The Many Lives of Painted Desert Inn
Visitors to Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona come mostly to see its vast, rainbow-hued landscape, and justly so. But its built structures deserve attention, too. While editing a story on the park’s Painted Desert Community Complex in the Winter 2017 issue of Preservation magazine, I learned of another building there, the Painted Desert Inn. It seemed too intriguing not to investigate further.
The Inn, it turns out, has experienced its own evolution. It was built in 1924 as a roadside hotel called the Stone Tree House (the name came from the petrified wood used in its construction). During the 1930s, the National Park Service purchased it and had it completely redesigned in the Pueblo Revival style by in-house architect Lyle E. Bennett.
A group of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers built Bennett’s additions and expansion to the renamed hotel, and some of their handiwork is still intact—including furniture, pressed-tin light fixtures, and stained-glass skylights. “It’s an example of amazing craftsmanship by these young guys learning a trade,” says Richard Ullmann, the park’s chief of interpretation.
Architect Mary Colter was the next to leave her stamp on the Painted Desert Inn. Famous for her naturalistic, site-sensitive work in Grand Canyon National Park, she gave the building a makeover in 1947. Colter added colorful touches such as turquoise-painted window sashes, and she commissioned Hopi artist Fred Kabotie to create a series of interior murals depicting daily Hopi life in the Painted Desert.
Run by the Fred Harvey company for the rest of the 1940s, ‘50s, and into the ‘60s, the Inn closed in 1963. It was threatened with demolition during the ‘70s, but the park eventually recognized its cultural and architectural importance. The site became a National Historic Landmark in 1987, and by 2006, it had undergone a restoration to its postwar, Colter-era glory.
Now, it’s one of the most popular places in the park, according to Ullmann. Although it no longer functions as a hotel or restaurant, the Inn is used for cultural demonstrations and as a day program site for artists-in-residence. And this spring, for the first time, it will serve as the picturesque backdrop for a swearing-in ceremony for 10 new United States citizens.
The clay soil underneath the Inn is constantly shifting, so significant stabilization work is needed, and the adobe walls are in constant need of repair. “The building is still in some jeopardy,” says Ullmann. But it’s open to visitors year-round for self-guided or custom tours.
One of Ullmann’s favorite details to show guests is a section of the exterior wall next to the entrance to the Tap Room, the old bar on the east side of the building. “The CCC left some of the petrified wood exposed when they were covering the original building with adobe,” he says. “It’s another element that makes this place special.”