The Oasis at Death Valley: Preserving the Past While Upgrading for the Future
How a historic gem in the middle of the desert is being re-born for modern times
The renovations and modernization taking place at The Oasis at Death Valley in California represent a unique challenge.
Change doesn’t come quickly in Death Valley National Park. Here, where geological time remains the standard, human impacts are minimal and the landscape is seemingly eternal.
So the renovations and modernization taking place at The Oasis at Death Valley in California, formerly Furnace Creek Resort, represent a unique challenge. How do you take such classic destinations as The Inn at Death Valley and The Ranch At Death Valley into a new era of sustainability and guest comforts while also maintaining the experience that generations of travelers have come to cherish?
That’s the question that Rebecca Stone and Chris Vandall of Denver’s OZ Architecture faced as they took on the job. Arriving in the area and seeing The Inn at Death Valley, the two architects immediately understood just what a unique project they were embarking on.
“Coming through this arid, desert moonscape, there’s nothing out there,” says Stone, the architect of record and principal in charge on the project. “And then you round the corner and you hit this beautiful, hand-built inn that’s truly an oasis. There are palm trees and water and a beautifully crafted building that grows out of the rock. You don’t expect that after you’ve been driving for miles without seeing any trees at all.”
“The architecture and style at the inn is really a beautiful older structure made out of a lot of adobe. We found out later that the adobe was actually harvested on the site of the inn,” says project manager Vandall, who has visited the resort monthly while working on the effort. “I also thought the setting was just striking. The colors change a lot, the sky changes a lot, and the inn sits on a hill with these really amazing views up and down and across the valley. It’s a really neat perspective on the desert.”
Reimagining a Classic
As iconic as the inn may be, the 1927 hotel was due for significant upgrades to both public spaces and all 66 of its guestrooms. In addition, the project created 11 two-room casitas and a new spa, as well as such enhancements as cabanas and a café by the famous spring-fed pool. The architects also wanted to improve the visitor arrival experience by creating an outdoor space with a garden and fountain to replace the existing auto court.
Taken together, these developments represent the biggest changes to the inn for several generations. Even so, the architects aimed to make the inn a better destination, not transform it into something different. And with that challenge came a rare opportunity to enhance the inn’s eco-friendliness.
While certainly historic, the inn is not designated on the National Register of Historic Places. That gave Stone and Vandall a bit more flexibility, though by no means carte blanche to make major changes.
“One of the biggest challenges of working with buildings on the national register is that to even vent the dishwasher, there can be a lot of hoops that you need to go through,” says Stone. “Not having it registered but still protecting its historic integrity means there’s not such a huge process each time you re-caulk the windows or something like that…But we wanted to maintain all of the wonderful historical elements so that someday, if somebody does choose to register the building, we had protected those things. Because they’re hard to get back. You don’t want to mess with anything that might be valuable later.”
While returning guests will certainly notice the inn’s new features, such as the Mission Gardens, a beautiful event space ingeniously crafted from the ruins of a historic adobe building that burned in a fire, many of the sustainable design elements will be invisible to casual observers. They include:
- Improved insulation and windows to reduce energy loss.
- The use of paints, sealants, carpeting, and composite wood products that limit indoor air pollution.
- Low-flow plumbing fixtures and greater irrigation efficiency so that there will be no net increase in water usage.
- Low-wattage and energy-efficient lighting installed in a way to preserve the dark night skies so famous for stargazing.
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
Because the character of The Ranch at Death Valley is so distinct from the inn’s, the architects were really working on two properties, not one.
“The ranch was very different,” says Stone. “It’s sort of national park in feel but also this homestead kind of place. It feels a little more like a dude ranch. I like that aspect of the ranch because you’re expecting to arrive at a national park but then there’s also this cool little saloon and steakhouse and cabins and motorcyclists hanging out on the front porch. It’s very welcoming. Not frilly or fancy.”
Adds Vandall, “There’s also a mining piece to the ranch because of all of the artifacts at the Borax Museum. The old train and the wagons give the ranch an Old West character.”
At the ranch, some of the buildings were dated and in need of major renovations. The check-in building, actually an old trailer, is being replaced by a more proper arrival facility with a shaded front porch where guests can gather, says Stone. Some consideration was given to keeping and renovating the long-time food and beverage building. Instead, it will be replaced within the existing footprint by a new greener structure that Stone says could “last for 100 more years. In the big picture of sustainable architecture and national parks, it will be much more energy efficient and fit better into the environment. We could have band-aided the existing buildings but they weren’t going to be lasting. This was the right time.”
The ranch’s entry area will also undergo a major transformation from what has been more of an unshaded parking lot into a true gathering place suited to pedestrians. Instead of cars backing in and out, it will become the ranch’s Town Square, with a lawn, fountain, and landscaping. Not only will Town Square be safer, its landscaping will create a cooling effect. “There won’t just be a hot parking lot in the hot desert,” says Stone. “Any time in the desert you can get plants or grass or anything other than asphalt, it will cool that area down.”
How to Explore
The Oasis at Death Valley in Furnace Creek is situated in a lush oasis surrounded by the vast and arid desert of Death Valley National Park — just 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas and 275 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The resort encompasses two hotels — the historic AAA Four Diamond, 66-room Inn at Death Valley and the family-oriented, 224-room Ranch at Death Valley. The entire resort is undergoing a complete renaissance with an extensive renovation to be completed in the spring of 2018. The resort includes natural spring-fed pools, an 18-hole golf course, horse and carriage rides, world-renowned stargazing, and is surrounded by Death Valley National Park’s main attractions. For information and reservations, visit The Oasis at Death Valley or call 800-236-7916.
For more travel experiences to Beautiful Places on Earth™ available from Xanterra Parks & Resorts and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/explore.
Written by: Matt Jaffe
Specializing in California, the Southwest, and Hawaii, Matt Jaffe is an award-winning former senior writer at Sunset magazine and contributes to a variety of publications, including Los Angeles, Arizona Highways, and Westways. His books include The Santa Monica Mountains: Range on the Edge and Oaxaca: The Spirit of Mexico.