California’s Death Valley National Park Provides Rugged Backdrop For Historic Structures — Furnace Creek Resort And Scotty’s Castle
While the elegant Inn at Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park has long been a haven for travelers seeking a private getaway, executives at the Pacific Coast Borax Company in 1922 probably took a huge leap of faith when they started construction of the mission-style structure.
The company already knew the desert. It had spent years mining the region’s most valuable mineral, borax. To enter the tourism business was new, but the company was buoyed by the success of the Palm Springs Desert Inn just a few hours away.
Pacific Coast Borax Company commissioned architect Albert C. Martin to manage the project. Adobe bricks were hand made by Paiute and Shoshone laborers. Spanish stonemason Steve Esteves created the Moorish-influenced stonework, while meandering gardens and Deglet Noor palm trees were planted.
Inn at Furnace Creek
The Inn at Furnace Creek opened on February 1, 1927 with 12 guest rooms, a dining room and lobby area. Rooms were $10 per night and included meals.
Over the following eight years, additions were constructed and improvements made. In 1928, construction crews added 10 guest rooms, and in 1929 the Travertine Springs were tapped for electricity and water for a new swimming pool. The spring water is still used for irrigating the Inn’s gardens and flow-through pool. More rooms were constructed until the Inn reached 66 rooms in 1935.
Owners of the Furnace Creek Resort received a monumental business boost when the government designated the region a National Monument in 1933. The designation was gold because it resulted in paved roads to and throughout the monument, thus heralding automobile and tourist access to the site.
Ranch at Furnace Creek
One mile down the road from the Inn is the Ranch at Furnace Creek. This complex was originally built as a closer-to-nature, family-friendly contrast to the upscale Inn. It is today comprised of 224 guest rooms, two restaurants, a saloon, general store, golf course and museum dedicated to showcasing borax, the mineral that put the region on the map. Originally called the Greenland Ranch, the name was changed in 1933.
In 1956, the Fred Harvey Company, which pioneered hospitality on the railroads carrying Americans to the West, took over the management of the Furnace Creek Resort. Xanterra Parks & Resorts – then called Amfac Parks & Resorts – purchased the Fred Harvey Company from the family in 1968 including the Inn and the Ranch.
As the Inn and Ranch were taking shape, just down the street – 55 miles down the street – another construction project was underway. Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson was immersed in a much more personal project – construction of a 25-room mansion that would later become known as “Scotty’s Castle.” Although the castle was never completed – a crumbling hole dug for a never-built swimming pool is testament to that fact – it was finished enough for Johnson and his wife Bessie to occupy as a vacation home in 1933 after nine years of construction.
Now operated by the National Park Service, Scotty’s Castle was named for a legendary and amiable swindler who Albert Johnson befriended. Walter Scott, better known as “Death Valley Scotty,” claimed to have discovered a secret gold mine in the region north of Furnace Creek. Whether or not Albert Johnson ever truly believed Scotty’s claim is debatable, but the two men became life-long friends and colleagues. Johnson even built a room in the castle for Scott.
The castle is a complex of more than eight buildings that house some of the most beautiful interiors, furniture, tile work and accessories in all of Southern California. Johnson, his wife and Scotty brought artisans, architects and crafts people from Spain, Italy and throughout the United States to work on the intricate details of the castle. Paiute and Shoshone Indians served as laborers during its construction.
Many of the castle’s rooms were outfitted by Hungarian designer Martin de Dubovay using original decor, including imported tiling, and sculpted brass fixtures and furniture. Johnson also wanted music at the castle, so the extraordinary music room – which features a vaulted redwood ceiling with intricate hand-carved patterning – is the home of a rare Welte Pipe Organ with more than 1,121 pipes of up to 16 feet in length. Each year in June, a noted organist conducts two evenings of concerts in the music room. All the furnishings and design of Scotty’s Castle serve as prototypes for today’s Southwest art and decor.