Kolb Studio: The Remarkable House You've Never Heard Of
Nov 6, 2015
|Hello once more, fellow adventurers… I’m back, with my final entry from the Grand Canyon, (for now… we’ll be back next year.) My apologies for the long wait, but working at Amazon has left us with less free time on our hands, and damn if I don’t need me some Judge Judy, football, and Netflix movies to relax these days.
This entry concerns a small nondescript building, which now houses a gift shop and sits just off the rim trail in the village. If you were to visit the Grand Canyon over the weekend, Kolb Studio probably wouldn't be a place you’d take notice of, much less stop and visit on your way to the Bright Angel Trailhead, or ice cream shop. Like most buildings at the canyon, it’s been there over a hundred years, (about 111 to be exact). That, and the fact that it was built over the rim of the Grand Canyon by two guys without a set of plans, makes it worth a peek. The real story, however, involves the adventurous entrepreneurs who built it, and risked life and limb for their love of photography, and the canyon itself.
Cindy and I were treated to a private tour of Kolb Studio by Rob, as part of our introduction to the Grand Canyon Association. As I learned more about its history, and more importantly, the men who built it… I found it to be an inspiring tribute to the pioneering human spirit. (I was also reminded just how little I’ve done with my life!) The Studio/House is incredibly cozy... As I walked through the place, all I could think about was the "warm fuzzies" it was giving me. Every chair looked as though it may fit my ass like an old, broken-in pair of slippers. It was all we could do not to sit down and stay a while.
I’m happy to share the tale of the Kolb Brothers, and take you on a tour of the auditorium/studio/home these brothers shared. If you thought I took some crazy risks for a photo… wait ‘til you meet these guys, and see the equipment they had to work with.
Ellsworth Kolb arrived at the Grand Canyon in 1901, followed by his brother Emery in 1902, (Just as the Santa Fe Railroad reached the canyon) 17 years before the creation of Grand Canyon National Park. They founded a photographic studio at the head of the Bright Angel Trail, which was at first nothing more than a cave with a blanket over the entrance, used as a darkroom. The first permanent structure was begun in 1904; a 2-story wooden structure built on a 55 X 20 foot rock shelf, blasted out of the canyon wall. This structure had two major additions in later years; Three stories of living quarters, and a small auditorium in 1915… and an expansion of the auditorium, lab, and darkroom in 1926. After those additions there were minor changes, but it has remained essentially unchanged for over 80 years. It has five stories, and twenty three rooms.
The Kolbs made a living taking photos of visitors (including Theodore Roosevelt) riding mules into the canyon. This was a physically demanding job, given that the closest water (needed for photo processing, not to mention daily life) was located 4 and a half miles (3000ft) into the canyon, at Indian Gardens. (These daily trips for water continued for over 30 years until 1934, when water was finally available on the south rim.) In 1912, they made history as the first guys to film a trip down the Colorado River. The film was shown intercontinentally, and then daily at their canyon auditorium for over 60 years, the longest run of any movie in the world.
The rapport between these two men was never very strong, according to historians… And once Emery was married and had a child, living together became intolerable and the business relationship dissolved. Someone had to go, and the decision as to who would move out was made by of all things, a coin toss! Emery won the best two out of three, and Ellsworth moved to Los Angeles, where he died in 1960.
When the National Park Service took over stewardship of the canyon, Emery was allowed to stay in his home. Things got nasty, however, when the park service and the Fred Harvey Company, attempted to pressure Emery into leaving, (having grown tired of his “eyesore of a building”). Fred Harvey went so far as to build “Lookout Studio” nearby, which confused visitors, who mistook it for Kolb Studio. They then built a mule corral that blocked access to Kolb Studio. Emery held on however, taking pictures and personally introducing his movie until he aged, and died in 1976 in a Flagstaff Hospital. He was buried in Pioneer Cemetery, next to the Shrine of the Ages here at the park. (Alongside other canyon pioneers.)
We were told on our tour, that Emery spent the last years of his life, in a hospital bed placed in one of the rooms of his home. Having toured the place, I can understand why. While not the largest, or most expensive home… its cozy charm, style, and unique location on the edge of one of the most amazing natural wonders of the world, make it truly unique. To quote the park service brochure: “Kolb Studio paints a picture of the men who built it. Perched aggressively on the brink, the building is anything but conventional. It was built without a plan, its rooms added piecemeal over the years. The building is a vivid reminder of the men who ran the rapids, hiked the canyons, and photographed it all.”
Usually, the only people that get access to the residential areas of the home, are those buying expensive tickets to an annual fund raising art show. As employees of the Grand Canyon Association, we were fortunate to see this beautiful place, and share it with you. It was restored to its original condition during its centennial in 2004, and contains all the original fixtures and furnishings. (The fridge is an identical replacement.) We want to give a shout out to Rob, who gave his time and shared his stories with us about the history of the studio. Funds from the Grand Canyon Association were used in the renovation of the home, as well as its current administration.