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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.