What's Going On at the Desert View Watchtower in Grand Canyon National Park?

Desert View Watchtower

The Desert View Watchtower. NPS photo by Michael Quinn.

The most prominent man-made feature on the eastern edge of Grand Canyon National Park's South Rim is the Desert View Watchtower, a 70-foot-high stone tower that has inspired plenty of questions over the years. What is it? Was it part of some ancient fortress or an unusually stout fire lookout tower?

This year's visitors might also wonder what all those workers are doing to the building.

Despite its imposing and ancient appearance, the building serves a rather utilitarian function: it contains a gift store and its upper floors serve as observation decks that offer fine views of the Colorado River, the nearby desert and the canyon. Constructed in 1932, the tower is recognized as a National Historic Landmark, and is an example of the work by Architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. Her design

takes its influences from the architecture of the ancestral Puebloan people of the Colorado Plateau. She collaborated on the design with Hopi artisans of the day, including well-known Hopi artist Fred Kabotie, whose murals adorn much of the second level of the tower.

Ms. Colter reportedly patterned the structure after towers found at Hovenweep and the Round Tower of Mesa Verde, and one of her key concerns was blending her work with the site. According to a park publication,

As you get closer to the building you might see how well it blends into the environment. It is difficult to tell where the rock of the canyon walls end and the tower begins. Ms. Colter said:

“First and most important, was to design a building that would become part of its surroundings; one that would create no discordant note against the time eroded walls of this promontory.”

To help achieve that effect, Ms. Colter insisted that rocks used in the construction "not be cut or worked, so they would not lose the “weathered surfaces so essential to blend it with the canyon walls.”

The name of the location itself—Desert View—is appropriate …

because of the views to the east of the Painted Desert…you can see the Colorado River make a big bend and continue to the west, the North Rim more than 10 miles away, and a panoramic view for well over 100 miles on a clear day.

Despite it's substantial appearance, time and the elements have taken a toll on the structure. According to information from Xanterra—the concessioner that manages the gift store and maintains the Watchtower—the tower’s roof and windows leak and its mortar and many wood elements are deteriorating, threatening the integrity of the structure and damaging its famous murals.

Correcting those problems will involve a two phase renovation project, and visitors to the area this year will see plenty of activity all over the tower.

During the first phase of renovations, the tower’s roof will be replaced. Work on phase I of the project is expected to begin in mid-to late January. While visitors will have access to the interior of the tower throughout the renovations, it will be necessary to close the observation deck for approximately three weeks while the roof is being repaired. This closure is expected to occur beginning in mid-January. Work on the roofing project should be completed sometime in March.

Phase II of the renovations, will involve repairing, known as “pointing,” masonry mortar joints and repair or replacement of windows and exterior wood elements. During this phase of the renovations, access to portions of the exterior of the tower may need to be restricted in the immediate vicinity of heavy equipment and the ongoing repairs. Phase II of the project is expected to begin sometime in March.

The park's website includes considerable information about the Desert View Watchtower, including photos, historical data and a multi-media presentation.

Hopi House, Hermit's Rest, and the Lookout Studio are other examples of work by architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter at Grand Canyon National Park. You can view photos of those structures on the website for the park's museum collection.