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What is the Painted Desert Inn?

The popular stop on Route 66 offered rooms for $2.

PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK, Ariz — It must have been a welcome sight for those tired travelers on Route 66.

An oasis between Gallup, New Mexico and Flagstaff where you could stop for a cold beer, a hot meal or even stay the night for $2 at an inn made of petrified wood.

Despite its shifting foundation, cracking walls and orders to tear it down decades ago, the Painted Desert Inn is still standing inside the Petrified Forest National Park. This June, against all odds, the national historic landmark will turn 100 years old.

The historic building has become Sarah Herve’s office.

She is the interpretation and education program manager at the Petrified Forest National Park. Her job blends science and history to create stories park visitors can understand and appreciate.

The story behind the Painted Desert Inn is a long one, dating back to 1924 when Herbert David Lore began welcoming guests. The inn had a different name back then.

“It was originally called the Stone Tree House because so much of the building was made out of petrified wood and sandstone,” Herve said.

On top of offering a place to eat and sleep, Lore gave 2-hour motor-guided tours of the Painted Desert below. But after several years, the entrepreneur was ready to move on and sell the property.

He was probably worried about the building’s structural integrity, too.

“It is a maintenance nightmare,” Herve said.

Lore built his inn on bentonite clay, which expands and contracts with moisture. It is the same material used in kitty litter.

While they don’t get much rain here, what they do get can be torrential. Herve pointed to multiple cracks on the walls of the inn, evidence, she said, of the building shifting.

The National Park Service made a deal with Lore in 1936: $59,400 for the inn and 4-square-miles of land. It made Lore a rich man — the sale was worth approximately $1.3 million in today’s dollars.

“It was really in the best interest for all involved when Herbert Lore was ready to sell the property, including the inn,” Herve said. “The Park Service took the opportunity and purchased it.”

In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps renovated and redesigned the building, turning it into the pueblo revival style visitors see today. The thicker walls and stuccoed masonry gave the building more structural strength, but it still had plenty of issues.

The inn closed in 1963 and its windows were boarded up. Herve said the park superintendent received an order in 1975 to tear down the Painted Desert Inn.  

Herve said, according to Park Service folklore, the superintendent and a ranger removed one of the boards and walked inside. They marveled at the hand painted sky lights, chandeliers and murals painted by celebrated Hopi painter Fred Kabotie.   

“He reached out to higher ups in Washington D.C., explaining the significance of this place and that he couldn’t, in good conscience, tear it down,” Herve said.

If you walk into the Painted Desert Inn today, you can still find those same treasures that saved it. The Park Service does not offer overnight lodging, or beers in the basement taproom but they do sell ice cream.

The quick stop gives park guests a chance to get their bearings before exploring the Petrified Forest National Park.

“A lot of visitors give us feedback on how pleased they are that they can virtually come here and have solo experiences,” Herve said. “It’s still possible to have quiet experiences in nature in this park.”

To celebrate the Painted Desert Inn’s 100th birthday, the national park will offer free activities for families June 21 and 22 along with moonlight guided tours of the Painted Desert.

“It’s a beautiful place and a beautiful time to see it,” Herve said.

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