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One Hundred Years of El Tovar Hotel and Hopi House Grand Canyon Arizona

Updated on November 27, 2016
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I've lived in Arizona for 67 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, books and travel.

El Tovar Hotel

El Tovar Hotel Grand Canyon Arizona
El Tovar Hotel Grand Canyon Arizona | Source

El Tovar Hotel

The El Tovar Hotel, located on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, was opened in 1905. Before the El Tovar was built, visitors to the Grand Canyon stayed in tents and rough cabins, or in two existing rustic hotels in the area. When the Santa Fe Railroad announced that it would offer train service from Williams, Arizona to the Grand Canyon, the Fred Harvey Company that had previous successes with Fred Harvey Houses along the Santa Fe line, began planning a hotel that would offer first class accommodations and fine dining. Architect Charles Whittlesey of Albuquerque, envisioned that the hotel would look like a rustic hunting lodge, have the roof line and trim of a Swiss chalet, but also have European charm. Somehow, Whittlesey's ideas came together which is exactly what gives the El Tovar its unique appearance. The construction materials were rustic Oregon fir logs and native field stone rocks.

The hotel was named for Don Pedro Tovar the Spanish conquistador who had probably never been as far north as the Grand Canyon, but the name added a certain historic Southwestern cache and the Spanish name was in keeping with the Harvey Company tradition of naming its other Southwestern hotels with Spanish names such as the Alvarado and Castaneda. Mary Jane Coulter, who later became famous for designing other buildings such as the Hopi House and Hermit's Rest on the South Rim and other Fred Harvey hotels, was hired to help furnish and decorate the El Tovar. The hotel was completed at a cost of around $250,000, an astounding amount for the time.

The Rendevous Room or lobby had a rustic wooden log ceiling and log slab walls. The handcrafted wooden furniture added to its rustic appearance, as did the mounted animal heads that were hung on the walls. Navajo rugs were hung on the walls and placed on the floors. The hallways were decorated with hand painted Hopi designs. Wide porches provided a place to rest and enjoy the spectacular view into the canyon.

In Stephen Fried's book Appetite for America, which is the story of how the Fred Harvey Company developed under founder Fred Harvey and later his son Ford Harvey, Fried states that prior to laying the Santa Fe track and the building of El Tovar, only eight hundred tourists visited the Grand Canyon each year. However, by 1911, the number of visitors had increased to around 30,000. Most visitors arrived on the Santa Fe, but already the number of visitors traveling by auto had increased, and by 1915, two dirt roads to the Grand Canyon existed. A garage for Harvey touring cars was added as well as a garage to house private automobiles.

Dining at El Tovar has always been a wonderful experience. In the early days of the hotel, the food arrived by Santa Fe Rail, but a dairy herd was maintained for fresh dairy products and greenhouses provided a variety of fresh flowers and grew other edible items for the hotel. Water was hauled in by rail and electricity was generated by a steam generator. In the Fred Harvey tradition of elegant dining, guests were served by well trained Harvey Girls. Water was poured into crystal glasses and guests ate on fine china.

The area now called the mezzanine was once the ladies writing area. A club room and billiard room provided entertainment. Guests were also offered chances to learn about Native American culture first hand. The Hopi House, another Fred Harvey Southwestern crafts enterprise, located next door to the El Tovar, housed Native Americans who lived and worked there. Guests could view rug weaving, basket making and silversmithing. At specific times, dance performances were held out front of the Hopi House.

During 2005, for El Tovar's one hundreth birthday, the hotel was given a five million dollar "face lift" over a period of a little over three months. The Arizona State Historical Preservation Office had approved the renovations. Publicity for the renovation said that even the mounted heads of the deer, elk and other animals were taken down and "fluffed up."

Shortly after the "face lift" my husband and I stayed 2 nights, because I had to see the "new" El Tovar. Thank goodness; the El Tovar looks refreshed but unchanged and the historic postcard photos I have used for this Hub look very much like walking into the El Tovar today.

A stay at El Tovar usually requires some advance planning because of the massive crowds that visit the Grand Canyon during the summer months. In fact, it is estimated that 5.5 million people visit the Grand Canyon each year. On New Year's Eve every year, the hotel has an extravaganza dining and entertainment event, that was on my "bucket list." I'm happy to say that spending a New Year's Eve there was every wonderful thing that I had hoped it would be. I would suggest that making reservations for the dining room for dinner should be made in advance, but lunch is on a first come first served basis. The Grand Canyon Railway train arrives just before noon, so being seated before noon is advised if you are on a limited time schedule. The cuisine is Continental but with a Southwestern twist and there are several vegetarian options and a daily seafood offering. The bar offers a splendid view of the Canyon, a casual place to dine and a television to watch your favorite sporting event.

According to the Arizona Republic newspaper, a multimillion-dollar renovation of the rooms is planned for January-April of 2018.

To my knowledge, the El Tovar Hotel is one of the only 3 former Fred Harvey Hotels that is still in operation as a hotel. (Arizona is fortunate to have another beautifully restored Fred Harvey Hotel, the La Posada in Winslow Arizona on the old Route 66.) The Casttaneda is undergoing restoration in Las Vegas New Mexico close to the updated train station there.

The guest register of the El Tovar reads like a Who's Who of the famous around the world, but it's priced to be affordable for many, and any visitor can walk into the lobby and appreciate the unique beauty of the El Tovar.


El Tovar Hotel

El Tovar Hotel Grand Canyon, Rondevous Room Circa 1920
El Tovar Hotel Grand Canyon, Rondevous Room Circa 1920 | Source

Cross between a Swiss Chalet & Hunting Lodge

Taken April 2012, Front entrance Canyon side
Taken April 2012, Front entrance Canyon side | Source

The Hopi House Mary Jane Coulter

Almost as famous as the El Tovar is the Hopi House, which is located directly across from the El Tovar Hotel and also opened in 1905. Hopi House was designed by architect Mary Jane Coulter to resemble an actual Hopi pueblo. It was intended as a shop where tourists coming to El Tovarl could purchase authentic Native American crafts and view the artists at work. At certain times during the day, Native American dances were performed. At that time the Hopis lived in the"house" on the second floor. Today, Hopi House continues to sell high quality arts and crafts, and provide demonstrations of the artists skills, and the second floor is another gallery.

El Tovar Lobby 2013

Cozy corner of the El Tovar lobby in character with its historical roots
Cozy corner of the El Tovar lobby in character with its historical roots | Source

El Tovar Gift Shop 2013

The El Tovar gift shop carries first class clothing, purses and jewlery by Brighton, books on the Grand Canyon and more.
The El Tovar gift shop carries first class clothing, purses and jewlery by Brighton, books on the Grand Canyon and more. | Source

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      Connie 

      6 years ago

      Very interesting. Looks like a beautiful place. I've been to the Grand Canyon and missed El Tovar. I'd love to tour the property on my next trip to the Grand Canyon.

      For more places to visit in Arizona featuring Arizona history and natural beauty, visit http://www.visiting-arizona.com or read my hub My Awesome Arizona Vacation

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