Mary Jane Colter
by Arthur Mathews
Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter
was a designer who became what might be called the official architect of the
Grand Canyon. If you go there, you will see many examples of her work. Colter designed the Bright Angel Lodge, Hermit's Rest, Hopi House,
Lookout Studio and the Watchtower. She also designed Phantom Ranch, the
guest ranch at the bottom of the canyon along the Colorado River. Many
of these structures do not look like they were built by an architect; they
hardly even look like modern buildings at all, but more like old Native
American dwellings, even ruins. This appearance of age was entirely
intentional; it was all part of Colter's art, her signature.
Colter was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1869, but the Colter
family lived in many areas of the country, winding up in Minnesota in 1886.
When her father died, leaving Colter, her mother and an older sister, Mary
decided to pursue a career in order to help the family. She persuaded
her mother to allow her to attend the California School of Design in San
Francisco. After graduating, she returned to St. Paul, Minnesota and
taught mechanical drawing at Mechanic Arts High School.
Richard M. Perry
The Fred Harvey Company was the first and only company to own and operate
concessions at Grand Canyon National Park. Fred Harvey became infamous
for hiring young women from the East coast to come out west and work as
waiters, hosts and shop attendants in his hotels. These women became
known as the "Harvey Girls." Through contacts, Colter was hired as the
interior decorator of a New Mexico hotel and soon became chief architect and
decorator for the Fred Harvey Company from 1902 to 1948. Harvey
commissioned Colter to design all of its buildings on the South Rim of the
Grand Canyon. Because she was fascinated with the Native American history,
architecture, and landscape of the American Southwest, all of her Grand
Canyon buildings took on the flavor of this interest and, consequently, are
very distinctive. The Grand Canyon buildings became her signature
works, but she did many other buildings and interiors as well.
In 1928 Fred Harvey commissioned her to design the
"last great railway hotel," La Posada, in Winslow, Arizona. She also
created (or co-created) La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, the El Navajo Hotel and
railway station in Gallup, New Mexico, and interiors for railway stations in
Chicago, Kansas City, and Los Angeles. She even designed the inside of
the Cochiti dining car for the Super Chief train!
Hopi House, 1905
Richard M. Perry
Despite her regular commissions and the magnificence of her designs,
success did not come easily in that male-dominated profession. She was
not listed as architect on many of her buildings and her name did not
achieve the recognition of many of her peers such as Frank Lloyed Wright,
Irving Gill, and Bernard Maybeck. During the years in which she
worked, response to Colter's designs was overwhelmingly positive. Much
of the praise came directly from Harvey Company's marketing publications,
but there was also plenty of admiration for Colter's designs among the
general public. La Posada, in the four decades that it stood, became a
gathering-place for locals in Winslow and surrounding ranches. El
Navajo, her hotel at the train station in Gallup, was called a "vigorous
modern statement" by New Mexico Architect magazine.
El Navajo Hotel
The Friends of 1800
Virginia Grattan, another Colter biographer, has written: "Her buildings
fit their setting because they grew out of the history of the land.
Colter's use of Native American motifs, Spanish
revival and studied rusticity was also very influential among other
contemporary architects. The Franciscan Hotel by John Gaw Meem bears a
distinct resemblance to Colter's blend of Native American pueblo & modernist
architecture. The KiMo Theater by Carl and Robert Boller is done in a
"Pueblo Revival" style. Interior designers have also copied her use of
Navajo sand paintings to decorate walls.
Richard M. Perry
Colter's last commission was to design a new bar and dining room at La
Fonda. "La Cantinita" was pure Colter, a near time capsule of the
Spanish-influenced Mexican buildings of the 19th century. It was
Colter's art to make the place look old, a hodge-podge rather than the
carefully designed room it was. Arnold Berke, one of Colter's
biographers, describes the process:
"Colter built the homey fireplace and its simulated
ovens around two structural columns, using century-old handmade bricks from
the old New Mexico capitol laid up in a purposely messy manner. The
wainscoting was also brick." "She made the man who did the brick dado
tear that out twice because he was too meticulous and she wanted it sloppy
looking," recalled Patricia Smyth, who knew Colter for many years.
Mary Colter (right) discussing
Bright Angel Lodge plans with Grand Canyon Nat. Park Sup't Minor R.
Tillotson and Mrs. Harold Ickes (wife of the Secretary of the Interior)-
Circa 1935. Fred Harvey Collection, Grand Canyon National Park.
Colter did not just design buildings, she invented stories to go along
with them. "Each building had its own 'reality' constructed in
Colter's mind as the product of fastidious research and planning, then later
planted in the imagination of the traveler," writes Berke. For
instance, La Fonda was meant to be a former ranch house of a large
Mexican-American ranching family with a storied past. The building
would contain all the character and ghosts that might accompany such a past.
And it was in the same spirit that Phantom Ranch was named. Although it
referred to Phantom Creek, a nearby feeder stream into the Colorado River,
Colter, who always liked to add spirit to her designs, presumably settled on
that name because of its supernatural echoes. Colter devised the name
Hermit's Rest after hearing about a man named Louis Boucher who had lived at
the head of a nearby canyon (named Hermit Canyon), guiding tourists in and
out of the canyon in the 1890s. "The hermit story offered Colter the
perfect name for her new building and a theme for its design," writes Berke.
Visitors might choose to imagine that the old hermit, Boucher, had actually
rested inside those old-looking stone walls. This added another
dimension to the romantic aura that Colter liked to develop around her
|The Restaurant, Los Angeles
Union Station, done by Colter in the 1930s.
Eleven of Colter's buildings are on the
National Register of Historic Places and five have been designated National
Historic Landmarks in "recognition of their exceptional value to the
nation." Unfortunately, many others did not survive the 20th century. With the
emergence of highways and subsequent increase in auto travel, many of the
railway station hotels and restaurants lost patronage. In 1957, the
widening of Route 66 caused the hotel portion of El Navajo to be torn down.
All the Navajo sand paintings were destroyed as well. La Posada, the "last
great railway hotel," was closed in 1959.
Most of her interior designs have been remodeled out
of existence. The Hotel Alvarado in Albuquerque, whose interior Colter
had designed as her first Harvey Company project, was razed in 1943.
This demolition caused an outburst of indignation.
Former patrons appealed all the way to the federal government to save the
building, and even staged the inaugural ball of the Museum of Albuquerque
there "in a last defiant gesture."
Mary Jane Colter, Age 80
Grand Canyon National Park
Mary Colter died on January 8, 1958, at the age of 88, saddened to have
witnessed the demolition of so many of her creations. All the
structures on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, with the exception of the
Bright Angel Lodge, are now listed on the 1993 Damaged and Threatened
Natural Historic Landmarks. However, Colter's work has recently come
to the attention of preservationists so a few of her designs stand a good
chance of remaining intact, at least for the time being. The Hopi
House is currently being restored. The restaurant at Los Angeles'
Union Station still remains, and La Posada has been completely restored.
Source material for this story:
The My Hero Project, Inc.