete roof and would have crushed the building like a beer can were it not for an embedded system of hot water pipes. When the weather was at its worst, the boilers gobbled 500 gallons of diesel fuel a day to melt the snow. The annual power bill was nearly $190,000.
“Diesel fuel was 20 cents a gallon when it was built,” Walkinshaw said.
The pipes were leaking, but there was no way to fix them without tearing off the roof. The building also needed fire sprinklers, emergency exits and better handicapped access.
When park managers added up the cost for those fixes, it was nearly as cheap to build a new, energy-efficient building, Walkinshaw said.
Heating the new visitor center will cost 77 percent less, a potential savings of more than $7 million over the building’s expected life of 50 years. Part of that savings is due to a double roof and energy-efficient windows. But much of it comes from the fact that the new visitor center is just 18,000 square feet, less than a third of the old behemoth.
At an elevation of 5,400 feet, Paradise affords spectacular views of the mountain in clear weather and is famed for meadows that burst with flowers in summer.
Up to 750,000 visitors make the winding drive to Paradise each year, including most of those who attempt to climb the 14,411-foot peak. An average 680 inches of snowfall lures skiers, sledders and snowshoers throughout the winter, despite often brutal wind and cold.
Anything man-made has to be tough to stand up to those conditions. “Things get really beat up here,” said Walkinshaw.
The new building is aligned east and west, like the dominant storm track. The metal roof is built to shed snow. In winter, managers will close 10-foot-tall wooden shutters to shield some ground-floor windows.
The palate of gray and green gives the building an austere look from outside. Inside, it’s all about warm wood and light. In the great hall, the ceiling soars 60 feet, supported by fir buttresses and columns that stand like trees. Windows from floor to roofline frame views of Rainier to the north and the jagged Tatoosh Range to the south.
But there’s no 360-degree vista, as afforded by the old visitor center.
Absent, too, are the hot showers that hikers and climbers used to enjoy at the end of a backcountry trip.
Mountain climbing is celebrated in the second-floor exhibit area, where a goggled mannequin shares an icy peak with a stuffed mountain goat. Other displays explain how plants and animals survive the heavy snows; provide an X-ray glimpse inside the volcano’s plumbing; and offer advice on how to survive the deadly mudflows, or lahars, that can roar off Rainier’s flanks (Answer: Run uphill.) A small theater, with surround-sound, plays a movie about the park’s human and natural history.
Park ranger Jim Hinote, who worked for years at the old visitor center, said many people will miss it. “A lot of folks have grown up with that building, and they’re very sentimental about it,” he said, acknowledging a pang himself.
But that’s offset by an insider’s knowledge of the crumbling infrastructure, including leaks that dripped into the lower level.
“We were developing stalactites and stalagmites down there,” Hinote joked. “I think that visitor center has had its day.”
Its name will live on, though — A tribute to the late “Scoop” Jackson. The powerful and respected U.S. senator from Washington got $2 million in federal funding for the old visitor center — at that time, the most expensive building in the national park system.
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or email@example.com