You might think that with the most magnificent landscape on the continent that the Grand Canyon would not need any man-made notoriety to go along with the scenery. But the park is also known for its collection of works by master architect and interior designer Mary J. Colter – and all scarcely altered.
Who Was Mary J. Colter?
Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter was born in Pittsburgh in 1869 but her Irish immigrant father soon moved the family to Colorado and then Texas before settling in St. Paul, Minnesota. In her teens she traveled west to attend the California School of Design and apprenticed at an architecture firm. But in an age when there were few female architects she returned to Minnesota to teach.
In 1902, through a friendship with Minnie Harvey Huckel, whose father Fred Harvey pioneered concessions along the western rail lines, Mary scored a summer job decorating the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque. Colter helped introduce the Mission Revival style to New Mexico. By 1910 she was working for the Fred Harvey Company full-time as an architect and would do so until 1948, designing hotels, lodges and restaurants at the great railroad tourist stops of the Southwest.
Mary J. Coulter’s Contributions to the Grand Canyon
Front and center in Mary J. Colter’s portfolio was her work at the Grand Canyon. She was responsible for the “rustic” style of architecture that drew inspiration from the topography, an interpretation that would be adopted by the Park Service nationwide. Four of her Grand Canyon buildings have been herded into a National Historic Landmark for their cultural contributions.
Colter’s first work was the multi-story Hopi House in 1905 that mimicked the look of traditional Hopi pueblos, only rendered in sandstone. Its purpose was to display Fred Harvey Indian Arts for sale and she outfitted the interior beams with the grasses and twigs and mud-plaster walls that would be encountered in a native pueblo.
Lookout Studio, fashioned from rubblestone, rises on the South Rim of the canyon as an extension of billion-year old rocks. It was intended as a competing photographic studio to the private Kolb Studio a short walk to the west. Today the old Santa Fe Railway building does duty as a gift shop and observation station into the canyon.
Hermit’s Rest is also hanging on the canyon’s edge but rather than jut jauntily on the abyss it is half-buried into a mound. Her goal with this coach stop was antiquity and upon seeing the mass of stones the building resembles a long-abandoned shelter. The broken bell that hangs from an archway in thousands of tourist pictures was salvaged by colter at a Mexican mission.
Colter continued the theme of ancient composition in 1932 with the Indian Watchtower at Desert View. The 70-foot cylindrical tower at the eastern end of the South Rim visitor area could pass for something cobbled together by the Anasazi but the rough stone exterior masks an infrastructure of steel and concrete.
Colter also worked on the iconic Phantom Ranch at the canyon floor and the Bright Angel Lodge that was finished in 1935. While she did not design the El Tovar Hotel she led the decorating team inside. In a very real way Mary J. Colter’s fingerprints are as much in evidence at the Grand Canyon as nature’s.