Criterion Classification I

current image of el tovar

photo courtesy Xanterra

historic image of el tovar

public domain photo courtesy National Park Service

El Tovar Hotel Grand Canyon NP, 1905
Classification I
South Rim, Grand Canyon Village
Theme: Eclectic mix of Swiss chalet, Norwegian villa, Adirondack lodge and Victorian turrets
Architect: Charles Whittlesey, Staff Architect, Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway
Interior Design: Mary Colter, Colter Studios, contracted by the Fred Harvey Co.
Construction by the Fred Harvey Co. for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, 1905
Materials: Wood frame construction, logs originally from Oregon. Local stone used.
Original Cost: Hotel $250,000. Stables $50,000.
Known Timeline:
Planned as a 50 room luxury hotel, 1902
Original opening January 1905
Music room converted to suites, 96 room total, 1940
Sold to the Fred Harvey Co., 1954
Addition of Lounge, Dining Room, North Porch 1950s
Renovation and modernization reduced room count to 79 in 1983
Current room count 78


The most charming aspect of the El Tovar is that it refuses to be pigeonholed in a specific architectonical category. It evokes a Norwegian Villa from a distance, yet has decidedly Swiss styling within. The porches want to be Rustic, yet there is something oddly Victorian about them. It would be easy to say that Whittlesey ingeniously bridged the gap between 19th and 20th Century Western Lodge Architecture, but that view is too simplistic. Taken as a whole, the design borders on hallucigenic, yet somehow the parts all work together to form something like an architectural symphony.

El Tovar 1950s

above, early 1950s

In the end, it defies comparison and categorization. Despite all the hasty roadways, parking lots and horrors of the adjacent Kachina and Thunderbird Lodges, El Tovar stands alone. It does not appear to be a natural extension of the Canyon the way Hopi House or Hermits Rest are, yet it fits easily thanks to the dark coloring it borrows from the pine trees on the surrounding Coconino Plateau. From the rim walk and the front entryway the El Tovar has almost a low slung look to it. The odd and sometimes clashing rooflines reflect the irregular landscape in the Canyon beyond and enhance the visual experience. How can a building be so bizarre, yet so spectacular?

sign at el tovarThe perfection of the El Tovar is evident as you approach. Such an amazing structure almost demands a massive, impressive sign -- or so it would seem. The original "badge" or palette is understated to the extreme, surprisingly so. How many of us would've erected a massive marquee over the door? After a few minutes in an around the structure, the understated sign begins to make sense: This is the El Tovar -- no sign is really necessary. They probably put one there for us mere mortals who can't immediately grasp that this is a masterpiece, not a mere hotel.

Rendezvous Room

current photo of Rendezvous Room, courtesy of Xanterra

Entering the lobby -- called the Rendezvous Room -- visitors are immediately transfixed by the log panelling, ridgepoles and rafters. Trophy heads adorn the walls above various entryways to gift shops, newsstand, and registration area. The Rendezvous is actually one of the smaller lobbies among the top NPS lodges. It's not that it's cozy either, it's more like the size you'd expect from a railroad hotel. The Rendezvous wasn't designed with lounging in mind; that was intended for the octagonal balcony above, and for other rooms in the hotel such as the original music room. The Rendezvous is used for lounging despite the fact that it doesn't seem suited for this purpose. The lobby balcony is better suited, but is only open to registered guests.

The real "lounge" is found outdoors on the porches. With the closest located just 25 feet from the Canyon rim, it is an incredible contrast that such a wild place is home to such an elegant experience as the El Tovar porch. Again, the peeled log rails are rustic, yet the overall feeling is one of refinement. It is simply an amazing hotel.

standard guest room

current appearance of standard double room, photo courtesy of Xanterra

The lodging facility houses 78 guest rooms. These are decorated in a mix of modern southwestern/mission furnishings with rustic appointments. The rooms are not original; all have been modified with new sheetrock, windows, etc. Since the reconstruction of 1983, each room now has a full bath. A few of the guest rooms and suites have balconies.

dining room

current appearance of dining room, photo courtesy of Xanterra

Colter's original dining room furnishings, visible in the historic photos at left, were a rustic Stickley-type design in a straightforward Arts & Crafts style. The current seating has a more machined look, perhaps a safer match to the subtle Victorian influences in the building. Sometimes we need to be reminded that the El Tovar is a working hotel, not a museum, and the current seating is arguably more appropriate for today's upscale dining experience.

The Experience

A world apart
el tovar 1909

This is one of a select few hotels that provides a definitive, classic National Park lodge experience. Stepping onto the porch you immediately enter a world separate from that of the Canyon Rim walk, just scant yards away. Park concessionaires are easy targets for critics, but in the case of the El Tovar, Xanterra quite capably continues the Fred Harvey Company tradition of excellence. If you are fortunate enough to procure lodging, you will find that room quality and cleanliness are both superb. Room rates are generally lower than expected and are a very good value for this hotel. The dining experience is not to be missed. Time spent anywhere in the hotel or on its porches affords you new sensory experiences, sights, and discoveries.


Criterion Classification I

The El Tovar exemplifies the ultimate standard for a National Park Lodge. It is visually compelling, historically significant, architectonically unique and an integral part of the Grand Canyon experience. For these reasons, the El Tovar is classified in the highest tier by the National Park Lodge Architecture Preservation Society.

el tovar 1911

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Mary Colter

Random foliage

Although the Fred Harvey Company relied on Colter for her vision in creating Phantom Ranch, Hermit's Rest and The Watchtower among other landmarks, the plans for El Tovar were developed without her. Colter left a lasting impact on El Tovar, however, when she was called on for the interior decorating. The structure is Whittlesey's, but the soul of El Tovar is Colter's.

current sign

Photo courtesy Xanterra

Rendezvous Room

Above, an image of Colter's original appointments in the Rendezvous Room. This photo was used on Harvey Co. postcards and promotional items until the late 1930s. Below are slightly later photos; some of the original furnishings had been replaced.

Dining Room

Images above and below are from the same photo circa 1905, the print above was in circulation during the mid 1920s and the one below was used in 1936.

Mezzanine Lounge

Above, an image of Colter's decorating in the mezzanine, which was originally reserved as The Ladies' Lounge.

Grand Canyon NP Lodges

El Tovar Resources

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