Great Lodges of the National Parks
Canyon Lodges: Grand Canyon
From 1905 to 1928, the Santa Fe Railway's magnificent El Tovar held sway as the premier accommodation on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Naturally, the Union Pacific Railway wanted something even more sublime to offer travelers on "their" side of the Canyon.
The Grand Canyon Lodge would be the last major building in the UP's "Loop Tour." This was their final opportunity for an architectural statement that would create an unforgettable sense of place – and firmly cement the UP's reputation as the leader in Grand Canyon touring.
The railroad's timing was impeccable. The company's other Canyon lodges were generating income. The NPS was still encouraging limited development in the National Parks. And the architect was in his prime.
The resulting Grand Canyon Lodge was a work of genius, blending so beautifully into the landscape that it almost seemed part of the Canyon.
Perhaps because of concern over costs, the Lodge was not given a structural core of steel or concrete. Wood and stone were selected as the primary building materials – a choice that would prove unfortunate during a 1932 fire.
The building site was on the very edge of Bright Angel Point, 200 miles from the rail line, thus virtually requiring the use of locally available building materials. A limestone rock quarry was opened 2 miles from the site. Talented local stonemasons constructed the Lodge's foundation, piers and other impressive rockwork.
Timber was cut in the Kaibab Forest, about 10 miles to the north, and a sawmill was brought to the project site. The mill needed water and power, so a hydroelectric plant was built on the Colorado River, 3,400 feet below the Lodge construction site.
On June 1, 1928, the Lodge and Cabins were ready to accommodate 250 guests.
In 1926, Gilbert Stanley Underwood had just completed work on The Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park. Now the Union Pacific and National Park Service wanted him to come back to the Southwest, to finish the cycle of work he'd begun at Zion Canyon Lodge.
They trusted Underwood to create a North Rim destination that would be the crowning glory of the railroad's "Loop Tour." And Underwood's design exceeded all expectations.
Certainly the Grand Canyon Lodge was architecturally, and geographically, related to the Bryce and Zion Canyon Lodges. But there was a new elegance in Underwood's plans, apparently developed while working on the luxurious Ahwahnee. And if the Grand Canyon Lodge was more rustic, it compensated by merging with the environment even more perfectly than The Ahwahnee had.
This was the pinnacle of Underwood's work in the National Parks.
Today's visitors see an impressive building, but this Lodge is only a shadow of former glory. The original building burned to the ground in the largest structural fire in the Park's history. The fire was started by sparks from a Lodge hearth, early on the morning of September 1, 1932.
In the aftermath, Horace Albright, Director of the NPS, wrote to the Railway, lamenting, "It seemed a crime that this wonderful Lodge had to be destroyed when there were fully a score of old lodges, hotels, government structures, etc., which we would have been rather pleased to have suffer a fate of this kind. I hope you will find it possible to rebuild the lodge at once, as your operation at the Grand Canyon was the outstanding tourist accommodation of the entire national Park system."
In 1936, a new Lodge did open on the original site, but the old observation tower was missing.