While the natural sites of Grand Canyon National Park are what draw most people, the man-made and historical attractions in the Park are often just as inviting once they are discovered and explored. Many of these sites have sprung from the vision of “the best unknown architect in America” Mary Jane Elizabeth Colter.
While Colter was born in the East in Pittsburgh, PA in 1869, she saw the West while she was still quite young traveling with her family through areas such as Texas and Colorado. At a time when there were no women architects Colter was accepted to the California School of Design in 1886 and trained in both architecture and interior design.
At the turn of the 20th century railroads were carrying people West for many reasons and hotels and restaurants were needed to serve them along the way. Fred Harvey formed a company that built a series of hotels and restaurants called Harvey houses. These were staffed by specially trained women in high-necked collars known as Harvey Girls. They set a high standard for comfort and service as people traveled west. Mary Colter was hired to decorate the Alvarado Harvey Hotel in Albuquerque, NM in 1901. By 1910 she was working for the company full time and setting her sights on architectural design rather than interior design.
She remained with the Harvey Company for over thirty years and designed over twenty hotels for them in that time throughout the West including La Posada Hotel in Santa Fe which has been restored and remains her masterpiece.
The Harvey Company became a partner with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad when it began taking tourists to the Grand Canyon. That provided Mary Colter with the opportunity to work with the National Park Service as well designing buildings within the Park. Between 1905 and 1932 this chain smoking woman in bright pink designed eight buildings at the Grand Canyon for the Park Service four of which are Nation Historic Landmarks today.
A hallmark of Colter architecture in the Park is the look of antiquity she gave newly constructed buildings. The day they were completed they appeared as if they had been there for centuries. Her style became known as National Park Service Rustic and was employed in other parks and by the CCC in the mid 20th century. Colter’s buildings in the Grand Canyon were made of local stone, much of it uncut, and built by local, often Native American craftsmen. She designed several buildings after Hopi structures. Hopi House and the Watchtower are examples drawn from her research and travels among that tribe. The Watchtower became the Park’s signature building. Colter had the interior painted by local a local Hopi artist and the Hopis oversaw the opening of that building.
She built Hermit House to look like it was cobbled together by a mountain man with no thought to permanence. It does have some wonderful views of the canyon from its windows, however. She was instrumental in changing the name of the group of buildings known as Roosevelt Ranch to Phantom Ranch in order to make it sound more intriguing to tourists.
The Bright Angel Lodge is a prime example of the use of local materials reflecting the region in the construction. The “geological fireplace” in the lodge was built by layering the rocks in the fireplace in the same order as the geologic structure of the canyon walls with the oldest rock forming the base of the structure.
After many more years of designing buildings around the West, Colter retired in 1948. Some believe that she is not better known as an architect even though it is likely that more people have seen her buildings than have seen those of Frank Lloyd Wright, because she only built in the West. Mary Colter died in 1958.
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Mary Jane Colter