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Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter

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. She designed  the Bright Angel Lodge, Hermit's Rest, Hopi House, the Lookout Studio and 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 Mary's art, her signature.

She was  born  in Pittsburgh  in 1869 and grew up in Texas, Colorado,  and  St.  Paul,  Minnesota.  While  attending the California   School  of   Design   in   San  Francisco   she apprenticed  in  an  architect's  office  and  then  went  into teaching back in St. Paul.

Through informal contacts with the Fred Harvey Company, Mary eventually landed a job as interior designer of the Indian Building adjacent to the Santa Fe's new Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, along the main line. Although the Mission Revival style had been popular in California since the 1890s, the Alvarado Hotel and its adjacent Indian Building (both destroyed) were the first of their kind in New Mexico. Her reputation swiftly grew, and her use of natural materials in forms that mimicked nature served as the basis for later work by architect Herbert Maier and others who designed what we now term "rustic" architecture.

Mary was a perfectionist, who spent a lifetime advocating and defending her aesthetic vision in a largely male-dominated field. In 1948, at the age of 79, she officially retired from the Fred Harvey Company. She had been associated with the company for more than 46 years since her first job in 1902. 

Brad Bradley shared these comments about Mary Colter on Grand Canyon Association Facebook page: "I love the architectural work of Mary Colter.

During my 5 years working at the canyon as a carpenter, I did work in all of her buildings, respectfully, (extensively in El Tovar, Colter Hall and Phantom Ranch buildings). 

When I left to attend U of A college of Architecture, I enjoyed completing a couple of independent study projects focussing on her work. She was an extraordinary revivalist Architect, and in my view was ahead of her time in her work at a time when very few women practiced Architecture. Fred Harvey gave her full reign on her work, which was also rare. The arch and bell at Hermits was a hint at the beginning of an adventure, a visit to her buildings there…she understood the concept of implied threshold on a physical and metaphysical level. Awesome capture to share GCA, thanks!!"

Mary 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, her 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.

Her work is featured in 3 Books (Mary Colter: Builder Upon the Red Earth (Grand Canyon Association), Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest and Watchtower at Desert View, and to date there is an annual play called, A Woman By Design (check for dates & times) put on to keep her memory and body of work alive.

Compiled & Contributed by Admirer Carolyn Shannon

Resources: (Way too much to cover here!)

The Arizona Historical SocietyNational Parks Conservation AssociationA BiographyHistory of Women 

NPR - Public Architecture and Design-Creating Community Mary Colter 


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