Banner outside El Tovar commemorates the hotel’s centennial.
The hotel closed after breakfast on Monday to accommodate the $4.5 million project, the first major improvement since 1998, when guest rooms were redone and extensive structural repairs made. This project will overhaul and replace all fixtures in guest rooms, including beds, televisions and bathroom tiling. All of the common areas, including dining rooms, will receive new paint, carpet and lighting. Also, the kitchen floor will be removed and re-tiled and the roof will be stripped and re-covered with new wood shingles.
The road and parking lot will remain open, as will Verkamps and Hopi House. The traffic loop in front of the hotel is closed, as are the rest rooms.
Though normally closed in the winter, the Arizona Room will stay open for dinner, from 4:30-10 p.m. during the El Tovar closure and reopen for lunch the weekend of Feb. 19. Kachina Lodge guests will register at Bright Angel Lodge.
“We should all look good heading into the next century,” said Bill Johnston, general manager of Xanterra’s South Rim LLC. “El Tovar is truly a special place and we want to show it the respect it deserves.”
The project, which has been in the planning stages for several months, wasn’t planned to coincide with the hotel’s centennial, according to Bruce Brossman, marketing director for Xanterra South Rim LLC, but it will reopen with a celebration of the hotel’s 100th year.
He said the company doesn’t expect business to suffer during the closure.
“We’re really not affected, because it’s not really filled up until late or middle March,” he said. “It will impact a lot of guest who enjoy returning to El Tovar. Whether they will take a different room, that’s hard to tell.”
He said that the Arizona Room will forgo its usual winter closure, remaining open at night to provide another dining option for guests.
“Hopefully people will still come,” Brossman said. “We are hoping the revenue will go other places.”
Johnston said that no layoffs are planned for El Tovar’s employees.
“We’re working with the staff,” he said. “Some have transferred to other locations in the park, to Bright Angel and the Arizona Room in anticipation of business picking up. Some others have gotten winter jobs at places like ski areas. And some are combining earned vacation time with leave of absence time. This is normally a pretty slow time and it’s not unusual for people to take an extended vacation and leave.”
Employees will retain their housing during the closure, even if they leave the park to work elsewhere in that time, Johnston said.
Before the El Tovar dining room opens for lunch on April 13, there will be a private centennial celebration and a short public rededication. Also, through the next year, centennial merchandise will be available at Hopi House and El Tovar.
Grand Canyon’s El Tovar is one of the original great lodges of the National Park system and a key influence in opening the southwest to tourism.
At the turn of the 20th century, a visit to the Grand Canyon meant a bone-jarring 20-hour stagecoach ride and rustic accommodations.
In 1901, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway laid an 80-mile spur from Williams to the Canyon. To increase its customer base, the railway began to make plans for a luxury hotel close to its South Rim terminal.
Illinois architect Charles Whittlesey was given the task of designing the structure. While hotel architecture at the time tended toward Victorian with wood-frame construction, designers of National Park lodges along and near the rail lines were trying to define new styles using natural and locally available materials.
Whittley used local stone and Douglas fir trees from Oregon to create what’s been described as a cross between a Swiss chalet and Norwegian villa.
The hotel, which opened Jan. 15, 1905, cost $250,000 to build. It originally had 95 rooms but later renovations reduced that to 78 to accommodate private bathrooms in all guest rooms.
Like most old hotels, El Tovar has its share of stories. Originally it had separate sitting rooms for men and women, a men’s grotto, a photo studio with darkroom, rooftop garden and billiards parlor.
To insure fresh ingredients for its dining room offerings, the hotel kept its own herd of Jersey cows, a milking barn, poultry barn, butcher shop, baker and cold storage. Until a pipeline was laid from Indian Garden in the 1930s, trains brought in all water.
The Fred Harvey Co., now Xanterra Parks & Resorts, managed El Tovar from the start. The famed Harvey Girls staffed El Tovar and other Harvey houses throughout the west. These girls went a long way toward “civilizing” the region.
El Tovar precedes Arizona’s statehood by seven years, as well as Grand Canyon’s designation first as a national monument in 1908 and National Park in 1919.
The hotel was named for Spanish explorer Don Pedro de Tobar, who reported the existence of the Canyon to fellow explorers.
Presidents who have stayed at El Tovar include Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Calvin Coolidge and Bill Clinton.
Famous guests include Albert Einstein, Elizabeth Taylor, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.
When it opened, El Tovar was considered the most luxurious hotel between the Rocky Mountains and San Francisco.
While guest rooms did not have private bathrooms, they did boast another modern luxury: each had its own telephone.
For more information on the closure, contact the Xanterra South Rim LLC Sales Office at 638-2525.