HISTORIC STRUCTURES AT SOUTH RIM OF GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK OFFER GLIMPSE OF TOURISM THROUGH THE YEARS
At the Grand Canyon, visitors typically come for the geology. Many, however, stay for other reasons such as the history, hiking or architecture.
Throughout Grand Canyon Village are several structures that tell the story of tourism through the years. These buildings reflect the visions of the people that designed them, and travelers of yesteryear would have little trouble finding their way around and recognizing the gift shops, lodges, cabins and more that look much the same as they did when they were built.
The more renowned structures in Grand Canyon Village include:
In 1901, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway laid a 65-mile railroad spur from Williams, Ariz. to Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim and began making plans for the construction of a luxury hotel close to its terminal at the South Rim.
Charles Whittlesey, a native of Alton, Ill. and an architect with 25 years of experience in the Chicago area, was assigned the job. Whittlesey mainly used local stone and Oregon pine shipped in from Oregon. Described as a cross between a Swiss chalet and Norwegian villa, El Tovar cost $250,000 to build and opened Jan. 14, 1905. The hotel originally had 95 rooms, but a later renovation reduced that number to 78 to allow for private bathrooms in all guest rooms.
The Fred Harvey Company, now Xanterra Parks & Resorts, has managed El Tovar from the start. The opening of El Tovar preceded Arizona’s statehood by seven years and the Grand Canyon’s designation as a national monument in 1908 and a national park in 1919. The hotel’s presence is credited with helping to increase visitation and international awareness of the remote Grand Canyon region and the American West.
Interesting facts about El Tovar include:
- The hotel was named for Spanish explorer Don Pedro de Tobar who reported the existence of the Grand Canyon to fellow explorers.
- U.S. Presidents who have stayed at El Tovar include Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton.
- Celebrities who have stayed include Albert Einstein, Elizabeth Taylor, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.
- When it opened, El Tovar was considered the most luxurious hotel between the Rocky Mountains and San Francisco.
- Even though guest rooms did not have their own bathrooms when the hotel opened, they did each have their own telephones.
- Harnessing electricity was still relatively new, and the hotel’s lobby lights were known as “Electroliers.”
- El Tovar was originally to be called the Bright Angel Tavern, but its more elegant name was chosen before it opened.
- Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, architect of several famous Grand Canyon buildings, provided some of the building’s interior design elements.
- The Hopi House, a Colter-designed building next door, opened two weeks before El Tovar.
The Hopi House
Designed by famed architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, the Hopi House is located next to El Tovar. The American Indian gift shop was conceived when staff of the Fred Harvey Company noticed that Native Americans were doing a brisk business selling their arts and crafts at the railroad stops along the route of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. Fred Harvey’s son-in-law, J.F. Huckel, began constructing separate structures called Indian buildings near its hotels to sell the items created by native craftspeople.
At about the same time, Fred Harvey’s daughter – and J.F. Huckel’s wife – Minnie, became a supporter of a young architect named Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. Although women architects in the U.S. were a rarity at the time, Colter received the commission in 1902 to design the interior of the company’s first Indian building next to the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque. Colter began work on Hopi House during construction of the adjacent El Tovar.
Fashioned after traditional Hopi buildings, particularly those found in the Oraibi village on the Hopi Reservation’s First Mesa, the building was constructed of local materials and, in what could be viewed as early recycling, salvaged items such as Civil War-era Western Union telegraph poles and rails. The rails were hidden and used for support while the telegraph poles were exposed. The exterior is stone and adobe. The building was patterned after traditional Hopi structures found in the region and was constructed by Hopi craftsmen. The three-story Hopi House – like El Tovar next door – was electrified, an unusual feature in the region at that time.
Originally, artisans – mainly Hopis – lived on the top floor while the first two floors featured workshops and areas for tourists to purchase their items. Next door were several hogans where Navajo lived.
Although today’s Hopi House looks much the same as it did 100 years ago, minor changes such as the addition of windows and wood floors, have been made. Hopi House continues to be a popular retail store and gallery where high-quality, authentic and collectible Native American art is sold.
Bright Angel Lodge
The Bright Angel Lodge was also designed by Colter. Built in 1935, the Bright Angel Lodge was created for the new – at the time – purpose of providing affordable lodging for tourists. The lodge features 39 guest rooms and 50 cabins plus a gift shop, restaurant and lounge as well as the Bright Angel History Room where Harvey Girl uniforms, early El Tovar china, historic photos and other artifacts are on display. Also in the history room is a fireplace that Colter designed representing the strata of the canyon. The top of the fireplace is constructed of Kaibab limestone found on the rim of the canyon while the bottom layer is made of smooth river rock hauled from the floor of the canyon. The rock in between was hauled by mule out of the canyon and carefully placed in the same order of the canyon’s layers.
Red Horse Cabin
The “Red Horse Cabin” is the oldest building at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park and is part of the Bright Angel Lodge complex. Built in 1890, the cabin was moved from the Red Horse Ranch in 1902 by local businessman – and later United States Senator – Ralph Cameron for use as a tourist hotel at the head of the Bright Angel Trail. From 1910 to 1935 it served as the post office for Grand Canyon Village. At that time, the cabin was slated for demolition, but Mary Colter intervened and convinced building owner Santa Fe Railway and concessioner Fred Harvey Company to remodel and restore the cabin for guest use as part of the new Bright Angel Lodge.
The cabin was used as guest accommodations for several years but for at least 40 years was used for storage. Last year Xanterra renovated the cabin, and it is now available to overnight guests.
Architectural features such as the fireplace stone and brick work were kept as much intact as possible, and some plumbing fixtures were resurfaced. Existing light fixtures were cleaned and rewired to meet all current codes. The crew also worked on windows, flooring, painting, heating, interior walls, insulation, fire suppression/detection, case goods and soft goods.
The Buckey O’Neill Cabin
The oldest continuously standing structure on the South Rim, The Buckey O’Neill Cabin is now a guest suite and part of Bright Angel Lodge. The cabin was built in the 1890s by its namesake who was a miner, author, judge, journalist and politician. O’Neill was mayor of Prescott, Ariz., and he volunteered to fight in the Spanish American War. As a member of Theodore Roosevelt’s “Roughriders,” O’Neill was killed by a sniper the day before the assault on San Juan Hill.
Brothers Ellsworth and Emery Kolb opened a photography studio in the early 1900s overlooking the Bright Angel Trail. As the mule riders passed the Kolb’s studio and living quarters, the brothers would shoot photographs and then make the journey 4½ miles down into the canyon to Indian Garden, the closest source of fresh water, where they would process the film and print the photographs. They would then climb back up to the rim where they would sell the photos to the mule riders. Kolb Studio is now gift shop and gallery operated by the Grand Canyon Association.
Another Mary Colter building, Lookout Studio was built in 1914 out of native stone. The studio was meant to blend in with the canyon and imitate regional dwellings, much like the Hopi House. Lookout Studio offers spectacular views, and visitors can see hikers and mule riders for large portions of the Bright Angel Trail.
Colter Hall and Victor Hall
The last two buildings Colter designed at the South Rim were employee dormitories. Victor Hall, built in 1936 and Colter Hall, completed in 1937, are still used for that purpose. These buildings are constructed of native, local stone and are located close to the hotels, restaurants and retail operations that comprise the bulk of the employee positions.
Desert View Watchtower
While not in Village itself, the Watchtower is a popular stop and considered by many to be Mary Colter’s Grand Canyon masterpiece. The Watchtower is 70 feet high and was constructed in 1932. Colter designed a concrete foundation and steel structure covered in native stone.
El Tovar, Bright Angel Lodge and four other Grand Canyon Village lodges — Kachina Lodge, Thunderbird Lodge, Maswik Lodge and Yavapai Lodge — are operated by Xanterra Parks & Resorts. Xanterra also operates Phantom Ranch on the floor of the Canyon.
Visitors can book their rooms online by visiting www.grandcanyonlodges.com or by calling toll-free 1-888-297-2757 or 1-303-297-2757 from outside the United States. More information about Grand Canyon National Park can be obtained at www.nps.gov/grca or 1-928-638-7888.