Most of a visitor’s attention during a walk along the south rim of the Grand Canyon obviously and instinctively focuses on the panoramic vistas and overwhelming beauty of the scenery extending out and down for glorious miles. And while savoring the views, it’s fun to find glimpses of the brown Colorado River flowing far below.
But after a while, you notice the historic buildings behind you, too.
And over and over again, on placards describing the locale’s architecture and design, you see the name and face of Mary Colter, a pioneering woman in the male-dominated world of architecture in the early 1900s. Her vision melded natural settings of the Southwest with a Native American influence.
Turns out, architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter came from St. Paul. She was born in Pittsburgh and her family moved around when she was young; they landed in St. Paul when she was 11, and she considered it her hometown.
After a trailblazing career, she died in 1958 at age 88, and was buried in her family’s plot at St. Paul’s Oakland Cemetery (where many other notables from the state’s history are buried, including Henry Sibley, Alexander Ramsey, Harriet Bishop, Amherst Wilder and Archibald Bush).
Longed to be an artist
Growing up in St. Paul, she wanted to be an artist. When her father, a city sewer inspector, died in 1886, leaving a widow and two daughters, Mary persuaded her mother to send her to art school in San Francisco so she could become an art teacher and help support the family.
Tuition at the California School of Design was $2.50 a month, according to Virginia L. Gratton, author of one of the books about Colter. While in school, Colter also learned architecture as an apprentice.
Colter returned to the Midwest after graduation in 1890 and worked for a while teaching art in Menomonie, then got a job teaching at Mechanic Arts High School in St. Paul.
For 15 years she taught art and mechanical drawing there, and on the side reviewed books for the St. Paul Globe newspaper. She spent a summer in San Francisco with a friend who worked for the Fred Harvey Company, which operated gift shops, hotels and restaurants for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, and wound up with a short-term decorating job for the company in Albuquerque.
Designed Hopi House on the south rim
When it was over, she returned home to teach. Later, the company began working at the Grand Canyon and hired her to design the Hopi House on the south rim, next to the grand El Tovar Hotel. Again, she came back to St. Paul when the job was over.
In 1910, she got a permanent job with Fred Harvey, designing and decorating new hotels, restaurants and stations.
Her work took her back to the Grand Canyon for the Lookout Studio, the Hermit’s Rest, Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon, the Watchtower and Bright Angel Lodge.
Signs throughout those buildings keep Colter’s name and reputation alive, and there are two books about Colter on sale at the many gift shops and elsewhere: “Mary Colter: Builder Upon the Red Earth,” by Grattan, and “Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest,” by Arnold Berke.
Park rangers and workers at the canyon also include references to her in talks and presentations.
‘A female version of Frank Lloyd Wright’
Lowell Fay, a long-time worker in the history room at the Bright Angel Lodge — one of Colter’s designs — talked to my wife and me for 20 minutes about Colter while we vacationed there. He might have gone on longer, too; he seemed so happy that someone had asked.
“She was a female version of Frank Lloyd Wright,” Fay said. He meant this not only in reference to her place in the architectural world, but even more so in her habit of perfectionism.
“She was a lady I could not have worked for: a little too meticulous,” he said.
He pointed to the massive fireplace in the history room, where stones from the canyon’s layers are laid out in exact proportionally correct order, mimicking the canyon layout, as seen from the nearby window.
“They say she stood 5-feet nothing, maybe a hundred pounds, and stood by watching as the workers laid the stones from her design. Sometimes she’d see something she didn’t like and say: ‘Go get me another rock.’ So they did, from way out in the canyon.”
At Hermit’s Rest, another giant fireplace dominates the main room. There, Fay said, Colter took great pains to make the fireplace look old and used, going so far as to place cobwebs and rub soot on the newly placed rocks.
She was, Fay said, quite the micro-manager.
Usually on site while her buildings were going up, she once left for a while and returned to find a rock — in the middle of a wall — not to her liking. It had to be replaced, even though it required taking down 4 feet of rocks to get to it.
And apparently, she was feisty with family, too.
According to Grattan’s book, a cousin once said of Colter: “Frankly, she wasn’t a favorite person of ours, as she felt that her artistic temperament entitled her to be brutally frank whenever she felt like it and although we were proud of her, we did not love her.”
21 major projects in the Southwest
Working for the Fred Harvey Company along the railroad lines, she also designed other landmark hotels and lodges throughout the Southwest — 21 major projects in all over 30 years, as chief architect and designer.
Women architects were rare in those days, and the state of Arizona at the time required a man to sign off on building designs, Fay said. So in at least one case, she drew up a building design and had one of the workmen sign the paperwork.
She’s called one of the early environmental designers, drawing inspiration from the rocks and trees and landscapes around her. While other designers of the time were still echoing European architecture, she wove Native American motifs into her work.
One of the signs at the canyon says: “Her pioneering and distinctive style helped shape the architecture of the Southwest and the national parks.”
In addition to her buildings, she also designed china and silver service for the railroad, and collected art items to decorate her buildings. One of the items she found still hangs over a door at Bright Angel Lodge: a wooden child’s rocking horse.
The legend is that the rocking horse was the first ever made for a child in Arizona, and proving that there’s a political joke wherever you go, Fay said:
“And that child was (pause) John McCain.”