Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Natural Environment and Southwest Architecture: Mary Elizabeth Colter and the Grand Canyon

When President Theodore Roosevelt stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon in 1903, he remarked, “ The ages have been at work upon it, and man can only mar it.” Roosevelt understood that nothing could add to the grandeur of God’s creation, certainly not man or his structures. But it was inevitable as more and more people made their way to the rim of the canyon that enterprising entrepreneurs would alter, or “mar” the pristine canyon environment. Fred Harvey of the Fred Harvey Company was one of the entrepreneurs. His El Tovar Hotel, finished in 1905 at the south rim of the Canyon, is a large European style Swiss Chalet; an architectural style that seems out of place with the background of the colorful canyon.

El Tovar Hotel

Perhaps Harvey realized the European architecture did not represent the Southwestern arid environment that marks the Grand Canyon. When contemplating another structure to attract tourist dollars, he hired Mary Elizabeth Colter to design a gift shop along the rim of the canyon next to the El Tovar. Colter was just beginning her career as an architect; she eventually became known for the way in which she incorporated the historic and natural environment into her designs.

Mary Elizabeth Colter (1869-1958)

Colter, who attended the California School of Design in San Francisco in 1886, was a student of the popular Arts and Crafts Movement, which started in England in the mid-nineteenth century and swept America around the turn of the twentieth century. Adherents of the Arts and Crafts Movement placed more emphasis on traditional craftsmanship than the blandness of industrial manufacturing. Use of materials from the natural environment in their craft was an important element of the movement; Architects followed suit with structures that had a wilderness or natural look and conformed to local and historical culture. Popular with architects was Spanish Mission style, and two of its variants—Mission-Spanish Revival and Pueblo-Spanish Revival. Colter used both these styles in the structures she designed at the rim of the Grand Canyon.

An example of Mission-Spanish Revival: The Alvarado Hotel. Colter designed the interiors.

Fred Harvey was not the first entrepreneur to invest in local tourism. Curious adventurers started to travel to the Grand Canyon in 1880. From then on, a steady flow of individuals arrived at the rim of the canyon after a two-day lurching stagecoach ride from Flagstaff, Arizona.
Tourist on their way to the Grand Canyon

Accommodations were primitive; an old prospector, John Hance, who abandoned mining for what appeared to be a more lucrative business, tourism, offered tent lodging, camp food, and an exciting mule ride down a crude 6000 foot trail he constructed to the bottom of the canyon.
Hance’s Tourist Camp.

John Hance’s Trail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.(today known as the Red Canyon Trail)

Tourist relaxing along the Colorado River, perhaps rejoicing, that they made it to the bottom of the Canyon on Hance’s crude trail.

By 1901, the first tourists arrived on the Grand Canyon Railroad from Williams, Arizona. The railroad from Williams was a branch line of the Santa Fe.
The 1st passenger train to arrive at the Grand Canyon

In 1901, the officials of the Santa Fe Railroad could see the possibilities of increased tourism and revenues if they built a line from Williams, Arizona to the rim of the Grand Canyon. And, along with increased tourism there was a need for increased services and who better to offer such service than Fred Harvey. Harvey had contracted with the Santa Fe to built “Harvey Houses” along Santa Fe line from Chicago to California. With the new line to the Grand Canyon, Harvey invested in what he did best; build railroad restaurants and hotels that offered upscale food and service to railroad passengers.

When Harvey decided to build gift shops along the rim of the canyon, he hired Mary Colter to design them. The entrepreneur envisioned selling the culture of the Southwest, in particular hand made Native American crafts, and Colter was perfect for the job; he first hired her to design the interior of the Indian room in his newly finished Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque in 1901. With the contract to design structures along the canyon rim, Colter moved from interior designer to architect.

Interior of the Indian Room of the El Alvarado Hotel

The first building Colter designed for Fred Harvey at the Canyon rim was Hopi House; her design had the appearance of an historic housing structure patterned after the ancient native village she visited at Oraibi, Arizona.

Hopi Village at Oraibi Arizona circa 1910

Hopi House was built of local stone and wood, and included terraces, ladders and upper doors as if the building housed the “ancient ones.”

Hopi House 2011

Colter also tried to be as authentic as possible in the interior of Hopi House.
This picture shows the style and authenticity Colter sought in her designs.

Inside Hopi House when finished in design in 1905

Inside Hopi house 2011

Inside Hopi House in 2011. It is not clear if Colter would have included the Native American looking mannequin in her interior design of Hopi House. Today, it is part of the “seeing” of Native American culture. The hand woven rugs in this display are for sale in other areas of gift shop.

Interior of Hopi House. Authentic adobe fireplace next to a showcase of Native American turquoise jewelry.

In keeping with selling the Native American culture to the canyon tourist, members of the Hopi-Pueblo people perform their version of native dances outside Hopi House. On this particular afternoon, a member of the troupe narrated to those watching the dances the significance of the ceremony in Native culture.

In all, from 1904 to 1935, Mary Colter designed five structures on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and Phantom Ranch, a rustic lodge along the Colorado River at the bottom of the Canyon.

Hermit’s Rest, in 1914:

Colter built Hermit’s Rest at the end of a new road, which extended eight miles west of the El Tovar Hotel. Fred Harvey built the road between 1910 and 1912. When the extension was finished, Harvey wanted a viewing and rest station for those who hiked the trail along the rim. He asked Colter to design the building. In planning her design, Colter had to decide if she would continue the Swiss Chalet style to match the El Tovar or the Pueblo Indian style of her recently completed Hopi house. She decided on something more daring—a structure honoring Louis D. Boucher, a reclusive Canadian, who built a tourist camp in 1890 for those who traveled by horseback to the Grand Canyon.

Lookout Studio 1914:
Also in 1914, Colter designed Lookout Studio, which included a gift shop and a vista for gazing out over the Canyon. Colter used the horizontal rock formation of the cliff on which the studio would be built, and the rock formation of the cliff behind the studio as her inspiration. The studio was constructed from rough-cut Kaibab limestone that matched the upper canyon wall. For viewing, visitors traveled down a series of criss-cross staircases and terraces that descended the perpendicular canyon wall. Colter’s design had a rough look; to make a larger statement, she brought stones or boulders and placed them in several locations around the outside walls, which further gave the appearance of the outside walls blending into the stone cliff. She also brought in native plants and planted them next to the boulders; the same look as visitors would see walking down one of the canyon trails.

Any one walking the canyon rim trail in front of El Tovar would not at first notice the studio it blends in so well with the natural environment.

Lookout studio as seen from in front of El Tovar on the rim trail.

Stone walls also accent the inside of the studio, timber frames the ceiling, an arched stone fireplace decorates an alcove, and a Native American rug decorates the floor.

Phantom Ranch 1922:

In 1922, Harvey asked Colter to design a lodge at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, which she called Phantom Ranch. Colter did not make a historical statement with her design of the “ranch.” The cabin type structure was more utilitarian; it served as a rest stop and overnight stay for those who traveled to the bottom of the canyon on one of several trails. The rest stop is on Bright Angel Creek. One-quarter mile from where the creek flows into the Colorado River.

Phantom Ranch as Colter built it in 1922
Phantom ranch today, several additions since 1922.

Probably one of the most interesting structures that Colter designed is Desert View Watchtower, which she designed in 1932. Colter’s inspiration for the tower came from her visit to Mesa Verde, just northeast of the Grand Canyon in the Four Corners area where Colorado, Utah. Arizona and New Mexico meet. (see preceding blog on Mesa Verde.)

Desert View Watchtower 2011
When Colter visited Mesa Verde in the 1930s, she found a relatively new discovery of cliff dwellings of Native people who vacated the area in around 1300 a.d. Today, many of the ruins have been restored and accessible to visitors. Cliff Palace is probably one of the most spectacular.

Cliff Palace in 2011. In order to see the ruins up close, it is a strenuous hike down and in some area a climb of several 100 ft ladders. What Colter saw that interest her in design was the towers that the “ancient ones” built in Cliff Palace and another cliff dwelling community called Spruce House.

Cliff Palace Tower in the middle resembles Colter’s design of Desert View Watchtower.

Inside the tower visitors can climb stairs to four different levels, each with a view of the Canyon out the widows provided for just such viewing.

Also, at the landing between each floor, Colter continues the Native American theme with furniture and artwork that gives the visitor the feel of the ancient cliff dwellings.
Inside Tower at one of the landing before ascending to the next tower level.

Mary Colter left a legacy in her designs at the rim of the Grand Canyon. Her interest in blending her designs to incorporate the history and environment of a particular area became a standard for National Park structures starting in the New Deal area of the 1930s. A new type of architecture was born that today is called Parkitecture; a visitor to anyone of the National Parks will see buildings made of native stone, lumber and well blended into the environment.

Mary Colter continued her career as an architect, but outside the Grand Canyon. She Worked for Fred Harvey designing interiors and hotels along the Santa Fe line. She continued her Southwestern look in all her designs; The El Navajo in Gallup New Mexico, The Franciscan Hotel in Albuquerque and she designed and decorated shops in Union Station in Chicago, continuing her theme of Native American culture.

Mary Colter was one of the first women architects in American, she died in 1958.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ancestral Puebloan People of MesaVerde

On a cold wintry December day in 1888, Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law, Charlie Mason, cowboys from the Alamo ranch in Southwestern Colorado, spent most of their afternoon rounding up strays on the high mesas and steep canyons above their winter camp on the Mancos River. The going was tough and blowing snow made hard work of finding their cattle. As they rested their horses on the edge of a mesa, they saw at the far side of the canyon a complex of stone buildings built under a large outcropping of rock. Under this protective rock overhang was a village of houses, towers, and kivas, all strung together like a huge apartment complex. The cowboys named the location Cliff Palace. Years later, Charlie Mason described their discovery, “From the rim of the canon we had our first view of Cliff Palace…. To me this is the grandest view of all among the ancient ruins of the Southwest. We rode around the head of the canon and found a way down over the cliffs to the level of the building. We spent several hours going from room to room and picked up several articles of interest, among them a stone axe with the handle still on it.”

Cliff Palace as seen by Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason in 1888.

Debris field around structures.

Cliff Palace 2011

Diagram of structures at Cliff Palace

No one knows for sure who constructed, with such skill, a community of buildings high up on the side of a canyon wall; buildings that have survived the harsh elements of the mesa country for over a 1000 years. Anthropologists and historians refer to the people as hunters gathers, basket makers, cliff dwellers, Anasazi, (Navajo for “ancient ones) or more formally, or Ancestral Puebloan People. All that is known about them is found in the ruins of their cliff dwellings. (The Anasazi occupied a large area of mesa and canyon lands known today as the four corners, where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet.)

After the Cowboys discovered Cliff Palace, they used their winter camp in the Mancos Valley as a base from which to explore the canyon close to their initial discovery (later to be called Cliff Canyon).

The mesa above Cliff Canyon. From this vantage point, the cowboys looked across to the ancient ruins.

Over the next two months, Wetherill, Mason and cowboys from the Alamo ranch dug through the ruins collecting artifacts, some of which they sold to a museum in Denver for $3000.00. (The artifacts helped launch the newly established Denver Historical Society museum) Other artifacts were kept in a barn on the Alamo ranch.

Below are some of the artifacts found by the cowboys from the Alamo Ranch.

Baskets made from the fiber of the yucca plant. The Yucca plant served many purposes in the Ancestral Puebloan culture.

Clay bowls with a distinctive design.

Regardless of the monetary value of the artifacts in the ruins, the Wetherills, owners of the Alamo Ranch, understood the archaeological and historical value the ruins had to Colorado and to the nation. Richard Wetherill wrote to the directors of the Smithsonian and Harvard’s Peabody Museum requesting that these institutions sponsor him and his brothers or at least send their own specialists to work with them to excavate the cliff dwellings. Neither museum offered financial assistance or a team of professionals to help in excavating the ruins. Without outside help, the ruins would continue their march into obscurity; the Wetherills could not take the time away from ranching to explore further the ruins of Cliff Canyon. Not until Gustaf Nordenskiold from Sweden, an adventurer of sorts, heard about the cliff dwellings in the American Southwest, did Cliff Canyon and the Anasazi people get attention from the scientific community. In 1891, Nordenskiold made the long journey to America, crossed the continent on the newly established Santa Fe line to Durango, and forty miles by buggy to the Alamo ranch to meet with the Wetherill family. The family introduced Nordenskiold to the Cliff Dwellings, all of which were which named by the Wetherill family. The most impressive of the dwelling complex being Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree House, Square Tower House, Mug House and Sandal House. In all, the Wetherills counted 182 cliff dwellings. Today, the count is 600. After spending several years exploring the cliff dwellings and its artifacts, Nordenskiold wrote The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde, where he detailed each dwelling and the artifacts found at the different locations.
Spruce Tree House

Inside ruin of Spruce Tree House as discovered by the Witherills and Gustaf Nordenskiold

Spruce tree house 2011

Spruce Tree House 2011

Typically, in each of the complexes, small rooms were built around a kiva; some rooms had access to the kiva by tunnels. They also constructed a small opening adjunct to the kiva called a sipapu, which symbolized the entrance to the underworld or mother earth. In most kivas there are stone benches, and an area that appears to be a fire pit. There are different theories on the use of the kiva. The most popular thought is that the round recessed circular room was used for religious purposes, and most likely as a place for social gatherings. At Cliff House complex, there are 23 kivas.
There are also areas in the dwelling complex, where grain was ground in order to make flour that they used for multiple food preparations.

Also found on the mesa above Cliff Canyon were the ruins of villages, perhaps occupied by the ancestors of those who built the cliff dwellings. Archaeologists believe that the first people to occupy Mesa Verde did so around 2000 years ago. Anthropologists call these early people the basket weavers. These people lived in caves, but eventually by 750 A.D. moved into pithouses, a below ground system of housing around a kiva. The mesa environment was ideal for farming and there was enough moisture at the higher elevation of 8000 ft. to sustain agriculture. The Basket weavers mastered farming to where they had an expanded food supply and an increase in population. The people also began making crude pottery and developed the technique of crafting bows and arrows. By 1000 A.D. the basket weavers moved out of the below ground pithouses to above ground constructions made of pole and adobe. In this era, anthropologists refer to the above ground builders as the Anasazi, who improved building techniques by taking advantage of the natural environment that had an abundance of sandstone rock, which was easily cut into stone to build houses. The Anasazi became skilled masons, crafting each stone to an equal size to construct walls of their structures. They experimented with natural resources to develop mortar made out of sand, small gravel and ash. (This strong mortar can be seen in the ruins of Mesa Verde today.)

Far View Site, above ground village ruins at Far View site, Mesa Verde National Park

Far View Site.

The Kiva was important in the construction of the below ground pithouse. When they move to above ground living, the kiva became the only below ground element of their culture that transferred to Ancestral Puebloan culture.


Drying racks line the walls of the kiva at the Far View Site, which indicates multiple uses of this kiva.

Agriculture land was on the top of the mesas. Archeologists are still trying to determine the canal system that ran from the reservoir in the picture below to the farming fields.

The National Park Service designation this reservoir, along with four others in Mesa Verde as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. The water management system developed by the Anasazi people is one of the oldest engineered public works in the United States.

The Anasazi people grew three staple crops--corn, beans and squash all in the same field. The tall corn became a pole or sorts for the beans and the shade from the tall corn stalks protected the squash. They over produced, storing grain for the years of drought when rain or snow was not plentiful enough to sustain a crop.

The golden age of the Anasazi was between 1100-1300 AD. During this period they constructed houses with larger rooms, more complex attached buildings that could accommodate 1000 people. Their villages were spread out over many miles stretching across the mesas. During this era, the Anasazi demonstrated improved craftsmanship in masonry, pottery, weaving and jewelry. The evidence seems to indicate that all was well with the people who thrived on the mesa tops, but then they abandoned their above ground life to return to the caves and started engineering buildings along the cliffs. They used the same techniques that they mastered on the mesa tops; stone masonry buildings that fit under the rock umbrella perturbing out from the canyon walls.

Archaeologists and historians do not know why the Anasazi people left their prosperous villages and sought shelter along the canyon walls. One plausible explanation is that the canyons offered a defensible and secure location. Climate may also have been a reason for the move. Winter could be harsh on the mesa tops; the cliff dwellings offered a warmer environment.

Note the black soot on the back wall of the canyon. They constructed most of the structures with at least 3 to 4 ft. clearance from the wall. Evidence shows that they built their fires behind these structures. With small openings at the back of their rooms, the heat from the fires would penetrate their living quarters giving them a warmer environment.

The cliff dwellers still farmed on the mesas above and near some of their dwelling under the rock outcropping. At Spruce House complex, there is also a spring at the bottom of the canyon, which offered a water supply.

The inhabitants of the cliff dwellings only stayed under the protective rock for a couple of generations. By 1300, they were gone from the mesa. It is not known where the people migrated to, but most recent scholarship indicates that they are the ancestors of the Pueblo people. The most logical reason for their migration south would be climate change. A drought settled over the mesa region from 1272 to 1299, a long time to go with out a reliable food source. Also, years of farming on the mesa would have depleted the soil of nutrients to successfully grow crops and deforesting the land would cause erosion; the people had to move on to new fresh land where there was ample moisture to sustain life and agriculture. It is most probable that the hunter gathers, the Basket weavers, the Cliff Dwellers and the Anasazi people are the ancestors of the Pueblo people, who today live in the American Southwest.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Detroit and the Mythical West.

It is not by accident that a family such as mine, born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, found a home in the America West. My dad grew up reading authors of the American West in the early twentieth century like Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. When I was a child in the 1950s and 60s, family time was around the T.V. watching The Lone Ranger, Sky King, Roy Rogers, Maverick, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, etc.

The American West, and the characters, whether fictional or non-fictional, who sought adventure and “tamed” the western wilderness, represented to my dad, my family and a great number of fans around the world a since of adventure, and a belief that good guys win in the end; an important concept in the era of World War Two and the Cold War.

Today the western genre is on life supports. In the troubled times of the 1960s, historians concerned with civil rights, Vietnam, and other social and political issues began to revise how historians of the previous generation interpreted American history, especially the role of Women, Native Americans, African Americans and Hispanics. The West I grew up on was now called the "Mythic West.” The new histories took our western heroes, as portrayed by numerous western writers, and such actors as John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, and did their best to tear down rugged individualism and the concept of good and evil.

My dad did not care about historians’ revisionist histories. In the mind of the farm boy from Indiana, who found a job making diesel engines at General Motors at the beginning of World War Two, the fictional West was where he would escape.

What he read in his books about the American West allowed him to dream and plan for another life; a life far away from the drudgery of his work as supervisor on the line at G.M. Diesel, a place he worked for 33 years.

The Call of the West was so strong in my dad that when possible our family vacations in the 1950s were road trips to Montana, where my dad spent several summers in the early 1930s working on a road crew in the Yellowstone.

My dad fishing in the Yellowstone, 1933

My brother caught the “west fever” and left for Montana when he was 18, he has lived there ever since. My parents retired to Montana in 1971.

On his eleven acres at the foot of the Bitterroot Mountains, my dad had his dream “ranch”, where he kept quarter horses and enjoyed western living; all before Montana drew new immigrants who wanted to live in Norman MacLean’s land of “A River Runs Through It.”
Two of Dad's horses, very proud of Cindy the new colt.

I’m not writing this to beat the western historian over the head for trying to destroy, perhaps inadvertently, the western dream; I am a western historian and I understand the need to write inclusive histories. But, I also understand the importance the western genre had and still has in portraying a Place called the West that represented the values that have been part of America since the American Revolution. They are values of hard work, self-reliance, morality, sense of mission; values that have defined us as Americans. I have to wonder why these values are now thought to be inherent only to the Mythical West.

And, as for Detroit. I’m sure if my dad was a live today he would be more disheartened than my brother and I, and my family and friends who once lived in Detroit, to see what has become of the City. Like all industrial cities, Detroit had its good and bad points. As a kid, I remember the good. I felt safe riding the Schoolcraft bus from the suburbs to downtown to shop with friends. In the winter, I enjoyed Ice Skating on the River Rough Parkway ice rink. I loved Greenfield Village, where Henry Ford had created an historical village that depicted early American life including Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory.
Pioneer General store, Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan

Edison's Menlo Park, N.J. Lab at Greenfield Village.

I even found touring Ford’s River Rouge plant interesting, walking on the catwalks high above the furnaces where steel was melted down and poured into frames.

I assumed that all industrial cities had their own unique charm, as Detroit did. But, today, by most accounts, Detroit is a dying city. It remains to be seen if the City will survive. If it does, I suspect it will become a much different city than the industrial city of my youth.
Abandoned Dentist office, Detroit.

Abandoned East Side Detroit Methodist Church

St Christopher House.

Abandoned building with ballroom.

Abandoned Detroit Theater
Abandoned House, one of too many in bombed-out looking neighborhoods.

I’m so glad that my dad bought into the “Mythic West.” If he had not, he probably would have never left Detroit. But he did, and he found a new home where the air was crisp and smelled of pine trees, where from every window in his house that he built he could see the snow capped mountains, and where life was full of the work he wanted to do-- cleaning his barn, tending his horses, and talking to neighbors who were born and raised in his beloved West.
In in front yard of his Montana "ranch."

Dad with Grandkids on one of his horses.

Like Detroit, I believe the western genre will too survive, and the stories will continue to offer readers the same adventure and excitement about a place that so caught the imagination of my dad’s generation. Thanks to all of you who continue to write about the American west.