The man who rescued Timberline Lodge
Richard Kohnstamm had a vision when he took over the ailing mountain resort 50 years ago, and he and his son are still running the place
Richard Kohnstamm was a young Army veteran and social worker from Manhattan who had never run a hotel, let alone a ski resort.
Then he moved to Oregon in the mid-1950s to take a job at a Portland social-service agency and saw Timberline Lodge.
The stone-and-timber building, nestled at the 6,000-foot level of Mt. Hood, was built by craftspeople working for the federal government's Depression-era Works Progress Administration. The lodge opened with great fanfare in September 1937, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Oregon to dedicate it.
But Timberline began falling on hard times soon after it opened. Four different operators came and went, having failed to turn the lodge into a financial success. It was closed when Kohnstamm took his first look at the property, and he found broken artwork and mattresses strewn on the floors.
But Kohnstamm saw something worth saving in the massive timbers, carved stone, hand-made furniture, Native American-inspired textiles, and Arts-and-Crafts-influenced details that graced the classically built mountain lodge.
Timberline also reminded him of the historic structures he had seen in Europe and their value to their people.
"I was charmed by the building and the setting; it's spectacular," recalls Kohnstamm, now 78.
The U.S. Forest Service, Timberline's administrator, was looking for a new operator at the lodge. So Kohnstamm made a bid and got the job, taking over in May 1955. He was 29 years old. Timberline Lodge was barely 18.
Fifty years later after decades of repairing damage, restoring or re-creating artwork, and building a ski lift and trail system that includes summer skiing the Kohnstamm family still runs Timberline Lodge, which became a National Historic Landmark in 1978.
Richard is chairman of the board of the family's management business, RLK and Company, but in 1992 he turned the operation over to his son Jeff, who at age 42 is Timberline's president and area operator.
It was his father, Jeff Kohnstamm says, who saved Timberline Lodge.
"Dad also inspired lots of other people to help," Jeff adds, noting that Richard backed the creation of Friends of Timberline, the non-profit organization formed in 1975 to preserve the lodge's furnishings and decorative arts.
All three organizations responsible for Timberline celebrate special anniversaries in 2005. This year marks the 30th birthday of Friends of Timberline; the 50th year of operation by RLK and Company; and the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Forest Service, which is still the lodge's administrator.
The Kohnstamms will celebrate their 50th year at Timberline in May. Throughout the month, Timberline ski lift tickets will cost $19.55 to commemorate the year that RLK and Company started there. An employee reunion also is planned.
"It has a real sense of place," Richard says of the lodge. "The way it fits into the mountain and mimics the general shape Ñ they're all one unit. It's unmistakable."
Turning it around
Timberline was the brainchild of Portland ski enthusiasts who proposed that the WPA build a lodge somewhere on Mt. Hood, Jeff Kohnstamm says.
But the lodge struggled for years after it opened, according to Richard. "Financing always was difficult because the government owned it, and people were not willing or able to put money in it," he says. "We've put money into it as though it were ours."
Richard sites another problem: "Skiing wasn't that popular in 1955," he says. However, the sport blossomed in the late 1950s, and he attributes part of his success to timing. "I was able to catch the skiing wave," he says.
It took Richard five years to turn the lodge around financially, he recalls. "I like to say I had a tiger by the tail I couldn't quit, we owed so much money, we had to make a success of our enterprise."
Richard also was starting a family. He had met a transplant from St. Paul, Minn., named Molly who worked as a waitress and ski instructor at Timberline. The two married and had three sons, all of whom pretty much grew up on the mountain. Richard had a room at the lodge for 18 years, and his wife and children spent most of their time there as well. Molly taught the boys to ski.
"We had a great time," Jeff recalls. "We had a large amount of freedom."
Molly Kohnstamm now serves on the Timberline board of directors. She and Richard have a home near Government Camp and another one in the Riverdale/Dunthorpe neighborhood of Portland. Jeff also has a home near Government Camp along with a house in Milwaukie.
The Kohnstamms say they pay their rent in the form of projects to maintain the lodge. "Our goal is to spend all our rent maintaining the place," Jeff says.
Timberline has a curator, Linny Adamson, who works with an army of craftspeople weavers, blacksmiths, painters to restore or reproduce the furnishings and džcor using original techniques. The lodge's curtains, drapes and chair fabrics are reproductions of the original patterns, Jeff says. The fabrics are constantly replaced as they wear out.
Meanwhile, Friends of Timberline has tackled big projects such as the installation of reproduction light fixtures. The group also is working on replacing the winter entrance tunnel with a more aesthetically pleasing design.
Outdoors, Timberline has plans for a new ski lift. "Thanks to summer skiing, we have the longest ski season in the country," Richard says.
Timberline is closed only two weeks a year for maintenance. It's open 12 months a year, but not every day in the fall, Jeff adds.
The Kohnstamms are on their third contract with the Forest Service. The current contract, a 30-year agreement, runs out in 2022.
Jeff, who will be 60 then, says it's too soon to say whether Timberline will continue to stay in the family after that point, but it's possible that someone among the 10 Kohnstamm grandchildren could take over Timberline's operation.
"We'll give the next generation the opportunity to do it if they want," Jeff says.
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