On our recent US road trip we arrived at the Grand Canyon, as you do, to see the wonders of nature. What surprised us was there was one person celebrated by plaques, books, tour guides and even the railways – Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (1869-1958). She was the architect of a number of the buildings at the South Rim, as well as many railway hotels in the South-West.
Growing up in St Paul, Minnesota, Mary studied art and architecture at the California School of Design and undertook an apprenticeship in a local architect’s office. Returning to St Paul, she taught drawing and architecture until offered a job with Fred Harvey. Fred had developed restaurants and hotels to cater for the rapidly expanding railway network in the South-West, and from his interest in regional Indian Arts and Crafts he established a number of gift shops selling this art.
Mary Coulter was employed by the Fred Harvey Company in 1902 as he needed “a decorator who knew Indian things and was creative” – the beginning of a forty year association with the company.
Her first work at the Grand Canyon was Hopi House (1905), a centre for Indian Arts and Crafts. Rather than a generic shop, she designed a building based on the Hopi dwellings at Oraibi, on the Third Mesa of the Hopi Nation. The craftspeople lived in the top floor.
Her love of Indian art started in childhood, and shows in all her works. Having stayed at the Hopi Nation and seen Oraibi (a village dating from the 1100s and the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the US) she designed a fitting tribute to the indigenous architecture of the region.
Her next building at the Grand Canyon was Hermit’s rest, the end of the south rim trail and terminus for the stagecoach tour. Built in 1914, it grows out of the hillside with lovely details like the stone and timber verandah supports. The fireplace occupies the whole back wall and came complete with soot, dust and artfully placed cobwebs as part of the design.
The Lookout Studio
Up early to watch sunrise over the Grand Canyon, I noticed a small building on a rocky outcrop on the canyon rim. It seemed to grow out of the rock, and I assumed it was of fairly recent construction. It was in fact another Mary Colter building from 1914, the Lookout Studio, built the same year as Hermit’s rest and almost timeless in its design and detailing.
The Desert Tower
Twenty-five miles to the east, at the entry to the Park, stands the Indian Watchtower at Desert View. Before commencing the design she chartered a small plane, locating and then spending six months visiting numerous prehistoric towers built by the Pueblo Indians. She built a wooden watchtower at the site the same height as the proposed tower to check the views, and the building was constructed with a steel frame covered with local stone painstakingly selected and laid so no cut were visible. Decorated internally with Hopi artwork painted by young Hopi Artist Fred Kabotie, it is a fitting introduction for visitors to the Canyon.
Bright Angel Lodge
On the completion of the Desert Tower Mary commenced work on the Bright Angel Lodge to provide more economical accommodation at the Canyon. Mary designed a stone and log-cabin style building whose central feature was a large fireplace made from the various strata of stone from the canyon arranged in the correct order of the various strata from the canyon river floor to the rim.
Mary’s involvement in her projects included every detail from fittings, furniture and lights through to the crockery and cutlery. Her vision and perfectionism is evident in all her work, even though many of her buildings appear “rustic” at first glance. More importantly, she was influential in promoting regional and indigenous influences in architecture in the US South-West. Previously architects working on new hotels and railway terminals had copied European styles – but her influence is still seen in the work of contemporary buildings in National Parks, and she is certainly not forgotten at the Grand Canyon!