The Best Unknown Architect Was a Woman!


Mary ColterThe heroine in my latest book Calico Spy is a Pinkerton detective working undercover as a Harvey Girl. Last month I wrote about Fred Harvey and how he saved early train travelers from food poisoning.

This month I want to draw your attention to Mary Colter, the woman who designed many of his hotels and restaurants. At a time when traveling was expensive and people traveled only out of necessity, she helped introduce the concept of traveling just for pleasure and that’s not all she did.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1862, she attended the California School of Design at the tender age of seventeen. She planned to support her mother and sister by teaching art. While attending school, she apprenticed as an architect.

At the time, architecture was going through great changes. Instead of emulating European styles, a new type of California architecture was in the works and Mary was influenced by this new Mission-type of design. She also believed in replicating nature by utilizing natural materials in her designs.

Mary designed this to house native American craftsmen and their wares.

After graduating in 1890, she returned to St. Paul and taught art at the Mechanic Arts High School.

She was hired by the Fred Harvey company in 1902 as an interior decorator. In the early days, Fred Harvey collected Indian art and she encouraged the company to expand on this concept. She was instrumental in reaching out to Native American craftsmen and bringing their wares into the Harvey hotel shops. This was a daring venture as the Indian Wars were still ongoing in some parts of the country, but somehow she persuaded visitors to purchase tribal pottery, blankets and jewelry—quite a feat given the times.

This was an engineering feat and was lined with steel for safety.



Eventually, Mary became the chief architect of the Fred Harvey company. The idea of a woman playing such a role in a company was unthinkable, and it wasn’t easy. She clashed with family members who carried on after Fred’s death, but eventually won them over.

Never heard of her? There’s a good reason for that. Architecture was a male dominated profession, and Mary was not credited as architect on the buildings she designed. As a result, she never gained the same recognition as many her peers such as Frank Lloyd Wright. She has been called the best unknown architect of the Southwest.

Some of Mary’s work includes the Indian Watchtower at Desert View; Lookout Studio; Hopi House; Hermit’s Rest and Painted in Painted Desert. La Posada in Winslow, Arizona was her favorite.

Historic Park Inn HotelPosada






Okay, you decide; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Park Inn Hotel is on the left and Mary’s La Posada hotel  is on the right.  Many think that had Mary been a man she would be better known today.  What do you think?

Working Undercover is No Job for A Lady!

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18 thoughts on “The Best Unknown Architect Was a Woman!”

  1. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Mary’s work would have been better received from a male architect. It wasn’t until the late 60’s and 70’s with Gloria Steinem and MS Magazine that women were able to break through the glass ceiling and attain respect for doing men’s jobs. The pay scale is still out of date with men usually earning more. That is changing as more women become doctors, lawyers, dentists and CEO’s. It’s been along time coming!

    I have seen Frank Lloyd Wright’s work: The House On the Rock in Spring Green Wisconsin, The Schwartz House in Two Rivers, Wisconsin and the Johnson Wax Company Building in Racine, Wisconsin. All are beautiful and amazing, especially The House On the Rock! His way of fitting the structure to flow with the environment is unique.

    Mary’s work is probably beautiful too.

    • Hi Laurie, yes I’ve seen some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, and it is beautiful.
      His work as with Mary’s is in the details, and you really have the structures in person to fully appreciate.

  2. I too love Arizona, I have been to many of those places she architected. What I didn’t realize was how odd it was for a women to be in a male dominated career. Thanks for the info.

    • Hi Geralyn, it was very difficult to be in a male dominated career. Women were expected to marry and take care of a home. It took a very special woman to buck society and follow her calling.

  3. It’s a shame she didn’t get the recognition that she deserved. I’m glad things have changed since then and women get the credit they are due for many different things.

    • Janine, I’m glad too, but there’s still work to be done historically. Women did all kinds of things in the past. They were inventors, composers, writers, and artists but didn’t receive credit for their work.

  4. That had to of been very frustrating for her considering all the hard work she did. I love learning a new bit of history and I like how she won over his family. Yes I think she would have gotten more recognition if she were a man.

  5. Fascinating! I wonder how many woman accepted lack of acknowledgement as part of being a woman and were satisfied to be working in male dominated businesses under the radar, and how many were utterly irritated at doing men’s work and not getting recognized?

  6. I love this, Margaret. Great post.
    What a woman. It makes you wonder doesn’t it? What else did women quietly do.
    I mean….sure Marie Curie got famous but how many really did amazing things and credit was taken by a man!?

    • Hi Mary, I have a book (a thick book as it turns out) on female inventors and I was shocked at what I read. Women inventors were forced to take out patents under their husbands’ names.

      (If anyone’s interested, the title of the book is Feminine Ingenuity by Anne L. MacDonald. You’ll be amazed!)

  7. She accomplished quite a bit for the day and I too agree that if she were a woman we would probably all know her name.

  8. Hi Margaret, great post and pix. I have seen Mary Colter’s designs at the Grand Canyon and loved how she integrated them into the natural setting. Of course Frank Lloyd Wright did the same a couple of generations later. Maybe he got his philosophy from her. Yes, I do think had she been a man, we’d hear more. Just like the early women authors who used male names as pseudonyms. I can’t believe such sexism…didn’t men in days of yore have daughters they treasured? No offense to any member of my family but my daughter is probably the smartest of us, and definitely the most confident. Sheesh.

    • Hi Tanya, I read somewhere that women become less confident as they grow older and men more confident. I sure hope that’s not true. It took me all this time to build up my confidence and I don’t want to lose it.

  9. Margaret you should never lose your confidence. I am sure all your readers will agree that you are great. I love all the posts you do.
    You are the first Western writer I encountered and are responsible for my interest in the West. I must say that I like the Posada best, at least from the outside. I grew up in the 50’s and my mother would not allow me to become an architect, saying it was not a job for a
    female. Thanks for proving she was wrong!

    • Hi Whitney, you’re so sweet. What a shame you were discouraged from following your dream, but that’s how it was back then. I think women had the choice of being a nurse or a teacher. You were born before your time!

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