Saturday, September 8, 2012

Parkitecture: Mary E.J. Colter and the American Southwest

It's only recently in my many years of visits to America's and Canada's national parks that I've turned my attention from the natural environment to the man-built. My growing interest in these structures - lodging, visitor centers, commemorative markers, and preserved historic, and even prehistoric buildings - became very focused this April on a brief visit to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Most of the stand-out buildings there were designed and decorated by one extraordinary architect, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. She was extraordinary for many reasons, but above all, she was a strikingly talented and inspired woman in a profession and a world overwhelmingly dominated by men. She was tremendously successful in creating structures that not only fit perfectly into their landscapes, but that actually seemed to enhance the them. Born in 1869, trained at the at the California School of Design in San Francisco, and serving as a teacher in the Mechanic Arts High School in St. Paul during era of the Arts and Crafts movement, Colter honed her trade as a designer. Although it's lost to history how it came to be, in 1902, she was hired by the Fred Harvey Company. The Fred Harvey company (which name is still prominent in the American tourism business today) in partnership with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, had an incomparable role in developing the tourist trade in New Mexico and Arizona, among other states along therails from Chicago to Los Angeles during the period from 1873 into the 1930s. Fred Harvey ran high quality restaurants first in railroad depots, and then branching out to the lodging business in key destinations. The Harvey Company also notably developed the quality souvenir trade, showcasing the talents of Native American silversmiths, potters, carvers and weavers along the tracks. They provided ground transport as well, guiding tourists to the scenic and cultural sites of the Pueblo, Hopi, and Navajo nations, and the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, and other natural splendors. 
Colter's work at the Grand Canyon was begun just two years after she joined the Harvey enterprises with the design of a magnificent rim-side building known as Hopi House. In it she revealed her deep understanding of native regional architecture as well as the romance it represented. Here it is today, serving, as it did originally, as a first class gift shop:
Just about 100 miles south, there is a wall at Honanki Ruins, built by ancestral Hopi peoples, that could have been inspiration for the stone work detail with adobe mortar at Hopi House:
Even the inside of Hopi House is still faithful to the architecture that inspired it, and it still serves as a purveyor of high quality Indian arts.
Colter's next Grand Canyon project was another gift shop, Hermit's Rest (1914), at the far west limit of the developed area of the national park. Although Hermit's Rest is not as substantial as the multistory, large-footprint Hopi House, it also reflects terrific creativity and imagination. Hermit's Rest is not based on Native American design, but rather suggests the spontaneous ingenuity of a free-spirited mountain man in its use of stone found in situ. Here is a view of the Seussian chimney, with a hint at the grand sights beyond:
So why does a gift shop need a chimney? Because the most prominent feature of the interior is a massively outsized fireplace niche:
Note the proportionately large and stylish lantern centered above. Colter not only designed exteriors, but she was meticulous in the choice and placement of interior features as well. Like Hopi House, Hermit's Rest is still used as a gift shop today.
Also in 1914, the Lookout Studio was erected on the very verge of the Grand Canyon:
The Lookout Studio reveals her fine Arts and Crafts sensibility blended with references to regional native stone-masonry.
Every rock was chosen and placed at her direction, every window was detailed according to her design. Originally a photography studio selling images of the Grand Canyon, Lookout Studio is today yet another gift concession.
In 1932, the Watchtower at Desert View, at the far eastern extent of the developed south rim, was opened. The Watchtower serves the primary purpose of affording magnificent views up and down the Canyon while itself resonating both with the color and character of the stone strata on which it perches, and the work of Native builders in the distant surrounds. I consider the Watchtower to the pinnacle of Colter's productivity at the Grand Canyon. 
In its circular shape, the tower re-imagined rare archaeological gems such as the Round Tower at Mesa Verde National Park, but multi-story structures were not uncommon among the dwellings of the pre-Columbian peoples of the southwest. This is the Wukoki Pueblo archaeological site, roughly 65 miles east of Colter's Desert View Watchtower.

Colter collaborated with Hopi painter Fred Kabootie to realize her interior designs, references to graphic arts of several southwestern cultures, including the Hopi, the Navajo, and the people who came before them.
Painted petroglyphs on the mezzanine of the Watchtower echo those to be seen at Petroglyph National Monument some 400 miles to the east:
No detail was left unexploited; when not apt to recall Native American style, Colter turned to Arts and Crafts, which in turn was suggestive the ironwork of the Spanish explorers, as here in the door at the base of the tower:

The Watchtower at Desert View, the Grand Canyon below and Navajoland beyond.

Colter designed and decorated other structures at the Grand Canyon, including Bright Angel Lodge and Cabins at the rim, and Phantom Ranch,lodging for intrepid travelers to the bottom of the Canyon. She also designed and decorated numerous other distinguished buildings, including the renowned La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona (1930).La Posada was ideally sandwiched between Route 66 in the front, and the Santa Fe Railroad, which still runs immediately behind the hotel, positioned to serve both the growing automobile trade as well as passengers arriving by rail. A romantic stay at La Posada included hospitality, fine meals, and tours into Indian country, the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest and beyond, all provided by the Fred Harvey Company. In spite of the pall the failing economy put on tourism, the hotel survived until 1957. The Santa Fe Railroad converted the hotel into offices, eventually essentially abandoning it as it fell into disrepair. In the mid-1990's, developer Allan Affeldt and partners invested millions into restoring Mary Colter's magnum opus to its former purpose and glory.
I visited in 2011 and again in 2012. The results of their work and dedication is nothing short of magical. Although the Indian, Mexican, and Spanish treasures amassed by Mary Colter were auctioned off when the hotel closed in the 1950s, Affeldt's group has respected her sensibility in its highly successful restoration efforts. Today the hotel is full of new life, with commodious, charming, and utterly memorable private and public spaces without and within:
Colter's hand touched many other still-extant structures in the region, including the interior of the Painted Desert Inn of Painted Desert National Park near the Arizona-New Mexico border:
 And that of the famous La Fonda hotel in Santa Fe, also on old Route 66:
Hard though it is to believe, given her extraordinarily productive originality and creativity, in her lifetime, Colter was virtually unrecognized outside the confines of the Santa Fe Railroad-Fred Harvey Company collaboration and the praise of a few industry critics. Today, Mary E.J. Colter is an icon of her era. 
 Mary Colter, 1890
For further reading, I recommend the beautifully written and produced Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest, by Arnold Berke, Princeton Architectural Press, 2000. Although Berke's treatment is nearly comprehensive, one subject never broached is that of cost. If anything is clear from the Mary Colter story, it is that execution of her work had to require exceptional investment, and it appears no budgetary restrictions were imposed on her creativity. This is a historically relevant facet that I wish Berke had documented.


  1. Very interesting article. An amazing woman.

  2. Fascinating. We visited Phoenix to see my wifes sister some 4 years ago. And saw several of these structures. Wish I had know more about them at that time. A note of trivia - Mechanic Arts in downtown St Paul was a high school rival of mine. Unfortunately as the area declined it was close perhaps in the sixties as part of urban renewal and declining enrollment....