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Meet Mary Colter, the architect who conjured the romance of the American West

They rise along the south rim of the Grand Canyon, rough-hewn structures built mostly of stone and timber, so elemental, so rooted in their surroundings, that many visitors have mistaken them for remnants of pioneer days or prehistory. This was the intent of their creator, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (1869-1958), one of America's earliest women architects and one of the first architects to give American buildings a site-specific sense of place. Yet few of the nearly five million people who visit Grand Canyon National Park every year are aware of Colter. No wonder she's been called "the best-known unknown architect in the national parks."

She graduated from the California School of Design in San Francisco (having also apprenticed with a local architect) in 1890—when the U.S. census counted only 22 female architects in the entire country. For several years she taught drawing at a high school in her hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. Her first design commission came about by chance: after she met the daughter of the founder of the Fred Harvey Company, Harvey hired her to decorate the new Indian Building at the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque.

It was the start of a 46-year relationship between Colter and the Fred Harvey Company—and, by extension, the Santa Fe Railway, for Harvey and Santa Fe had forged an unusual, mutually beneficial partnership. Harvey operated hotels, restaurants, and shops across the Santa Fe system, which were built and owned by the railway. Together they civilized travel across the Southwest, providing what it lacked—comfort, cleanliness, and palatable food. In railroad towns from Chicago to Los Angeles, Harvey House restaurants offered tasty fare and prompt service from primly dressed "Harvey Girls." Despite the fact that Harvey Girls had half their salary withheld until the end of their first year, many of them quit to marry, leading Will Rogers to quip that Fred Harvey "kept the West in food and wives." (The Harvey Girls also inspired a 1946 MGM musical starring Judy Garland.)

The Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railway virtually invented the Southwest as a tourist destination. A pioneer of cultural tourism, Harvey understood that many were drawn to the romance of the West and sought to evoke it in his restaurants, inns, and shops. And no one conjured that romance better than Mary Colter. She gave the Indian Building a series of theme rooms holding Native American and Hispanic arts and crafts for sale, with demonstration areas for native weavers and other artisans and a museum of objects from the company's collection.

The 1901 debut of rail service from Santa Fe's main line to Grand Canyon Village on the south rim easily trumped the alternative, a bone-jarring daylong stagecoach ride from Flagstaff. It led to the construction of a new inn, the El Tovar Hotel. One of the first of the great national park lodges, the El Tovar was designed by Charles F. Whitlesey as a rambling log chalet. Next to it rose a contrasting crafts gallery, Colter's Hopi House, which looks centuries older than the hotel but opened in the same year (1905). She modeled it on flat-roofed Hopi dwellings, giving it roof terraces linked by stone steps and rough-hewn ladders, adobelike interior walls, and viga (log-beam) ceilings. Built by Hopi workers, this simulated pueblo was an atmospheric outpost for the Harvey Company's successful trade in Native American crafts, which helped revive dying traditions and sustain tribal artisans. It reflected the architect's love of the picturesque, grounded in careful research into Native American traditions.

Colter was a chain-smoking, Stetson-wearing dynamo, a tough-minded woman in a man's world who knew how to negotiate for and insist on what was most important to her. The architect was a stickler for authentic materials and motifs, which she deployed with theatrical flair. She liked to imagine a backstory for her projects and give them a convincing patina. In two 1914 buildings on the canyon rim, she tapped into the mystique of timeworn southwestern ruins. The artfully dilapidated Lookout Studio, perched on the rim, purveyed canyon photos when cameras were still rare. Hermit's Rest, conceived as the tumbledown home of a solitary mountain man, was a gift shop. Its timber-framed interior features an arched fireplace set within a massive masonry half-dome that Colter ordered streaked with soot to add age. (Asked why she didn't "clean up the place," she said with a laugh, "You can't imagine what it cost to make it look this old.") With their rude stone walls, jagged chimneys, and uneven rooflines, these buildings blend beautifully with their surroundings.

Colter helped set the mold for the down-to-earth style that came to be known as National Park Service Rustic with works like Phantom Ranch (1922), at the bottom of the mile-deep canyon. She crafted cabins and a simple lodge from stones gathered nearby and wood and other materials brought down on mules. Guests still arrive on foot and mule to enjoy these harmonious accommodations.

Colter based her most impressive park edifice, the Watchtower (1932), on towers found at prehistoric sites throughout the Four Corners region. Located 25 miles from Grand Canyon Village near the park's eastern edge, the tapered stone tower rises seventy feet from the lip of the canyon. It may (intentionally) look weathered, but it was engineered for the ages, its inner steel structure erected by Santa Fe Railway bridge builders. Inside is a shop styled after a Hopi kiva—a ceremonial chamber, usually round and partly underground, complete with log ceiling and ladder leading to a door in the roof (the staggered log ceiling Colter gave it suggests a Native American basket). Upstairs rooms contain reproductions of a Hopi altar, wall paintings, and petroglyphs (rock carvings). The ceiling of the tower bears a spirited mural of Hopi symbols. She embellished the tower's base with faux ruins.

The effect could have been kitschy, but the architect's keen attention to detail and use of Hopi artists and artisans gave it an authentic feeling that still resonates. And it lives up to its name: the windows look out at a 100-mile panorama that stretches from the blue ribbon of the Colorado River to the Painted Desert and distant mountains.

Serious Colter fans are advised to go the extra distance and explore some of her ancient source material. Less than four miles from the Watchtower is Tusayan Ruin, where a small group of Ancestral Puebloans (forerunners of the Hopi, Zuni, and other Pueblo peoples) lived until 1200 A.D. The popular image of the Indian pueblo is a Mesa Verde-style cliffside apartment house, but most were freestanding, like the houses at Tusayan, built on flat, exposed plateaus and mesas.

Colter adorned the inner surfaces of the Watchtower with motifs from the Hopi reservation, 100 miles or so to the east. The reservation is a 2,434-square-mile patch within the 25,000-square-mile Navajo land—a nation within a nation within a nation. For more than 900 years, the Hopi have inhabited this land, maintaining a complex culture rich in rituals. At its heart are the famous "sky villages," set atop three cliff-fringed mesas. Walking around one is like roaming the deck of a weather-beaten ship; the sides of the mesa drop abruptly to the plateau, as endless as the ocean. The towns seem sculpted out of the mesas, sharing the same brown-gray hues; a green door stands out like a chile pepper in a dish of pinto beans. Most houses are stone, plastered in places with adobe. Mary Colter cherished these worn stone shelters. Visitors can buy pottery and other crafts directly from their makers. The pots bear zigzags, scallops, spirals, and other geometric forms—symbols from nature and the spirit world that carry potent meanings, so that each pot becomes a kind of prayer or poem.

Colter fashioned her sturdy stone-and-timber Bright Angel Lodge (1935) after early pioneer buildings, with a welcoming porch and pitched roofs. Inside, she depicted the canyon in microcosm, with a "geological" fireplace, made of canyon-stone strata layered from floor to ceiling. Big picture windows admit breathtaking canyon views. The architect also designed supplemental cabins, scattered among the junipers and pinons. She varied their rooflines and exteriors, a mix of stone, clapboard, board-and-batten siding, rustic wood shingles, and stucco with protruding vigas. This eclectic approach (now used in many planned communities) gave the effect of a diverse settlement built over time.

The crisp lines and restrained ornament of the El Navajo Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico, (1918, expanded 1923) revealed her ability to blend regionalism and early modernism. Sadly, it was torn down in 1957, a sign of the decline in rail travel and the rise of touring by car. Many of Colter's designs have since been remodeled beyond recognition—dining rooms she designed for Union Stations in Chicago (now-gone) and Kansas City—or razed—the Alvarado Hotel and Indian Building in Albuquerque, the El Navajo in Gallup. You can still see the Harvey House space she designed for L.A.'s Union Station (1939)—even without all the original fittings, the interior still dazzles with its vaulted ceiling, Navajo-style floor pattern, and Art Deco/Art Moderne flourishes (all sharing a geometric verve Colter understood well; some of her works could be labeled Pueblo Deco). Traces of her contribution to the 1920s makeover of Santa Fe's La Fonda Hotel remain. And her greatest project outside Grand Canyon National Park, the La Posada Hotel (1929) in Winslow, Arizona, has been lovingly restored to again embody the architect's vision of it as the sprawling hacienda of a wealthy, well-traveled Spanish Colonial family. Colter gave it a welcoming warmth, designing furniture, lighting, dinner china, uniforms, extensive gardens, and more. While much of that is gone, the restored hotel strongly evokes the original and merits its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. She considered it her masterpiece.

Though operated by the Fred Harvey company, the buildings Colter designed were built and owned by the Santa Fe Railway, which produced construction blueprints based on Colter's floor plans and elevation drawings. The Santa Fe Railroad's chief architect, E.A. Harrison, signed off on her work, which later may have unfairly diminished her role. While sometimes referred to as the company decorator, she always called herself (correctly) "Harvey architect and decorator."

By the early 1960s, Mary Colter was virtually unknown. That has changed in recent years, as books about her have saluted her as a brilliant American place-maker. The art critic Robert Hughes once called Colter "one of the pioneers of the American theme-park mentality." This is true to an extent—in some ways she was a precursor to Disney, an architect of entertainment. But her holistic approach to design and construction makes lavish popular theme parks seem like superficial pastiches. Like the centerpiece castle in Disneyland, Colter's Watchtower was a composite of several sources; unlike Snow White's castle, the Watchtower could be mistaken for an actual artifact of the past.

Colter harnessed her undeniable romantic streak to design timeless buildings that defer to their natural and historical context. Understanding that competing with the Southwest's jaw-dropping scenery was futile, she wisely chose to complement it. Her buildings accommodated visitors with design that reinforced, even defined, a sense of place, drawing on a mixture of Native American, Hispanic, and rustic styles rooted in the region's past. They were highly functional, yet also set the stage for an enhanced appreciation of the land she loved.

Editor: Sara Polsky

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