In the 1920s, the National Park Service gave the first permanent concession on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Union Pacific Railroad and its subsidiary Utah Parks Company. From 1901, the railroad provided transportation for tourists to the South Rim of the canyon but did not reach the North Rim directly. To help tourists reach the North Rim, Union Pacific eventually established a railway station one-hundred miles away at Cedar City, Utah, and they provided motor coaches that could then take tourists to one of three parks: Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon, and Zion National Park. In the 1920s, new modes of transportation sparked the need for accommodations on the North Rim, and late in the decade the National Park Service contracted private architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood to design and construct the Grand Canyon Lodge to the rustic requirements of park architecture, or parkitecture. Instead of making a single, simple lodge, Underwood envisioned a community of cabins with the lodge as its centerpiece. A crew of just over a hundred men worked through the winter of 1927–1928 to complete the site; each laborer earned anywhere from fifty to eighty-five cents per hour.
The original lodge featured Kaibab limestone on the exterior designed to resemble natural rock formations, making the lodge appear to rise directly out of the canyon. The glass-enclosed interior faced south, giving visitors inside a direct view of the chasm and of the exterior terrace with its observation tower.
On September 1, 1932, tragedy struck in the late hours of the night; a fire took down the lodge in minutes. Luckily, the lodge had not been used as a hotel, and the only employees inside made it out in time. All but four of the surrounding cabins survived the blaze, and the Park Service still actively uses these cabins today, though the Great Depression slowed progress on repairs. Four years passed before the Park began building a new lodge in 1936, and workers finished it in July 1937. Laborers made use of the surviving materials from the lodge and reconstructed the exterior with Kaibab limestone to maintain the original flow of the lodge with the canyon below. The architects also took advantage of the remodel to add steeper roof lines to better withstand the winter snow and to rebuild with materials that could tolerate fire.
The National Park Service’s Mission 66 program in the 1950s and 1960s raised questions about repurposing the lodge into a visitor center and building motels on the North Rim, but this plan proved too expensive and was never brought to fruition. The lodge has undergone changes in ownership through the years but remains physically unchanged since 1937. Despite being a replacement, architects consider it to be one of the most intact rustic lodge complexes to survive in the National Parks, and in 1987 the Secretary of the Interior designated it a National Historic Landmark.