Architect Mary Colter’s Legacy Captured in Stone


The buildings of the Grand Canyon continue to inspire a hundred years later.

She was tough, funny, fearless, dogmatic, imaginative, and her architectural marvels of the Grand Canyon continue to intrigue historians and fascinate visitors, including the inner canyon’s only lodging establishment, Phantom Ranch, which has had 100 years this year.

Meet Mary Jane Elizabeth Colter, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on April 4, 1869. She was 33 when she was hired as an interior designer and architect by hospitality pioneer Fred Harvey Company, a contractor for Santa Fe Railway. It was in 1902.

A few years later, Colter was asked to design the Hopi House, an indigenous-influenced architectural design that launched five other projects at the Grand Canyon: Lookout Studio, Bright Angel Lodge and cabins, Hermit’s Rest, Desert View Watchtower, and Phantom Ranch. , named after nearby Phantom Creek.

She also designed the men’s dormitory at the Grand Canyon and Colter Hall, the women’s dormitory.

According to the Grand Canyon National Park website,, Mary Colter designed buildings that would be part of their surroundings, which “would create no discordant note against the time-eroded walls of this promontory. To achieve this result, Colter insisted that the rocks not be cut or worked…so that they would not lose the weathered surfaces so essential to blending into the walls of the Grand Canyon.

Flagstaff residents Allen and Carol Naille have lived at the Grand Canyon for 13 years. Allen worked for the Fred Harvey Company in several capacities before assuming the position of general manager there, before moving to Flagstaff to accept his role as president of the company. In all, he worked for the company for 25 years. Carol was in charge of the Grand Canyon Library.

“Mary Colter was a woman in a man’s world and her characteristics made her unique,” said Carol, who had a friend whose father knew and worked at Colter. “She worked with men but managed to get by. She stood up to the men but she was tactful. She had to be. Also, at the time, Fred Harvey Company had all male managers. I believe she was an amazing person because of her talent and her ability to get along with the men she worked with. I have always admired her. »

In an article of January 23, 1904, the Minneapolis Journal referenced Colter, describing artists as developing people. “It is not necessary to seek the genius of the art. When that happens, it will become apparent.

Although much has been documented about Colter’s design style and how adamant she was that things were done her way, little is known about her personal life.

“You don’t hear a lot of stories about her other than her work. I would like to know what made her do what she did,” said Edward “Ted” McClure, librarian at the Grand Canyon National Park Research Library. “She traveled all over the Southwest to observe Native American construction and modeled her design for the Desert View Watchtower on what she saw. I think the most important thing is that she was her own woman in a man’s world.

Contributing Senior Editor at Preservation magazine and author Arnold Berke in his book “Mary Colter Architect of the Southwest” titled her first chapter “Drawn by the Desert: An Incomprehensible Woman in Pants”. Berke wrote, “She possessed a particular genius for interpreting the past to create new buildings and interiors which, with their striking forms and whimsical atmosphere, have enchanted generations of travelers traversing the American Southwest.”

Colter “may well be the best-known unknown architect in the United States who helped create the rustic style of the National Park Service,” said Preservation magazine.

Although historians, architects, and visitors find his work fascinating, the Desert View Watchtower stands out, built on the South Rim with views of the Painted Desert to the east, the San Francisco Peaks to the south, and the Colorado River as it exits Marble Canyon to the north.

“After exploring archaeological sites in the Four Corners area, Mary Colter closely supervised the design of Desert View Watchtower, a majestic recreation of an ancient stone tower rising from the eastern rim of the Grand Canyon,” said Mindy Riesenberg, Marketing Director of the Grand Canyon Conservancy. .

“Conservation of the historic murals inside the watchtower was completed in 2019 and the second phase of the development of an intertribal cultural heritage site at Desert View began this winter with work on a new amphitheater at the rim of the canyon. Over the next few years, the area will see many changes, including redesigned tracks, a new
run a visitor center and extensive capabilities to accommodate cultural demonstrators,” Riesenberg said.

Other structures built under Colter’s architectural ingenuity outside the Grand Canyon include La Posada in Winslow, El Navajo in Gallup, New Mexico, and La Fonda in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She also has her mark on the restaurant at the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal.

Colter died at age 88 on January 8, 1958. Phantom Ranch 100th anniversary t-shirts and stickers are available at NBF

By V. Ronnie Tierney, FBN


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