Premium Classification III

current image of bright angel lodge

photo courtesy Xanterra

historic image of bright angel lodge

public domain photo

Bright Angel Lodge Grand Canyon NP, 1935
Classification III
Location:
South Rim, Grand Canyon Village, at site of former Bright Angel Camp, which succeeded the Bright Angel Hotel.
Theme: National Park Rustic
Architect: Mary Jane Colter, Fred Harvey Company
Additional Info: Some of the original design illustrations are signed "Nusbaum," which is understood to be Jesse Nusbaum.
Interior Design: Mary Jane Colter, Fred Harvey Co.
Wood Frame Construction by the Fred Harvey Co. for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, 1935
Known Timeline:
Bright Angel Hotel constructed by James Thurber 1896
Tent Cabins added 1905
Operated as Bright Angel Camp by Fred Harvey Co., early 20th Century
Pencil Drawings of Bright Angel Camp, November 29, 1933
Perspective view of Lodge, December 4, 1933
Revised Elevation of Service Wing, December 12, 1933
Revised Elevation of Bright Angel Lodge, December 23, 1933
Pencil Drawing of canyon side entrance, February 16, 1934
Elevation of West Service Wing, April 9, 1934
Pencil Drawing of one room cabin, November 25, 1934
Original opening June 1935
22 Cabins moved to Motor Lodge 1948
Sold by Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad to the Fred Harvey Co., 1954
Some cabins upgraded 1955
Dining Room addition 1964
History Room addition late 1960s
Current room count 73

Observations

The original Bright Angel Hotel was a relative latecomer to the Canyon Rim in 1896. It was in competition against the Grand View Hotel and a few other hastily built structures and camps. Partly because Bright Angel was the nicest of these tourist camps, but mainly because it was located at the northern terminus of the rail line, it was recognized as the best destination at the rim. Grand View Hotel had the distinct misfortune of being 16 miles away from the railroad, and relied on patrons willing to pay for an additional carriage ride. It closed "for renovations" right around the turn of the century.

fireplace at the original bright angel hotel

above, fireplace scene in the original Bright Angel Hotel circa 1900

As quickly as it rose, it also declined. Following construction of the luxurious El Tovar in 1905, the 20-room Bright Angel Hotel became known mostly as an overflow annex, and the cabins and new cabin tents were regarded as lodging for "common folk" or "the working man." Sometime after 1905 it was relegated to the name of Bright Angel Camp, probably to eliminate any possible confusion with the stately El Tovar.

With the rise of the automobile and the increasing mobility of the middle class in the 1920s, the "common man" gained in stature in the eyes of the Fred Harvey Company and the newly minted National Park Service. By this time the Bright Angel Camp was a haphazard collection of dated lodging, decaying cabins, and fraying tent cabins. Even though the newly mobile upper middle class found the El Tovar to be a bit of a stretch, they regarded the Bright Angel Camp as too barbaric. A new Bright Angel was needed, to cater to the 1920s version of the common man -- a bit more comfortable, a bit more expensive, and worthy of the Park Service's 1920s trend toward luxury rustic.

an unobtrusive tourist camp

Colter designed the complex to be as unobtrusive as possible. Compared to rows of canvas tent cabins -- still found at many parks today -- Bright Angel Lodge blends well with the surroundings.

The Fred Harvey Company was given the task of redesigning not only Bright Angel Camp but also the entire South Rim community. This naturally fell to their leading architect, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. An aging workaholic and chain smoker, Colter nevertheless understood better than anyone the importance of blending a structure into its surroundings. It was the Arts and Crafts movement toward harmony between structure and terrain, espoused by men like Gustav Stickley, perfected by the Greene Brothers, modernized by Frank Lloyd Wright. In addition to some significant hotels elsewhere, Colter designed the phenomenal Hermit's Rest, Phantom Ranch, and Lookout Studio at Grand Canyon, and was working on the Desert View Watchtower when she was given the Bright Angel task.

The Harvey Company's goal was to upgrade and improve the tourist camp, with different levels of luxury for different levels of clientele. Those willing to pay for a private bath would have that option, while the majority would gladly opt for shared bath facilities. This may not play well in the 21st century, but it was quite common in the early 1930s; even the El Tovar provided shared baths for a number of rooms.

fireplace cabin

Now you're in high cotton -- one of the fireplace cabins Colter designed for Bright Angel. Photo courtesy of Xanterra

The Bright Angel redevelopment was part of an overall Rim Village design that Colter was working on. Suffice it to say that her plan did not include a crush of vehicles or structures like the Thunderbird or Kachina; we can only imagine how different the south rim experience would be if Colter's vision came to fruition. We do know that Colter placed significant emphasis on history, location, and local materials in her design approach. If a structure -- such as Hermit's Rest -- didn't have a history, she created one and used the design and materials to make it fit. For the design of Bright Angel Lodge, Colter used the common area fireplace concept from the old Bright Angel Hotel as her focal point. For the construction, Colter used not only local materials but at least one original cabin structure in the complex when she preserved Bucky O'Neill's mining cabin and converted it to a duplex.

original front elevation

This is a hand-colored version of the black and white photo shown at the top of this webpage. The Harvey Company used this in various promotional materials for almost three decades

The resulting lodge and cabins have been upgraded, added to and changed over the ensuing years, yet Bright Angel remains an unobtrusive and downright charming series of structures. The main entry area suggests both a western stage stop and forest lodge, while the local stone serves to make the whole thing seem to be a natural part of the landscape and smaller than it actually is, almost invisible by contrast to the structures down the road.

bright angel lodge hand colored photo

A hand-colored view of the approach to Bright Angel Lodge circa 1935.

Compared to the front elevation, the lobby is much more dramatic. Unfortunately many visitors miss this experience if they aren't staying at the lodge. Most enter Bright Angel Lodge from the rim side, including many people staying at Thunderbird Lodge. Even bus tourists discharged at the front door will walk right around the building to see the Canyon. That is not to suggest that the Bright Angel lobby is more visually stunning than the Grand Canyon...it is just unfortunate that so many people first experience Bright Angel from the "back" side. The lobby is not a massive, cavernous room in the tradition of Old Faithful Inn or Paradise Lodge, but it is a compelling sight that immediately captures the imagination.

bright angel lobby circa 1935

Bright Angel Lodge lobby circa 1935. Then as now, Colter's attention to detail and eye for natural beauty creates an imaginary world that conjures a romanticized view of the old west.

The fireplaces Colter designed for the Bright Angel Lodge are under-appreciated masterpieces. The lobby design is more visually captivating; it features massive limestone blocks. The lounge fireplace is the creative one. A geologic study of the Grand Canyon, it employs stone from each layer of the canyon to create a model from rim to river, with each layer approximately to overall scale.

The lodging facility houses 73 guest rooms and cabins. These are decorated in a mix of modern southwestern/mission furnishings with rustic appointments. The rooms are in many ways true to Colter's original designs, so it very much has a historic feel. Everything is of course well maintained and freshly painted, but nothing has been revamped anywhere near the extent of El Tovar -- nor should it be.

cabin interior

current appearance of a typical cabin interior, photo courtesy of Xanterra

fireplace cabin

What happens when one of the most influential American architects of the 20th century is asked to re-design a low-brow tourist camp? You get a fine looking bunch of cabins! Photo courtesy of Xanterra.

The Experience

Fortunately it's not for everyone...

The Bright Angel Lodge is arguably the best value at Grand Canyon National Park. Time spent in the main lodge building affords you new sensory experiences, sights, and discoveries. As noted in a caption above, the lobby conjures a romanticized "old west stage hotel" experience. In reality, of course, such hotels were hastily and poorly constructed with little thought given to architectural beauty. They were more akin to the original Bright Angel Hotel than Colter's creation. The massive timbers and furnishings in the lobby are sensational. For some reason -- perhaps the busy-ness of the lobby -- an empty chair for reading, chatting, or just plain relaxing can usually be found.

The rimside location is unbelievable; the proximity to Lookout Studio and Bright Angel Trail serve to enhance the experience. Due to this location and layout of the property, the grounds and main building can be hectic and crowded.

Rooms are typical Xanterra in that even though the structures may be seriously aging, the property is meticulously cleaned and maintained. The age of some of the buildings, especially the thinner walls used in pre-1970s construction, are troublesome for some travelers. In addition, some rooms and cabins have shared baths. Some cabins have private baths shoe-horned in where they were never intended, an obvious answer to the demands of the contemporary customer. The proximity of some of the rooms and cabins is a bit closer than present-day expectations. Remember, the Bright Angel Lodge was designed to be an "everyman's camp," emphasis on camp. Not all of it has been fully converted to a modern hotel/motel facility (nor should it be). Add it all up, and a good portion of Bright Angel does not appeal to the average traveler. But that's fine, because the Bright Angel is almost continuously sold out well in advance.

For those travelers who can deal with the trappings of vintage lodging, even the most dated room at Bright Angel is absolutely fantastic compared to the sterile Thunderbird and Kachina next door. At its finest, some rimside and fireplace cabins provide the accommodations of a lifetime. As a National Park Lodge experience, it doesn't compare to the El Tovar...but as a Grand Canyon experience, nothing compares to Bright Angel Lodge.

Classification

Premium Classification III

The Bright Angel Lodge will enhance a visit to Grand Canyon National Park. The design, decor, location, and historic value are important and an overnight stay will be memorable. Overall, the Bright Angel Lodge is classified in the third highest tier by the National Park Lodge Architecture Society.

cabin on the rim

It is important to remember that NPLAS Classifications represent the average experience at a given National Park Lodge. As this photo shows, some of the lodging at Bright Angel is simply beyond comparison.

original view of coffee shop at bright angel lodge

The decor and furnishings in today's restaurant is vastly different from the original. Here's a hand-colored 1935 view of the original restaurant, then known as "The Coffee Shop."



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Bright Angel Lodge & the Rise of Parkitecture

Random foliage

Bright Angel Lodge is often cited as the first example of park hotel based on national park rustic, more commonly known as "parkitecture." As with most architectural design trends and themes, it is difficult to point to a specific point of origin. In this case, with so many hotels predating it, it is reasonable to suggest that Bright Angel Lodge was definitely not the "big bang" of parkitecture. It may be where the expression was coined -- and where the art form was in many ways perfected and defined -- however other lodges predate it. A short stroll to the front door of the neighboring El Tovar is case in point.



current sign

Colter's geologic fireplace, located in the lounge. Photo courtesy Xanterra.

Front Elevation

Above, one-way traffic was still a long way off in this colorized image from the 1940s. Below, the original sign style was reminiscent of the El Tovar's. As this photo shows, it was still being used in the 1960s.



Dining Room

The Lodge Restaurant shown above was added in 1964. Food is not especially memorable, but selection and value are good, service is timely. The staff is usually personable and fun, and the facilities are always spotless. Did we mention the location? All in all it's a good dining out choice for families. The Arizona Room, also located at Bright Angel Lodge, is a good alternative for those with a more discerning palate or anyone desiring a more sedate dining pace. During summer months, the Bright Angel opens its old-fashioned soda fountain -- a pleasure not to be missed. Photo courtesy Xanterra.

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Bright Angel Resources

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