Mary Colter, notable architect of Grand Canyon landmarks, also designed Harvey House hotels

"Grand Canyon Historic Mary Colter Portrait c. 1892”, courtesy of NPS, is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Mary Colter was an architect who designed a number of important buildings for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway (ATSF) as well as iconic landmark structures in the Grand Canyon.


Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1869. She spent time in Texas and Colorado during her early years before moving to St. Paul, Minn. After high school, she attended the California School of Design in San Francisco and apprenticed in a local architect’s office. After graduation, she moved back to St. Paul, where she taught art at Mechanic Arts High School for 15 years.


She visited San Francisco in 1901 to spend time with a friend who worked at a gift shop owned by Fred Harvey. The Fred Harvey Company developed hotels, restaurants and other facilities that served ATSF’s many passengers.


 "Grand Canyon Historic Mary Colter Portrait c. 1892”, courtesy of NPS, licensed under CC BY 2.0 

The following year, Colter accepted a job offer to work on a small project for the Fred Harvey Company. Minnie Harvey Huckel, Fred Harvey’s daughter, had proposed the construction of a museum containing a collection of Native American artwork and artifacts at the Alvarado Hotel at Albuquerque, N.M. Colter designed the interior of the museum, pictured in the center of the above photo, known as the Indian Building.


Grand Canyon Historic Hopi House Interior c. 1905” originally published by Detroit Photographic Co. and courtesy of NPS is licensed under CC BY 2.0


She used her architectural talents to create Hopi House for the Fred Harvey Company three years later. Hopi House displayed and sold Native American art and crafts made by local artisans and complemented the El Tovar hotel on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. 


This photo of the ground floor sales room of Hopi House, taken circa 1905, highlights Colter’s commitment to showcasing Native American artwork. Hopi House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987 and continues to sell unique arts and crafts to Grand Canyon visitors.


Colter’s interest in Native American history and culture was reflected in all of her works. She incorporated Native American architectural styles and artwork into her designs, helping to popularize the Spanish Mission Revival architectural style and rustic flair that are still considered aesthetic symbols of the Southwest.


Although many of her Fred Harvey works have been demolished, her Grand Canyon creations continue to serve tourists at the national park. Now known as the Mary Jane Colter Buildings, the set includes Hopi House, Lookout Studio, Desert View Watchtower and Hermit’s Rest.

Grand Canyon Historic Lookout Studio c. 1915” by Fred Harvey Co. and courtesy of NPS is licensed under CC BY 2.0


This photo, taken circa 1915, shows the entrance to Lookout Studio. Located on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, it was completed in 1914. Similar to Colter’s other Grand Canyon works, it incorporates native designs and materials to create an aesthetically pleasing building that seamlessly blends into the natural landscape. The porch featured a high-power telescope that is now located in the History Room of the Bright Angel Lodge. 

Grand Canyon Historic- Desert View Watchtower c.1933” by Fred Harvey Co. and courtesy of NPS is licensed under CC BY 2.0


In 1930, the Fred Harvey Company hired Colter to build a gift shop and rest stop at Desert View. She created Desert View Watchtower as a recreation of a Native American watchtower. Santa Fe bridge builders oversaw the construction of the 70-foot-tall tower’s steel framework and Colter meticulously selected the stones and their placement on the tower’s exterior. Desert View Watchtower has undergone few changes since it was completed in 1932 and remains a popular tourist attraction with spectacular views of the canyon.

 “Grand Canyon Historic- Hermits Rest 1936”, courtesy of NPS, is licensed under CC BY 2.0


The Fred Harvey Company also hired Colter to construct a rest stop at the end of the West Rim Drive. She designed Hermit’s Rest to look like a historic site rather than a modern building. Colter devised the name Hermit's Rest after hearing about a man named Louis Boucher who guided tourists in and out of “Hermit Canyon” in the 1890s.


Grand Canyon Historic- Hermits Rest Interior Fireplace c. 1916” by Fred Harvey Co. and courtesy of NPS is licensed under CC BY 2.0


The huge fireplace showcased in this 1916 photo was built on the interior south wall of Hermit’s Rest. Colter rubbed soot onto the stones to make it seem weathered over decades rather than newly built. Hermit’s Rest continues to provide visitors with a relaxing space to purchase souvenirs and enjoy the Southwest architecture.


Photo of La Posada’s North Rose Garden by Daniel Lutzick, courtesy of La Posada Hotel


Colter became an official employee of the Fred Harvey Company in 1910. One of her most celebrated works is La Posada hotel, built in 1930 in Winslow, Ariz. Colter was heavily involved in almost every aspect of the construction and interior design. She wanted the hotel to resemble the hacienda of an affluent Spanish landowner in the 1800s and used the Mission Revival architectural style to add realism to her imagined history. 


La Posada remains a favorite hotel for visitors wishing to experience Colter’s famous architecture and interior design. An article published in The Durango Herald provides further details about the hotel’s history and ongoing restoration efforts.


In addition to numerous hotels and buildings, she also designed the interior of the Cochiti dining car for ATSF’s Super Chief.


Mary Jane Colter died at the age of 88 on January 8, 1958. Despite praise from the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe, she received little recognition from her peers. In recent decades, her works have been recognized for their excellence and preservationists are working to ensure that her other designs remain intact. Five of her buildings have been designated National Historic Landmarks and 11 are on the National Register of Historic Places.

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