Mary Jane Colter: Architect

Called "the best-known unknown architect in the national parks," Mary Jane Colter left her mark on a profession and on our parks.

By Jeff Rennicke

Summer, 1932. Only a hint of first light glows in a sky spread over the Grand Canyon like a starsprinkled blanket. A sliver of birdsong whispers from the juniper branches. On the east end of the South Rim, construction is under way on the Watchtower. Near its base, there is a quick movement, a wispy figure walking, stopping, and walking again, nearly invisible but for the on-again off-again glow of a cigarette, like the flash of some nervous firefly. The figure flits to one spot, watching the way the morning shadows etch the tower walls, to another to check the silhouette against the early sky, and another to gauge the shade of the stone in the palette of morning light. It is hours before the first workers will arrive on site, hours more before the first tourist will stir, but already Mary Jane Colter is there watching, looking, and planning the day’s work.

Called “the best-known unknown architect in the national parks,” Mary Jane Colter has long been an almost invisible figure in national park history. Each year, as many as 5 million visitors pass through the collection of buildings she designed or decorated in Grand Canyon National Park, most without a hint of the brilliant, stubborn, chain-smoking visionary behind their creation.

Colter’s arched doorways and deep-silled windows have framed the memories of generations of canyon visitors, and her organic designs influenced the iconic rustic style of scores of park structures across the country. Yet only recently has the story of Mary Jane Colter begun to step out of the shadows and into the light.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1869, Colter grew up in Texas, Colorado, and Minnesota. Seeking a practical education to support her family after her father died, she attended the California School of Design in San Francisco and eventually returned to Minnesota for a teaching job. A tiny classroom in St. Paul was an unlikely beginning for a story that would be written so deeply on the face of our national parks, but beyond that classroom, change was coming to the parks in the form of a man named Fred Harvey.

Called the “civilizer of the West,” the Fred Harvey Company was riding the iron coattails of a railroad boom, building an empire of hotels, restaurants, and gift shops in the  prosperous wake of the ever-expanding Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe line. The railway’s upscale clientele demanded stopovers on their excursions and expected comfortable yet attention-grabbing accommodations in each locale. The Fred Harvey Company provided just that with pretty waitresses known as “Harvey Girls” serving drinks in their highneck sweaters, gift shops that offered Indianthemed souvenirs for sale, and décor that provided the luxury the clients demanded and the sense of adventure they sought.

In 1902, Colter was hired to decorate the Indian Building in Albuquerque, New Mexico, thanks to a recommendation from a friend who worked at a Fred Harvey gift shop. It was a summer job that lasted only a few months, but her unique sense of style and attention to detail were not forgotten. In 1910 Colter was given a permanent job, launching a relationship with the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railroad that would last for nearly four decades and span a critical time in the expansion of tourist facilities in national parks.

The first passenger train had reached the edge of the Grand Canyon in 1901, ushering in a new era of tourism and a burgeoning demand for facilities. The Fred Harvey Company turned to its new “architect and designer” to create a string of buildings to meet that demand. The famous El Tovar, a Swiss-style lodge designed by architect Charles Whittlesey and constructed in 1905 on the canyon’s South Rim, was already the centerpiece of Grand Canyon tourist development. Some felt strongly that any new construction on the rim should follow the Alpine chalet motif of El Tovar. But Mary Jane Colter had her own ideas.

“Colter's philosophy was that a building should grow out of its setting, embodying the history and flavor of the location,” writes Virginia Grattan in her book, Mary Colter: Builder Upon the Red Earth. “It should belong to its environment as though indigenous to that spot.” For inspiration, Colter looked not to El Tovar or architectural fashion of the day but to the Grand Canyon. There in the arched alcoves and sculpted cliffs she witnessed nature as the great builder. She saw lessons in time, how human lifetimes, fads, and fashions flicker like cloudshadows against the ageless canyon. Bolstered by that strong sense of place, Colter pushed forward with structures that incorporated local stone, local art, and design elements as ancient as the first human footprints in the canyon itself. While others built for the modern age, Colter would build for the ages, using theGrand Canyon as her inspiration.

Working as one of the few women architects in a male-dominated field, Colter held resolutely to that vision, going to extraordinary lengths to hold true to every detail. At Hopi House (1905) she brought in local Indian artists to ensure truly authentic indigenous art. And she held up construction of the fireplace at the Bright Angel Lodge (1932) until park geologists could confirm that the masons had perfectly mirrored the layering of rock types in the canyon’s geologic strata. A Colter design was more than just lines of ink on paper—each had a backstory that guided its creation. Nowhere was this more evident than at Hermit’s Rest.

Asked in 1914 to create a stopover point at the far end of the Hermit Rim Road, Colter imagined the place through the eyes of Louis Boucher, the famed French-Canadian “hermit” of the Grand Canyon, who was said to sport a white beard, ride a white mule, and tell only white lies. Colter’s design originally led visitors beneath an entrance arch of rough-hewn stone that seems ready to topple at any moment. The arch is hung with a chipped mission bell and an old lantern to symbolize a beacon guiding the old hermit home. The building itself seems halfhidden in the hillside and features a porch supported with tree trunks, furniture cut from tree stumps, a vaulted ceiling, an enormous arched fireplace to take the chill off, and rows of large windows that seem to invite the beauty of the canyon to mingle with the hermit’s trail-dusty boots.

As always, Colter supervised construction right down to the last detail. According to one story, she had cobwebs brought in for the dim corners and asked that rocks above the fireplace be rubbed with soot to make the place look older and well used. It was a style of design some had a hard time understanding. Biographer Virginia Grattan tells of workmen chiding Colter over how dingy and rustic the place seemed for a new building and offering to clean it up. Colter only laughed, saying, “You can’t imagine what it cost to make it look this old.”

Colter designed many of the best-known structures in Grand Canyon National Park, including Bright Angel Lodge, Hermit’s Rest, Hopi House, the Lookout, and Phantom Ranch at the canyon floor. But if she has a signature piece, a building that speaks most eloquently to her vision, it is the Watchtower at Desert View.

A strange and beautiful 70-foot-high tower that seems to rise directly out of the rock heart of the canyon, the Watchtower feels as old as the canyon walls themselves. At first glance, some visitors mistake it for an ancient ruin. “And that is just the way Colter wanted it,” says Jan Balsom, cultural resource specialist at the Grand Canyon. “She very much wanted to create that sense of mystery and mystique.”

Colter envisioned a place that seemed as much a part of the canyon as sandstone and raven caws, a structure that gave tourists a bird’s-eye view and echoed with the ancient whispers of long-past human voices. During the design phase she chartered a small plane to search out ancient cliff dwellings and returned on foot. She sketched the Round Tower at Mesa Verde and the Mummy Cave at Canyon de Chelly. She requested a clay model depicting the site right down to the placement of the trees and constructed a 70-foot wooden tower before the first stone was even laid, to be sure the view was what she wanted.

During the construction phase she haunted the site, returning at all hours of the day and night to be sure the shadows fell just right along the rough-hewn rock walls. The colors had to match her vision exactly—workmen were forced to tear down sections and re-do them if she wasn’t satisfied. She placed strangely shaped rocks known as Balolookong stones in strategic places to add a sense of mystery. Hopi artist Fred Kabotie created artwork in the interior that traced Hopi mythology. Other paintings copied designs of ancient New Mexico rock art now lost to history. To ensure that tour guides interpreted her work properly for visitors, Colter herself even wrote a booklet, called Manual for Drivers and Guides Descriptive of the Indian Watchtower at Desert View and its Relation, Architecturally, to the PrehistoricRuins of the Southwest. The result was classic Mary Jane Colter, a structure that stands even today as what Jan Balsom calls “a touchstone of sorts for visitors to understand our human scale in relation to the vastness of the canyon.”

Colter died on January 8, 1958, at the age of 88. She had lived long enough to painfully witness the demolition of some of her most famous works outside the national parks. But at the Grand Canyon, her legacy survives and her reputation is growing. In the early days of tourist development at the canyon, some feared any construction on the rim would detract from the visitor experience of its grandeur. “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it,” as Teddy Roosevelt so famously pronounced. “The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” Mary Jane Colter managed to find a balance, designing and constructing buildings that suit their purpose but go beyond utility to touch on story, mythology, and sense of place.

Today all six of her public structures within the park are included in the Mary Jane Colter National Landmark District or have National Landmark Properties status in “recognition of their exceptional value to the nation.” More people tour a Mary Jane Colter creation in a single busy weekend than visit some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous sites in a year. Slowly, like the sun rising over the canyon rim, the light is beginning to shine on this pioneering architect who held true to her vision and built for the ages. 

Jeff Rennicke is a frequent contributor to National Parks magazine and a teacher at Conserve School in Wisconsin's North Woods.

This article appears in the Spring 2008 issue.

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April 19, 2014

wonderful she had a true opportunity to showcase her great skill and imagination!


January 31, 2012

i like the writing it gave me all the imformation i needed thanks! i loved the detail the writing was beautiful i hope to read mmore sometime.

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