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Architect About Town

Mary Colter's Architectural Legacy to National Parks

Written for USA Today's 10Best - Source Article

Unlike her domesticated contemporaries of the early 1900s, teacher, architect and designer, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, navigated a man’s world. From Los Angeles to Chicago her work made a significant impact on America’s public architecture of the West. A collection her buildings are gathered along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. Most difficult to reach is Phantom Ranch at bottom of the canyon - accessible by only mule.

Her 50-year career with the Fred Harvey Company began in 1901 when she was hired to decorate the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque. Her refreshing design talent and tough capable approach in the field quickly established her as “chief architect”, building and decorating the shops, restaurants, and hotels rapidly opening along new railways. Bright Angel Lodge built with local stone and actual trees set the precedent for a new architectural style labeled “National Park Service Rustic”. 

National Park Service Rustic buildings evoked a romantic relationship with the earth. Harmonious with the land, Lookout Studio appears to have grown up out of wall of the Grand Canyon. The vertical tower, provides not only dramatic views and stunning opportunities for photography, but architecturally reflects the vertical rock formations found in the canyon. Described by many as a “piles of stones”, Colter intentionally designed Lookout Studio to resemble a decaying primitive Indian structure.

Throughout her life Colter collected old Indian artifacts, jewelry, baskets and pottery; which she used in her projects and sometimes kept for her own collection.  Hopi House, just steps away from the Grand Canyon El Tovar Lodge, was profoundly influenced by this passion for Indian Culture and Art. Built to resemble the indigenous Hopi dwellings of the nearby ancient settlement in Oraibi, it stands as a tangible reminder of Indian culture and lifestyle.

At Hermits Rest, a public rest stop at the end of the West Rim Drive, randomly heaped stones and large irregular tree trunks evoke the image of an ancient mountain dwelling in ruins. Horizontal lines of the canyon are reflected in low hugging and haphazardly built stonewalls. Hermits Rest embodies Colter’s design philosophy that a building must grow out of its setting and embrace the history of the location. It must belong to its place. 

Watchtower, the last of Colter’s canyon concession buildings is located at the end of the easterly 25-mile scenic drive to the Desert View service area. The landmark tower resembling an over-scaled Pueblo Watchtower is a manifestation of her considerable research into archeological prototypes and construction techniques of the prehistoric towers discovered in the Southwest. Inside, circular forms create dramatic interior spaces reminiscent of the religious and social events of the ancient Native Indians.

Meanwhile other architects were creating buildings for the National Park Service. At the terminus of the Grand Canon Railway on the South Rim, Charles Whittlesey, Chief Architect, for the Santa Fe Railway, designed El Tovar Hotel built in 1905. An early park lodge, this hotel stands stately and elegant on the exterior in sharp contrast to the crumbling romantic style of Mary Colter.

Notable too is Gilbert Stanley Underwood’s Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim. Similar to Colter’s buildings, the original Lodge built of local limestone and timber in 1928 mirrored the shapes and colors of the Canyon and blended seamlessly with the landscape. Tragically, a fire destroyed the magnificent lodge four years after completion. A lodge built in 1937 on the foundations dramatically changed the appearance but not the rustic sprit nor romantic relationship with the canyon.

Nearby in Winslow, Arizona, La Posada Hotel, listed in the National Register of Historic Places has been restored and shortlisted as one of the “World’s Best Places to Stay”. Often considered Colter’s masterpiece, this romantic Spanish style hacienda and its gardens mender and meld into the surroundings. To create a framework for her design, legend has it Colter crafted her own fantasy about a wealthy four generation Spanish family who might have lived there. 

A 4-5 hour drive west just outside the Park, Skywalk the engineering marvel, cantilevers out over the Canyon.  Balancing 70 feet beyond the canyon edge this horseshoe-shaped glass bridge provides unimpeded canyon views and a sheer drop experience of its floor 500 - 800 feet below. The original architectural renderings fittingly portray a contemporary National Park Service Rustic styled Visitor Center resembling canyon outcroppings. Disappointingly, the actual structure built does not reflect that style. 

When Mary Colter retired in 1948, her extensive collection of Indian artifacts, pottery and jewelry was donated to the Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. The recently completed Visitor and Research Center will display a portion of her collection. Colter would be pleased the center is architecturally harmonious with the land and references both modern and Indian heritage.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA

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