If These Walls Could Talk: Classic National Park Lodges Offer Window On U.S. History

A study of venerable national park lodges such as El Tovar in the Grand Canyon and the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone provides far more than a lesson in changing architectural styles. It also offers a glimpse of a young country’s evolving priorities, vacationing styles and values. And, sometimes, classic lodges support the cliché that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

“While it may seem counterintuitive to go to a national park and check out the man-made structures, many of our buildings stand on their own as worthy of a tour or visit,” said Dave Hartvigsen, vice president of sales and marketing for national park concessioner Xanterra Parks & Resorts. “If these walls could talk, they would probably be providing a history lecture.”

Xanterra operates lodging in several western national parks, and within the parks are classic log structures, adobe buildings, elegant 1920s-style hotels and more. Here are some of the best-known park lodges.

Yellowstone National Park
It is no surprise that as the world’s first national park, Yellowstone has more than its share of great lodges.
The most famous structure in Yellowstone – and possibly in any national park – is the Old Faithful Inn. A partnership of the Yellowstone Park Association and the Northern Pacific Railroad, the Old Faithful Inn was built mainly during the winter of 1903-04 to satisfy a demand for luxurious accommodations. Under the direction of architect Robert Reamer, some 40 craftsmen began constructing the Inn with the goal of opening the hotel in June 1904.

The original structure, now called the Old House, featured 140 rooms with such modern amenities as electricity, heat and plumbing. Some of the rooms even had private bathrooms for the high-rollers. A wood-burning boiler provided heat.

Most of the original Old Faithful Inn remains intact, but several additions were made through the years. Among the most significant were the addition of the East Wing in 1913, expansion of the dining room in 1922 and addition of the West Wing in 1927. What is now the Inn’s snack bar was built in 1936 as the Bear Pit Lounge. In 1940 the bark was stripped from both structural and decorative logs, and the logs were varnished in 1966. A renovation completed in 2008 returned much of the lobby and many of the rooms – particularly those in the Old House – back to their original condition.

The oldest hotel in Yellowstone is the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, built in 1891 before a second national park even existed. The Lake Hotel offers 296 rooms in its original building, an annex and a series of nearby cabins. The Lake Hotel was fairly plain when it was built, but architect Robert Reamer added columns, dormer windows, portico and sunroom to give the building a grand 1920s feel. The most elegant lodging in the park, the Lake Hotel overlooks Yellowstone Lake, naturally, and is the favorite of many travelers who like its quiet atmosphere, views and sunroom where a string quartet plays many nights.

Grand Canyon National Park
In 1901, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway finished the 65-mile railroad spur from Williams, Ariz. to Grand Canyon Village on 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 of designing a hotel on the rim of the canyon. That lodge became the famed El Tovar.

While hotel architecture at the time tended toward Victorian with wooden frame construction, the designers of national park and other lodges along and near the railroad lines were attempting to define new styles using natural and local materials to create comfort in assuming luxury. Whittlesey mainly used local stone and Douglas fir trees shipped in from Oregon.

Described as a cross between a Swiss Chalet and Norway 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 front door to El Tovar is a mere 30 yards from the edge of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Visitors entering through this door pass through the lobby known historically as the Rendezvous Room. The interior features dark log/slab paneling and exposed log rafters.

The hotel is a three-story building with registration area, two gift shops, lounge, dining room and a small number of guest rooms located on the first floor. The Terrace Level as well as the second and third floors contain the remaining guest rooms, including 12 suites.

The Fred Harvey Company, now Xanterra Parks & Resorts, managed El Tovar from the start. The famed Harvey Girls staffed El Tovar and other Harvey House Restaurants throughout the West. The Harvey Girls went a long way toward “civilizing” the region, and many of the West’s prominent families today are descendants of these women and local ranchers and businessmen.

Some former Harvey Girls still live in northern Arizona.
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.

Overlooking the rim of the Grand Canyon, the Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins was designed in 1935 by famed architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter and was constructed of log and native stone. The lodge was built as a lower cost alternative to El Tovar, with ample parking to accommodate the now popular automobile. The lobby displays a dramatic wooden thunderbird the architects called the “bright angel of the sky.” The lodge offers 37 rooms and 50 cabins, two restaurants, gift shop and lounge. Mule rides depart from the lodge.

Grand Canyon’s newest accommodation – re-opened in January 2012 – is the Red Horse Cabin. This two-room cabin was recently renovated after remaining vacant for close to 40 years. It is Grand Canyon Village’s oldest structure, dating to 1890. The cabin was relocated from the Red Horse Ranch to the Grand Canyon by concessioner Ralph Cameron and used as a hotel and later as the village’s post office until the early 1970s.

Crater Lake National Park
The four-story stone-and-wood Crater Lake Lodge was originally completed in 1915, more than 10 years after construction commenced. The lodge closed in 1989 and re-opened in 1995 after a complete renovation. Located 15 miles from the north entrance to the park and seven miles from the south entrance, the lodge’s striking Great Hall boasts a massive stone fireplace that is its architectural trademark, and a world-renowned example of the elegance and rustic grandeur of early national park lodges.

Death Valley National Park
With 66 rooms and two suites, the elegant Inn at Furnace Creek has long been considered a desert oasis for guests seeking a comfortable getaway in California’s ruggedly beautiful Death Valley National Park.

Like many great national park hotels, the Inn at Furnace Creek was financed and built by a company in an industry not directly related to hospitality. Unlike the great lodges built by the railroads in several of our famous parks, however, the Inn was built by a mining company.

In the 1920s, the Pacific Coast Borax Company followed the lead of the successful Palm Springs Desert Inn and entered the tourism business by building a magnificent Inn for guests to enjoy the rare beauty of Death Valley. Los Angeles architect Albert C. Martin designed the mission-style structure set into the low ridge overlooking Furnace Creek Wash. Adobe bricks were hand made by Paiute and Shoshone laborers. Spanish stonemason Steve Esteves created the Moorish influenced stonework, while meandering gardens and Deglet Noor palm trees were planted.

The Inn opened on February 1, 1927 with 12 guest rooms, a dining room and lobby area. Room rates were $10 per night and included meals.

Over the following eight years, additions were constructed and improvements made. In 1928, construction crews added 10 guest rooms, and in 1929 the Travertine Springs were tapped for electricity and water for a new swimming pool. The spring water is still used for irrigating the Inn’s gardens and flow-through pool. More rooms were constructed until the Inn reached 66 rooms in 1935.

Zion National Park
Zion Lodge was designed in the 1920s by architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood and built by the Union Pacific Railroad.

Zion Lodge offers 82 rooms and 40 cabins, a fine dining restaurant, snack bar and gift shop.

The cabins were painstakingly restored to reflect their historical significance and reopened in March 1998. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the cabins display furniture from the Old Hickory Furniture Company, which created the original furnishings. The gas fireplaces that replaced the wood-burning fireplaces years ago reflect the original design. Additionally, designers found original paint specifications and used modern-day colorization techniques to match the colors.
To make reservations at lodges in Grand Canyon, Zion, Death Valley or Crater Lake National Parks, visit xanterra.com or the individual web sites www.grandcanyonlodges.com, www.craterlakelodges.com, www.furnacecreekresort.com or www.zionlodge.com or call (1) 303-297-2757 or toll-free at (1) 888-297-2757.

Reservations in Yellowstone can be made by visiting www.YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com or calling toll-free (1) 866-GEYSERLAND (1-866-439-7375) or (1) 307-344-7311.