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?