Great Lodges of the National Parks
Canyon Lodges: El Tovar
The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe laid a spur line to Grand Canyon Village in order to haul copper from regional mines. But the copper business failed. So the Santa Fe figured out another way to make money on the line. They promoted the South Rim of the Grand Canyon as a destination resort, where guests could spend a whole season exploring.
In promoting the region, the Santa Fe obligated itself to provide lodging. So the railway commissioned El Tovar. The building is remarkable in many respects, the foremost being its eclectic architecture. The style is a little Swiss, vaguely Scandinavian, and charmingly rustic.
This architectural gem opened to rave reviews on January 14, 1905. The popularity of El Tovar, and the related increase in regional tourism, had some bearing on the area's recognition as a National Monument in 1908, and a National Park in 1919.
The El Tovar construction site was a dizzying perch just 20 feet from the edge of the Grand Canyon. The primary building materials were large timbers and rubble masonry. The rock is all local, helping the Hotel to blend with the landscape. The logs were Douglas firs, shipped by rail from Oregon.
During the planning stages, the Hotel was called Bright Angel Tavern because of the site's location near Bright Angel Point. Fortunately, the name was changed to El Tovar Hotel at some point during the construction process.
Built at the unthinkable cost of $250,000, the luxury resort was dubbed "the most expensively constructed and appointed log house in America."
Five years after opening the Hotel, the Railway built a train station just below El Tovar. In a strange twist of history, the name of the depot was spelled out in large copper letters.
The Santa Fe needed a hotel that could fulfill visitors' dreams of romance, adventure, and the West, while also providing elegance and luxury. Fortunately, the railroad had a staff of unusually talented architects, including Charles Whittlesey.
Whittlesey studied architecture in Chicago, starting when he was just 16 years old. He practiced in the area for 25 years, and then moved to Albuquerque, where he spent 5 years working for the Santa Fe Railway.
Initial plans for El Tovar had been rather modest. By May 1902, Whittlesey was instructed to double the size of the Hotel to 100 rooms.
Viewing the layered geology of the landscape, Whittlesey seized the opportunity to add another layer. The step-like structure of the Hotel, with its low-slung silhouette and stony foundation, merges with the setting as if it had sprung from the living rock.
Guests enter El Tovar beneath a lintel that bears a moody inscription, perfectly reflecting the dramatic setting on the Canyon's edge: "Dreams of mountains, as in their sleep they brood on things eternal."
Stepping indoors, visitors find themselves in the large, high-ceilinged Rendezvous Room. Off to one side is the Rotunda, where "all paths intersect." Within the Rotunda, an octagonal balcony holds the mezzanine lounge. In a bygone era, this was the Ladies Lounge, where "...the better half of the world may see without being seen – may chat and gossip – may sew and read – may do any of the inconsequent nothings which serve to pleasantly pass the time away."
Today this sounds like a sexist waste of space. But in the early years, visitors might stay at El Tovar for weeks at a stretch. The lounge provided a valuable escape from the constant company of one's family.