The Painted Desert Inn
Originally posted 12/11/2012
Originally posted 12/11/2012
When the Painted Desert Inn inside what is now the Petrified Forest National Park was first built in 1919, the site was “unappropriated federal land”, and Lore was essentially a squatter. However, the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed people to claim a federal land grant once residency was established. Magnanimity was not the core motivation here. The Homestead Act was actually a pre-war struggle between slaveholding and free states to extend their own type of territory. The economic advantages of using groups of slaves in farming represented a competitive threat to northern “free soil” farmers who had to pay for their help, and they wanted the further extension of slavery stopped. The territories now known as the Western states were developed as free soil states under the Homestead Act only because the Southern states seceded in 1861, and so stopped blocking its passage by the Northern Congressmen.
Lore registered his inn under the Homestead Act in 1924 with the nickname of Stone Treehouse. It was very different from the Desert Inn that followed it, having its main entrance facing the desert view rather than the access road as used today. Subsequent reconstruction has left the original entrance intact though, in the same way that the “Brickyard”, the Indianapolis 500 racetrack, has left a yard-wide strip of the original 1909 brick paving exposed at its start/finish line. round this this entrance in back, the original stacked petrified wood construction can be plainly seen. Since Lore’s inn was in the middle of nowhere, all water had to be carted in from a town eight miles away, and a generator used for power.
Lore made a connection to the nearby main road, and cleared a looping road that offered views of the Painted Desert. It was probably a tidy little venture, between the overnight rooms, the restaurant, and the bar. Lore also offered automobile tours into the desert and sold Navajo and Hopi arts and crafts. He and his family kept this clambake going for more than ten years, until the Petrified Forest National Monument started buying up Lore’s landholdings. The Stone Treehouse itself was purchased in 1936 for $59,400. That starts just short of a million dollars today, adjusted for inflation. Not a bad payback for something that cost him the price of registration, hauling petrified wood and clay the few miles to the site, and Native Indian labor to do the hard work just a decade before.
Plus, the purchase was just in time for Lore. He had built the Stone Treehouse on an unstable Bentonite clay, which absorbs water and expands when it does so. Industrially, it’s a very useful clay – you know one form of it as kitty litter – but it makes a lousy surface to build on. By the time of the purchase, the foundation had shifted and the walls were fracturing. Time for a rebuild. The National Park Service had an architect by the name of Lyle Bennett, who was already known for using designs showing a Southwestern influence. He drew up plans for an expanded building, and sought bids for construction. Times being what they were, even the lowest bid topped the available budget, and by 1936 someone had the idea to use the Civilian Conservation Corps to rebuild what would become the Painted Desert Inn. Work started in 1937, and the Inn opened its doors in mid-1940 replete with Bennett’s designs for furniture and tinwork light fixtures that are still in place today. It now had six guest rooms and was now a commercial success. World War II interceded however, and the Painted Desert Inn had to shut down in late 1942.
It reopened in 1946, and a year later, its operation was outsourced to the Fred Harvey Company who brought in their own company architect, Mary Jane Coulter. She expanded the surrounding facilities to include a filling station, residences, and utility buildings, as well as two adobe casitas that are still in use today. She also had picture windows installed to show off the surrounding vistas, changed the color schemes, and hired Hopi painter Fred Kabotie to create some murals in the building’s interior walls.
I’ll simply quote this artist’s information from a display next to one of the striking murals: “Fred Kabotie was an internationally celebrated Hopi artist who continues to be a leading influence in the field of Native American Art. Fred Kabotie was a self-taught painter, muralist, silversmith and educator who used traditional Hopi patterns, imagery and stories within his work. Estimated 500 paintings. He painted these murals at the Painted Desert Inn in May-June of 1948.
“Born in Shungopavi on the Hopi Indian Reservation around 1900, Kabotie attended government schools in his youth and was sent to Santa Fe Indian School as a teenager. He rebelled under the school’s policy of suppressing Native cultures, and painted images from the home he missed. Over time he developed an artistic style that brought interest from collectors of Southwestern Art. He gained the attention of Mary Jane Coulter, designer and architect for the Fred Harvey Company, who commissioned him to paint murals at the Desert View Watchtower at Grand Canyon National Park in 1933. In 1937 he began teaching art a a new Hopi high school, where he taught for 22 years. He advised and curated at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, painted murals at the Museum of Modern Art in 1941, and won the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1945, all the while advocating for Indian artistry. Late in his career he focused on the development of a style of silversmithing unique to the Hopi. He also worked for the Indian Arts and Crafts Board and founded the Hopi Cultural Center. He passed away in 1986 leaving a great legacy through his own work and that of many of his students.” A very impressive climb from oppressed student to renowned artist.
The Fred Harvey contract was no small thing at the time, and the company itself has its own story. That would take a small book, so I’ll merely pick and choose bits of it to relate here. It traces back to 1875, when a freight agent for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad opened two cafes for a year within a couple of railroad stations in Kansas and Colorado. With typical independent eateries often creating a near-lethal experience for train passengers at stopping points, Harvey got it into his head that solid profits could be made at restaurants adjoining stations, as long as high quality food and good service were offered. It strikes us as a weary come-on today, but Harvey took these qualities seriously as the only way to actually make it work, and each restaurant would be consistent in approach and quality to the next. He essentially invented the first restaurant chain in the U.S., at the same time setting the bar for quality unusually high.
He was unable to convince his employer to invest in system-wide restaurants at every railroad stop, but the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway contracted with him for several units to see how they would fare. His Harvey House restaurants did very well because they answered a need, and rapid expansion followed. Realizing that the way to gaining more butts in seats was to promote greater tourism of the American Southwest by railroad, he led the drive. Since many of his eating establishments would be inside Harvey House hotels, this was both essential and effective.
He also instituted strict standards for his wait staff, called “Harvey Girls”. However illegal those standards might be today, they accomplished their goal and raised the bar for quality of service. Think of it as the Hooters waitresses of the late 1800s, except that they needed no natural endowments to be hired. In fact, the starched black and white uniforms were designed to minimize the female features. To be hired, they did need to be educated, attractive and intelligent, young, unmarried, and Caucasian. They had to sign a one-year contract, observe a 10 PM curfew, and avoid makeup of any kind and chewing gum while on duty. These Harvey Girls became a promotional force in themselves, inspiring a book and motion picture by the early 1940s.
The core values of unusually ample portions of consistently high quality food, delivered with an unusual level of competence and courtesy were only part of Harvey’s formula for success in execution. He was a stickler for cleanliness and efficiency, and made personal inspections often as possible. This was all such a difference from the current lot of the typical railroad passenger that the ATS&F Railroad saw a need to break the general stereotype of long rides punctuated with the risk of rancid food in local dives. Making the overall travel experience more pleasant would ultimately make it more profitable, and here was Fred Harvey with a proof of concept that really worked. Harvey even worked out signals with the railroad that allowed the next stop on line to prepare to service a trainload of passengers in a half-hour. This collaboration lasted until 1963, a decade after railroad passenger service had dwindled in favor of the automobile for long distance travel. The Fred Harvey Company then serviced a main tollway in Illinois with oases, and moved with the times to bus terminals and airports. It’s almost personal affiliation with the Santa Fe Railroad ended in 1968, when the line was purchased by a resorts conglomerate.
Unfortunately, the bad foundation continued to take its toll on the building. Cracks in the walls and floors needed attending to in the ‘50s, and when serious structural problems surfaced in 1958, it prompted the Fred Harvey Company to abandon it and move their operation to the new Visitor Center in 1963.
It seemed time to give up on this money pit and demolish it. Arrangements were finalized to tear it town in 1972, but insurrection lurked. Some within in the Park Service vehemently disagreed, and the public’s reaction was to protest and put it on the National Register of Historic Places. It was rehabbed yet again and reopened in 1975 as a museum and visitor center, using volunteer retirees from the National Park Service. As a visitor center, business was a-boomin’ and the entrance fees allowed more renovations and “stabilization” of those Kabotie murals.
The Inn was certified as a National Historic Landmark in 1988, but by that time it had been closed again for roof, asbestos, and heating issues. These were addressed and it was reopened in 1990. That decade produced yet more cracking for the Building That Wanted To Die, and somebody finally roused enough program and public support to deal with the building’s basic structural elements in 2004-2006. The goal was to limit further damage, and to do so without swapping out its historic integrity for structural integrity. Will it work? Time will tell. It’s an absolutely entrancing building, and a week’s stay here in 1940 must have been an enriching experience.