Historic Classification V

painted desert inn

Painted Desert Inn today; a National Park Service museum

Painted Desert Inn Petrified Forest NP, 1924; 1937
Classification V Historic
Site of former "Stone Tree House," Painted Desert section of Petrified Forest National Park.
Theme: Pueblo Revival
Primary Architect Lyle E. Bennett
Supervisory Architect Lorimer Skidmore
Additional Architects 1937 Thomas C. Vint, Charles A. Richey, Robert Ahern
Additional Architect 1939 Kenneth M. Saunders
Constructed Civilian Conservation Corps & National Park Service, 1937-1940
Original Facilities - Park Service Section "Ranger room" with information desk, lobby, drinking fountain, public restrooms, utility room. Park Service section was accessed from the exterior and was locked off from concession section.
Original Facilities - Concessioner lunch room, kitchen, dining room, tap room, dining porch, trading post room, six guest rooms, utility rooms.
Known Timeline:
Original design & construction of Stone Tree House by Herbert David Lore, 1924
Operated as restaurant, gift shop & hotel, 1924- ca. 1935
Lore offers structure and property for sale, 1931
Painted Desert added to Petrified Forest NM, 1932
Lore property purchased by National Park Service, 1936
Inn design and reconstruction, 1937-1940
Open to public, July 1940
Closed during World War II
Resumed operations, 1946
Purchased by Fred Harvey Company, 1947
Interior Redesign by Mary Jane Colter, 1947-48
Interior Murals by Fred Kabotie, 1947-1948
Exterior Glazing replacement, 1948
Overnight lodging discontinued during Harvey Co. operations, ca. 1956
Abandoned by Fred Harvey Company, 1963
Preservation & Alterations by public/private co-op, 1975-1976
Preservation & Alterations by National Park Service, 1988-1990
Preservation & Alterations by National Park Service, 2003
Preservation by National Park Service, 2004-2005
Present: Park Service Visitors Center, Museum & Gift Shop. Interpretive programs. Trailhead parking for Painted Desert backcountry.

The Original Inn

Herbert Lore built the first Painted Desert Inn, called The Stone Tree House, in 1924. The exterior was striking, featuring locally collected petrified wood held together with a mud mortar. This was a two-story structure that could be considered similar in style to "National Park Rustic," far different from the Pueblo Revival structure we see today. Records indicate that the original building had no electricity -- the site was quite remote in the 1920s -- and water had to be delivered by rail and trucked in.

the original stone tree house painted desert inn

above, the original Stone Tree House. This view is from the rim looking back toward the road. The reception entry here on the lower level corresponds to the downstairs tap room entry today. In other words, what we think of as the "front" of the Painted Desert Inn was at the "back" of this image. The enclosed porch above the entryway afforded an excellent view of the desert. When the building was redone as The Painted Desert Inn in 1937, this porch was left as an open portico.

High Style on the Desert Rim

When the National Park Service purchased the Painted Desert Inn in 1936, it was planned to rehabilite the existing Inn and provide running water and electricity. Engineers found that the clay soil below the building was steadily eating away the mortar, and that entirely new construction made a lot more sense.

Unfortunately it was politically incorrect to fund new construction during the Depression, so the Park Service proceeded under the guise of "rebuilding." The limited funds were used to cover the cost of obtaining materials from National Forests, which had to be called "thinning" or forest maintenance in order to be approved. The NPS then used labor from the Civilian Conservation Corps, which were camped at the Rainbow Forest south of the railroad. Thus the Painted Desert Inn is one of the few examples of National Park architecture built during the 1930s.

According to NPS records, site supervisor Lorimer Skidmore did manage to use a few of the original walls, although they are unrecognizable. All walls were deemed unsafe, so even those that were saved were significantly reinforced and given new footings, and eventually covered with lime plaster and putty. Ceilings were constructed of pine beams with aspen savinos for a traditional pueblo look. Floors were built of concrete, flagstone, and in prime retail areas, wood.

The exterior corners and openings were finished with sweeping radii to soften the look of the building. The overall image is that of a multi-tiered structure that seems to be one with the terrain, which probably reflects Frank Lloyd Wright's influence on Lyle Bennett. The Painted Desert Inn was and is an imaginative and compelling structure.

different vintage views of the Painted Desert Inn

above, a vintage postcard with two different views of the Inn. The larger, lower image shows the view looking back from the rim; the lower entry doors go into the tap room. During the Stone Tree House era of the 1920s, this was the main entryway into the reception area. During the Harvey era of the 1950s, this entry was probably only used by employees. Compare this with the image of the original Stone Tree House above; the open porch over the lower entry here is approximately in the same location as the original enclosed porch over the same lower entry.

Although the name Mary Jane Colter is strongly tied to the Painted Desert Inn, her role was primarily that of an interior update for the Harvey Company. The architectural artistry of the original structure must be credited to Bennett, who used a combination of skylights, porticos, and Indian themes to create a southwestern masterpiece. Like a Great Kiva, the interior virtually glows with a light that is both earthy and otherworldly.

The main focus of the Painted Desert Inn was its function as a dining facility and gift shop. Lodging rooms were a reflection of time. Where the original Stone Tree House had inn-style guest rooms, the new rooms had exteriors that seem to borrow from "motor hotel" courtyards that were springing up around the country in the late 1930s. These were simple facades with individual exterior doors, separate from the main entries. The six rooms were small -- primitive by today's standards -- although each had a fireplace and individual bath. By 1940s standards, they were stylish and downright luxurious.

Sometime after the concession was purchased by The Fred Harvey Company, the lodging function was discontinued. Based on just six rooms, it is doubtful that it was ever operated profitably considering the level of service that was provided. Visitors today who venture around the structure can peer into these rooms, which are in a state of utter disuse. Rehabilitation of at least one room to its 1940 condition is a top priority for NPLAS Restoration Advocacy Program -- imagine the thrill of spending a few unhurried moments in of the Painted Desert guest rooms.

Reasons for the Harvey purchase are unclear. The Petrified Forest National Monument was an exotic location in the American psyche; it was known to be along a lonely stretch of Route 66. Because of a Humphrey Bogart movie called The Petrified Forest, the idea of an isolated cafe in the stirred both romance and fear for the average American. Whether the Union Pacific thought it would capitalize on this, or viewed the road as a threat to its rails, or was pressured to take this concession by the NPS; the details have been lost to time.

In any case, The Harvey Company put substantial resources into renovating the decade-old structure. Star designer Mary Jane Colter was brought in to bring the building up to snuff. She retained Hopi artist Fred Kabotie to design a series of murals and other artwork, some of which is well preserved today. If anything, Colter's and Kabotie's efforts enhanced the Painted Desert Inn, rather than modifying Bennett's original vision.

Even with the addition of Harvey Girls, the Painted Desert Inn didn't generate an exciting amount of revenue. By the late 1950s the Harvey Company was promoting it solely for dining and souvenirs, and by 1963 gave up on it. Benign neglect took its toll on the building, and despite some work in the 1970s, by the late 1980s it was noticeably disintegrating. Fortunately preservation efforts began in earnest, and the results are to the credit of the National Park Service.

different vintage views of the Painted Desert Inn

above, a colorized image from the 1940s. This is probably from an authorized "Fred Harvey Company" postcard and was probably sold right up to 1963. It was typical of the Harvey Co. to use colorized images for decades, regardless of how dated the subject matter was. Although essentially accurate in this postcard, the artist did enhance and brighten the exterior colors. The color treatment, doors, and windows seen today are an excellent restoration of how the Painted Desert Inn appeared in its heyday.

The Experience

Try to Step Back in Time...

Today's visitor has a surprising amount of access to The Painted Desert Inn. Much of the public areas have been restored to a presentable condition, and the interior experience is simply stunning. The exterior structure was intended to blend with the landscape, the construction materials are not especially noteworthy. But the overall effect is visually compelling. Spend some time looking at the building; what you see is very true to what your great grandparents saw in 1940.

Inside, the Painted Desert Inn reveals itself to be much larger than it appears from first approach. The kitchen and dining rooms have been restored to their full Colter/Kabotie glory. The only thing missing is the food and the Harvey Girls. Linger in the trading post room, and then make your way downstairs. If you're quiet enough, you'll hear the past echo through the years.

The downstairs tap room is one of the few areas restored to pre-Harvey appearance. It's also the most reminiscent of the original Stone Tree House, as it served as Lore's reception room. Be sure to look closely at the exterior of the downstairs doors; it's the one spot you can get a glimpse of Lore's original petrified wood exterior.

Although some of the light fixtures in the guest room area are obvious 21st century mission style knock-offs, a number of original light fixtures are found throughout the building. All in all it is a fantastic, captivating place to visit. Slated for demolition in 1967, we're fortunate to have this unusual building preserved.


Historic Classification V

The Painted Desert Inn played an important role in the brief history of park lodging, and all efforts should be made to study and preserve the structure. Because it no longer provides overnight accommodations, it is classified in the fifth tier by the National Park Lodge Architcture Society.

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Lyle Bennett

Lyle Bennett graduated the University of Missouri with a degree in fine arts/architecture. He joined the NPS and worked at Mesa Verde with park archeologists. He moved into architectural design for the park service in the early 1930s, with some highly regarded work at Bandelier National Monument. He was involved with a number of buildings in the southwest during the 1930s, including Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands National Monument, as well as Mesa Verde. He claimed to be a modernist, but his legacy in NPS architecture was his uncanny ability to bring prehistoric Indian design and use of light into modern, functional structures. Bennett had a unique eye for color, lighting, and contemporary use of space. The Painted Desert Inn is one of the few examples where he impacted NPS lodging.

The photo above from the 1940s is a partial view of the north elevation; this section shows the entrances to the six motor hotel rooms. It is unknown whether or not these rooms were still used for overnight guests at the time of this photo. Based on the lack of activity in the photo and the age of the automobile, it is possible that this image was taken during World War II, when the Inn was closed. The Harvey Company flyer reproduced below was printed in 1956 and stresses "No overnight accommodations" at lower right.

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