Out of the Red Earth…

If you’ve visited the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, you’ve likely seen them—striking structures fashioned of weathered brick and rustic timbers, rising out of the red earth as if they’d been there for centuries.  They look as if they could be Indian ruins or remnants of old Spanish haciendas.  The truth—these buildings sprang from the creative genius of a unique American woman named Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter.

Born in 1869, Mary Colter traveled with her family through frontier Minnesota, Colorado and Texas.  When her father died in 1886, she needed a way to support her mother and sister.  After graduating from the California School of Design in San Francisco, she returned to St. Paul, Minnesota where she taught mechanical drawing at Mechanic Arts High School.  But she was destined for bigger things.


Enter Fred Harvey, the man who forged a tourism empire in the American Southwest.  Harvey may be best known for his bevy of pretty, wholesome Harvey Girls who came west to work in his hotels. But Mary Colter was never a Harvey girl.  In 1901 Harvey hired her to decorate the interior of the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Her talents were recognized, and she began working full-time for Harvey’s company in 1910, moving from interior designer to architect.

As one of the few female architects in the country (although she was never licensed) Mary Colter completed 21 projects in 30 years for Fred Harvey.  She created a series of landmark hotels in places like Santa Fe, Gallup, New Mexico and Winslow, Arizona.  But her most famous and enduring work was done at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Because she was fascinated with Native American architecture and the landscape of the Southwest, her Grand Canyon buildings took on this flavor and became her signature works.  She was a perfectionist with a reputation for bossiness, creating structures that looked ancient and rugged as soon as they were finished.

A chain-smoker, she often wore pants and a Stetson.  She knew how to shoot a pistol and was an avid collector of Indian jewelry.  Her collection numbered about a thousand pieces, and she wore rings on every finger.

Mary Colter lived to the age of 88.  By the end of her life, many of her important buildings had been abandoned or torn down.  Disheartened, she told a reporter, “There is such a thing as living too long.”

Her Grand Canyon buildings, however, have been preserved.  If you go there you can see them today, in all their haunting beauty.

Here’s a link to more photos of her work: 


Have you seen Mary Colter’s buildings at Grand Canyon?  Do you have a favorite piece of architecture somewhere?

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14 thoughts on “Out of the Red Earth…”

  1. Thank you for an interesting post. We have visited the Grand Canyon twice , but never had enough time to really explore to our content. The first time was literally a “drive by” visit and the second one we had my elderly aunt, 3 children under 11 and a hyperactive 9 month old. I remember seeing the tower, but not going to it. Now that we are older and have the time to travel “in peace” we hope to go back and explore the area properly.

    It is a shame so much of her work has been destroyed. Another woman whose accomplishment have not become well known. She definitely caught the feeling of the area. I remember thinking the tower had been built by the native people and wondering why they put a tower on the rim when most of what they built was down in the cliffs. I’ll make sure to look for her work when we go back and will definitely look into it.

    I’m off for cataract surgery. It will be nice to be able to read without fighting to focus.

  2. Elizabeth, interesting post. I have seen that tower but didn’t know its history. It’s interesting how many Victorian women doing “men’s” work dressed and acted like men. It’s probably the only way they could be taken seriously.

  3. Elizabeth,

    This was a fascinating post. Like, Margaret, I’ve seen the tower but didn’t have a clue about it’s history. I guess I never thought about who designed the buildings there.

    Mary Colter sounds like an interesting woman. Thanks for sharing this look into her life.


  4. I’ve seen these buildings too, Patricia, but didn’t know at the time they’d been designed by a woman. They really do look like old Indian ruins, perfect for the setting.
    Good luck with your cataract surgery. There are great techniques available these days, so there’s every reason to expect good results.

  5. I so agree with you, Margaret. Mary Colter was a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright and other great male architects of the time. Architecture was definitely a man’s club, and she was pretty much ignored. After all, she was a “decorator” and not a “real” architect. But such talent. I love her work.

  6. Thanks for stopping by Kirsten. That tower is really striking. I love the way it fits the setting.
    My favorite Mary Colter design is the fireplaces she did, like huge caves you could sit in to enjoy the fire. The little photo doesn’t do them justice.

  7. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon a couple times, but I never learned about Mary Colter. I love this bit of history! But what cracked me up was the difference between her photo and your description of her. She looks so young, innocent, and elegant in that photo (I see a resemblance to Anne Hathaway). And with her work with Mr. Harvey, I was picturing a demure, yet passionate woman always tidy and prim. And then to learn she was a chain-smoking, trouser-wearing, Stetson-toting, bossy britches — well, it cracked me up. You go, Mary!

  8. What an interesting lady! I’d love to have met her. She seems like a kindred spirit. I haven’t seen her work at the Grand Canyon but I think it’s a wonderful testament to her unique skill. I hope they last for years and years. Thank you for bringing such a delightful lady to the Junction!

  9. I didn’t have room for a photo of her as an older woman, Karen. But the one I saw was fairly conservative–she was white-haired and wearing a coat. But she must’ve been a real character.
    I’m not aware that she ever married. Maybe she was too independent and passionate about her work.

  10. You’ve gotta love this lady, Linda. A uniquely gifted woman making her way in a man’s world. Kudos to Fred Harvey for giving her the chance. I’m sure we’d all have enjoyed knowing her.
    Thanks for stopping by.

  11. I did a ton of research for my Grand Canyon based book Deep Trouble and never ran across Mary Colter. It just makes you wonder what all else there is to find in history. It’s why we never run out of stories. Wouldn’t she make a great heroine? Except she’d have to go ahead and let herself fall in love, which might be hard for her. 🙂

  12. Was your research based on an earlier time, Mary? Most of MC’s Grand Canyon work was done in the early 1900’s. In any case, I don’t think she was ever well known.
    Yes, history is full of secrets, and we all love finding them. You could do a great fictional heroine based on her life. Then you could throw in the romance.

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