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Grand Canyon National Park's Watchtower Gets A Facelift


Work to rehabilitate the Desert View Watchtower on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon should result in a sturdier structure with the vibrancy restored to murals found inside the watchtower. Top and bottom photos NPS, middle photo by Jane Schneider.

If you've never been to the East Entrance of Grand Canyon National Park, you owe yourself the trip.

Naturally, the canyon from this South Rim vista is expansive, and there are wonderful views of the Painted Desert, too, but equally alluring is the Desert View Watchtower. This rustic edifice, designed in 1932 by architect Mary Colter, sits hunched against the very rim of the canyon, a lonely outpost, built to be a place for contemplation.

Its stone and masonry facade, which blends in so seamlessly with its surroundings, references the ancient structures built by the early Puebloan people at Hovenweep National Monument that sprawls across the southeastern Utah-southwestern Colorado border, and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.

Yet, “Colter's masonry technique is very different,” notes Mark Rose, the park's concessions asset manager. “She gave her own signature to the buildings.”

In fact, some historians credit Ms. Colter, chief architect and decorator for the Fred Harvey Company from 1902 to 1948, with introducing rustic architecture to the national parks.

Inside, the tower's white-washed walls are richly decorated with murals and iconography from the Hopi tradition. Several murals painted by the famed Hopi artist Fred Kabotie depict tales of the tribe's spiritual journey. A climb to its upper stories — the tower rises 70 feet above the canyon rim — gives visitors views of the canyon that are reminiscent of a Thomas Moran painting: multi-hued, vibrant, inspiring.

But sitting as it does on the edge of the canyon has left the tower exposed to the desert's extremes. Wind and moisture have gradually taken their toll over the years, causing damage to the roof, wooden window surrounds, and mortar. Water has steadily seeped into the building, too, due to cracks in mortar joints as well as simply the porous nature of the coconino sandstone Ms. Colter used in abundance. Interior walls show the leaching of lime, which leaves a chalky, tell-tale coating on some of the murals.

So Xanterra South Rim, L.L.C., the concessioner that maintains the watchtower as a gift shop and observatory, is working carefully to restore it. The watchtower is one of several Mary Colter structures currently being refurbished by Xanterra with oversight from NPS. She was one of the South Rim's principal architects: Phantom Ranch, Hopi House, Bright Angel Lodge, and Lookout Studio are all examples of her work. But the watchtower is something special.

Here, in her usual fastidious manner, Mary Colter personally hand-selected the stones used to cobble together the building's facade.

“Colter spent a huge amount of time puzzling the tower to make it seem old,” says Tom Dufurrena, principal architect for Page and Turnbull of San Francisco, whose company drafted the historic structure report and made recommendations for repairs.

Given that the building has never been restored, it has held up fairly well.

“If it were in a different climate, it would have degraded faster,” notes Mr. Dufurrena. “But since the tower was engineered by the railroad, it is very structurally sound.”

However, the problem is the way in which the tower was constructed. Ms. Colter chose materials sympathetic to the landscape, and not for how they would perform. While the steel framework within the tower flexes with temperature changes, the stone facade remains immobile and brittle.

“When these two are locked together, so that stone and steel can't move independent of each other, then over time, the constant stress of the two materials working against each other led to cracks in the tower.”

Mr. Dufurrena's firm mapped the building's faults using crack gauges to determine how the cracks are moving and how best to repair them while allowing for some flexibility. After evaluating the building's issues, recommendations called for replacing the tower roof, replacing the wooden window surrounds, and repointing the mortar, at a cost of $1.2 million.

Chuck Easton, director of engineering for Xanterra South Rim, says the work started in November 2009, with a completion date in the spring of 2011. While visitation in winter is low, colder temperatures bring other issues.

In order to work on the roof, contractors had to build a second, dome-like roof over the structure to keep it dry, notes Mr. Easton, and had to cover freshly laid mortar with a concrete blanket to keep the material from freezing. Being so close to the rim of the canyon presented another challenge. Mr. Easton says they built a foundation so as to park a lift platform as close as they could to the structure to safely reach hard-to-get areas during the repointing of the mortar.

But tradesmen with D.L. Norton General Contracting of Scottsdale took the project to heart, taking care to ensure renovations got done properly and that new materials matched existing ones. As an example, Mr. Rose says the workmen found weathered juniper fence posts, which when refitted, were the perfect replacement for rotted window surrounds.

One positive outcome in doing the renovation project is that NPS is now taking a more proactive role in getting historic buildings on a regular maintenance schedule. Says Mr. Rose, “The interaction between NPS and concessionaires has been weak. Now we do regular condition reports and know the regular needs of the buildings. We spend more time with the concessionaires overseeing the implementation of projects.”

Once the exterior is completed, restoration of the murals inside the tower will be part of the second phase. The artwork created by Mr. Kabotie is of particular significance, notes Jan Balsom, NPS's deputy chief of science and resource management.

A circular mural on the first floor depicts the Hopi snake legend, the story of the Hopi peoples first emergence in the canyon. Mary Colter was so concerned that park staff understand the murals and many symbols displayed in the tower that she wrote a 60-page manual explaining it for guides. Ms. Balsom says the hope was that Mr. Kabotie's son would be part of the preservation effort, but he died unexpectedly in October 2009.

The murals are currently in fairly stable condition, though phase two work is “several years down the road,” says Mr. Rose. “Our priority now is to stop the moisture and further damaging of the murals.”

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This place is indeed a treasure and when I climbed into it for the first time a year or so ago, even my unpracticed eye noted the need for some work.

This is good news.

Wonderful, insightful, well-researched article, that reminds me of how the last time I was at the Grand Canyon, I barely saw it! Now I want to go back. Thank you Jane!

My first visit to the Watchtower was with my parents, in 1934, when I was only nine years old and the tower was virtually "show room new." Then, I thought it had been built by Indians. I can remember wanting to buy a souvenir -- a small sand painting in an inverted shot glass -- but I wasn't allowed buy it for monetary reasons. I was very impressed by the Watchtower then, and have experienced a kind of nostalgia on three subsequent visits. I still think it is awesome. John F

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