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LeConte Memorial Lodge:
One Hundred Years of Public Service
In Yosemite National Park

Presentation to
California State Historic Resources Commission

Vallejo, California

August 8, 2003

Bonnie Johanna Gisel, Ph.D.,
Curator, LeConte Memorial Lodge, Sierra Club


Download PDF Version of this document

In the summer of 1870, at the end of the first session at the University of California, Joseph LeConte, and eight of his students, headed to the High Sierra.  The University Excursion Party rambled for six weeks, visited Yosemite Valley, and traveled with John Muir for ten days.  The grandeur of the Sierra captured LeConte's spirit.  Year after year he returned to Yosemite for scientific research. 

Over the years LeConte championed Muir's theory of the glacial origin of Yosemite Valley; and throughout their lives they remained dear friends.

In 1892 LeConte and his son, Joseph N. LeConte, were among the charter members of the Sierra Club.  LeConte served on the Board of Directors until 1898, while Muir served as president until his death in 1914.  During the summer of 1901, as a member of the first Sierra Club "outing," LeConte returned to Yosemite for what would be his last visit.  On July 6th, in Curry Village, he died. 

Following his death, LeConte's Sierra Club colleagues, friends, and students determined that a fitting memorial should be built to commemorate the life and career of a great friend, an exceptional professor, and an advocate for wilderness preservation, thus LeConte Memorial Lodge was constructed in Curry Village in 1903. 

LeConte Memorial Lodge, replaced the Sierra Club's public reading room and information center at Sinning's Cottage, established at the request of the California State Commission in 1898.  A small mountaineering library, an herbarium and maps, were facilitated by a summer attendant paid for equally by the Club and the state.  The Sierra Club's reading room and the soon to be built LeConte Memorial Lodge were the place to learn more about Yosemite Valley, the High Sierra, and the flora and fauna, and a place to meet friends.  

John White, who designed LeConte Memorial Lodge, was influenced by European Tudor Revival-style cottage architecture and the Rustic style of the Bay Area revolutionary environmental design ideas of the work of White's brother-in-law, Bernard Maybeck.  The Memorial captures the color, texture, and verticality of Yosemite Valley.   An outstanding example of the theory that materials and site should determine the structure of the building, White designed the rough-cut granite and wood memorial with a steep-pitched gabled roof, exposed hammer beams, and scissor trusses, permitting the granite and wood, of structural significance, to serve as the feature of ornamentation. 

The funding for the Memorial was contributed by prominent San Francisco merchants; students, alumni, and faculty from the University of California; faculty from Stanford; mining engineers; geologists; LeConte's relatives and personal friends; and members of the Sierra Club.  Caroline Elizabeth LeConte, LeConte's widow, contributed twenty-eight gold nuggets given to her husband on the occasion of their golden wedding anniversary from several former students in South Africa.  Mrs. LeConte felt that there was no better use then to contribute them to the "Yosemite Sierra Club building," being built to honor her husband.

Constructed at the base of Glacier Point in Curry Village at the northern terminus of the John Muir Trail, LeConte Memorial Lodge, which served as the first public information center in Yosemite Valley (at a time when the commission had too little money to do anything by itself), both predates the recession of Yosemite Valley, in 1906, to the federal government by the state of California to create a unified Yosemite National Park, and the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.  The Sierra Club and Yosemite National Park have utilized the Memorial to promote conservation through public programs, educational displays, and a library.

Dedicated on July 3, 1904, Alexander G. Eells, speaking on behalf of the alumni of the University of California, concluded his address at the memorial event by noting:  "Here our beloved teacher came again and again, as one comes home, for cheer and for aid.  Let us turn as often as we may, not only for what we may gain of good from the sermons in these stones, but still more for the higher, more quickening inspirations from a life true to itself and in touch with Nature."

Moved in 1919 to its present location, the Memorial maintains the Galen Clark library, a children's library, and a collection of books on natural history, the history of Yosemite, and environmental studies and literature.  In addition, exhibits detail the history of the life of LeConte and Muir and the history of the Sierra Club; and a children's corner provides a sanctuary for our many young visitors.  

Through the decades the Memorial has been guided by the efforts of a caretaker, now a curator.  Perhaps most noteworthy is Ansel Adams, who served as caretaker from 1920 until 1923.  Adams would return with Nancy Newhall, in 1955, to mount an exhibit "This is the American Earth," representing the work of thirty-two photographers.  The exhibition book designed and written by Newhall and David Brower, then Executive Director of the Sierra Club, was the first of the Sierra Club's "exhibit format series."  

Today, the Memorial is owned by the federal government and operated by the Sierra Club, as a public service with public access to all visitors to Yosemite National Park, under an agreement with the National Park Service.  Nominated by the National Park Service as a National Historic Landmark in 1985 and designated in 1987, it is one of five Yosemite National Park buildings (and one of 130 sites in the state of California), that is the recipient of this extremely prestigious distinction that fewer than 2,500 historic places nationwide have been awarded.  This distinction was based, first, on the highly unusual architectural significance of the Memorial located within a national park setting - its architectural design, the use of natural materials, and the quality of craftsmanship employed in its construction; second, on the regional significance of the historic involvement of the Sierra Club in Yosemite National Park; third, on the local significance in the areas of environmental education as the first center of naturalist activities for park visitors; and fourth, on its significance as a memorial to Joseph LeConte, a founding faculty member of the University of California and charter member of the Sierra Club, a grass-roots environmental organization, that has embraced preservationist ideals and served as guardian of the public interest in Yosemite National Park.     

From May 1 until September 30, the Memorial, a strictly public building, is committed to presenting cutting edge programs and projects that generate an abiding interest in nature, environmental literacy, and conservation.  These programs are offered free of charge to our 15,000 visitors each season.   

At LeConte Memorial Lodge we have the opportunity to begin the centennial celebration of this National Historic Landmark and its significant contribution to the history of Yosemite Valley, the Sierra Club, the National Park Service, and the study of our American environmental heritage; or, if we choose to follow Congressman Radanovich's plan for the Memorial as put forth in HR 2715, we have the opportunity to watch the destruction of the granite walls built upon the convictions and the faith of our American treasures - people like LeConte,  Muir, and Adams - who believed that in wilderness is health and repose, that in nature we find ourselves connected to all other living things, that through education is the foundation for preservation, and that in wilderness lies the hope of the world.

 At LeConte Memorial Lodge - a public building dedicated to public environmental education that never facilitates any special services or events or private interest for Sierra Club members - our  conviction and our faith are challenged, but like steel we are being tempered by the truth that will prevail.  The good on behalf of nature and wilderness, the education and acknowledgment of nature's place in our lives, the importance of our heritage - the tireless efforts that guaranteed the preservation of Yosemite Valley - and our pride that embraces our caring ways, offered freely to all American citizens and citizens from other countries who visit the Memorial, is noticed and acknowledged.  To demolish our historic past sets us to step blindly into the future.  May we rise to the occasion to secure LeConte Memorial Lodge for the next hundred years.

Learn more about the LeConte Lodge Centennial.

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Information and Donations

For more information, during the summer contact Sierra Club LeConte Memorial Lodge Curator, P.O. Box 755, Yosemite, CA 95389, 1-209-372-4542; e-mail:

During the winter, contact LeConte Lodge Committee Chair, Harold Wood, P.O. Box 3543, Visalia, CA 93278; phone: (559) 697-3525; e-mail:

Tax deductible donations to support the new exhibits and renovation efforts of the LeConte Memorial can be made to "Sierra Club Foundation," marked "restricted for the LeConte Lodge Fund." Send to: Sierra Club Foundation, 2101 Webster St., Suite 1250, Oakland, CA 94612.

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