When esteemed architect Mary Jane Colter designed the Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins, the Grand Canyon complex was intended to be a more moderately priced alternative to the “hotel up the hill,” a reference to El Tovar.
The Bright Angel site had already undergone a number of incarnations, first as a hotel and later as a camp. And so when Colter designed the new facility, which opened in 1935, she incorporated a couple of existing structures — a cabin owned by canyon pioneer and Roosevelt Rough Rider Buckey O’Neill, and the Red Horse Station, previously the community’s post office.
Consider it an early example of adaptive re-use, a practice that continues today in the canyon’s South Rim Historic District.
Today, the Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins are undergoing a carefully orchestrated rehab that will continue into December 2018. The construction is being done in phases, so lodge rooms and cabins will continue to accommodate guests.
Among structural upgrades: new cedar shake shingles for the roofs, replacement of worn beams and porch supports, and a new fire alarm system. Interiors will get a fresh look with low volatile-organic-compound paints. Carpets will be replaced and recycled, and soft goods, such as draperies, are being replaced.
Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins, now National Historic Landmarks, broadened lodging options at the canyon. Early tourists tended to be a well-heeled bunch. They arrived at the South Rim via train and checked in at the stately El Tovar to enjoy white-table-cloth service. The less grand and lower-priced Bright Angel digs catered to the middle class in an era when visitors were increasingly arriving by car, not rail.
“When the National Park Service was founded in 1916, there was a big push to get the public to visit the parks. Otherwise, they might have just faded away,” says Craig Chenevert, NPS historical architect at the canyon. “These (Bright Angel) buildings are significant because of their role in the expansion of visitation.”
Though they aren’t the park’s most deluxe accommodations, the 50 cabins and 37 lodge rooms in the Bright Angel complex are well-loved by in-the-know visitors. Designed in Colter’s signature log-and-stone National Park Service Rustic style, they range from lodge rooms, some with shared bath, to multi-room cabins, some with fireplaces. Perched near the head of the namesake Bright Angel Trail, the lodgings offer some of the South Rim’s most prized vantage points.
And best of all, they’ve retained the cozy ambiance imbued by Colter more than eight decades ago. As Chenevert notes, the mark of a successful renovation of a historic structure is “if a person from that building’s past came to visit, would they recognize it?”
Preservation and rehabilitation of historic park structures is a delicate operation. Grand Canyon lodges concessionaire Xanterra Parks & Resorts works in concert with park officials and outside experts to achieve that seamless renovation.
“As soon as Mary Colter put on the finishing touches on a building, it turned into a maintenance project,” says Xanterra project manager Justin Furry. “I think everyone recognizes the weight and responsibility of being stewards of that legacy.”
Written by: Jayne Clark
Washington, DC-based freelance travel writer Jayne Clark has been a travel reporter at USA TODAY and several other daily newspapers.