Colter, Mary Elizabeth (1869–1949)

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Colter, Mary Elizabeth (1869–1949)

American architect and designer. Born Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 4, 1869; died in 1949; graduated from the California School of Design, San Francisco, California, 1890.

Along with the breathtaking vistas, visitors to Arizona's Grand Canyon, one of the most awe-inspiring sites on the American landscape, will encounter six ancient-looking buildings designed by Mary Elizabeth Colter, one of the few American women architects working before World War I. Colter was an avid student of Native American culture who worked for the Fred Harvey Company, an enterprise that prospered by providing food, accommodations, and services for the Santa Fe Railroad. Although most of the buildings Colter designed and decorated throughout the Southwest and Midwest have disappeared, the building projects at the canyon have endured, and four have been designated National Historic Landmarks.

Colter was raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, and attended the California School of Design in San Francisco, where she also apprenticed to a local architect. After graduating in 1890, she returned to Minnesota and taught art to support her mother and a sister. She was first hired by Fred Harvey as a consultant to design and decorate two buildings at the canyon: an emporium selling Indian-made goods, and Hopi House, a building for housing Indian crafts. Harvey hired her as a permanent architect and designer in 1910. The eccentric Colter worked for the enterprise for the next four decades, keeping an apartment near Harvey headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri, but mostly living in Harvey motels on the road. Described as windswept in appearance and a chain smoker, Colter was considered difficult and outspoken, constantly annoying her crews by demanding to be involved in the smallest detail of a project. Colter's biographer Virginia L. Grattan, quoted one of the architect's colleagues as saying, "Everyone hated to see her come on the job."

Colter was almost theatrical in her approach to a design project. Like an actor preparing for a role by envisioning an elaborate life story for her character, Colter began by creating a history for her building, complete with inhabitants. Michael Durham, in an article about the architect for American Heritage, describes how she tackled one of her favorite works, a hotel in Winslow, Arizona, by imagining it as the rambling rancho of an early 19th-century don. Her inspiration for the canyon's Hermit's Rest, which stands at the head of Hermit's Trail and now functions as a rest stop for tourists and hikers, was the vision of the 19th-century prospectors and guides who inhabited the canyon. She elaborated on this image until Hermit's Rest looked, in Durham's words, like "an elaborate shelter built stone by stone by some hoary recluse according to the dictates of his own eccentric vision." For the interior, dominated by a massive stone fireplace, Colter ordered the stones for the vaulted ceiling blackened with soot, to look as though an open fire had been burning for years. A weathered tree limb was lodged between the exposed beams in the ceiling to make the ceiling appear hand built. Colter's final flourish was the addition of cobwebs in the corners to make the building look old.

In 1914, the year she finished Hermit's Rest, she also designed Lookout Studio, an eccentric building that hangs over the edge of the canyon wall. Before the roof line was altered, it resembled a prehistoric cliff dwelling. Colter's final Grand Canyon projects, The Watchtower and Bright Angel Lodge, are striking achievements. The Lodge incorporated features that Durham calls "pure Colter." The exterior color was taken from a weathered telephone pole that she had spotted in Mexico, and the stones on the floor-to-ceiling fireplace represent billions of years of the canyon's geological history, "from stones worn smooth by the Colorado River to the more recent Kaibab limestone found at the canyon's rim."

The Watchtower at Desert View, completed in 1935, remains Colter's masterpiece. A 70′-high circular structure, it is a re-creation of towers built by the prehistoric Anasazi people throughout the Grand Canyon region. In preparation for the work, Colter visited ruins of the Anasazi towers, then had a wooden tower erected to visualize how the building would appear on the site and check on the views it would provide. The completed structure, 30′ wide at the base, is larger and stronger than any of those constructed by the Anasazi; its masonry walls are supported by a steel frame provided by Santa Fe Railway engineers. Several exterior stones on the lower level bear authentic carved symbols and drawings, and the tower is further related to its prehistoric past by a small "ruin" Colter built just behind it. In the large circular first level, she created a ceremonial room of an Indian pueblo, complete with chairs created out of tree burls and a log ceiling salvaged from the first Grand Canyon hotel. On the second floor, she duplicated a Hopi room, with a snake altar at the center (used for rain dances), and a large round wall painting by a tribal artist, Fred Kabotie, who respected the architect, in spite of her willfulness. "Miss Colter was a very talented decorator with strong opinions," he said. "… I admired her work, and we got along well… most of the time."

Colter retired in 1948, at age 79, and died one year later. One of her first buildings at the canyon, Hopi House, was newly renovated in 1995, having deteriorated after an inexpert renovation around 1935. It was necessary to replace 40% of the exterior rock of the building, which was obtained from the same quarry as the original

stone. The entire interior was replastered by two Hopi men, who worked in the traditional manner, using their bare hands. The inside of the building was cleaned and polished, and the second floor opened up to allow tourists more browsing room in the shop area. Though the renovation was deemed an unqualified success, Colter might not have been so pleased; one can envision her, hairdo askew, aghast at the polyurethaned floors and impatiently demanding that a precise quality of sand be brought in to give the place the old dusty look it had in 1905.


Durham, Michael S. "Landmarks on the Rim," in American Heritage. April 1996, pp. 137–144.

suggested readings:

Grattan, Virginia L. Mary Colter, Builder Upon the Red Earth. Flagstaff AZ: Northland Press, 1980.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts