Monday, June 6, 2016

Mary Jane Colter

By Kristy McCaffrey

Mary Jane Colter
A visit to the Grand Canyon is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which are the various buildings designed by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. In 1902, she became an architect, designer, and decorator for the Fred Harvey Company. At the time, American architecture followed the fashions of Europe, but Mary preferred to let her conceptions grow from the land, paying homage to the Native Americans who inhabited the area. Her designs include Hermit’s Rest, Lookout Studio, Bright Angel Lodge, Hopi House and the Watchtower—all located on the South Rim of Grand Canyon—along with Phantom Ranch, situated at the bottom of the canyon.

Mary Jane Colter was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and while her family lived briefly in Texas and Colorado, the Colter’s finally settled in St. Paul, Minnesota when Mary was eleven, and she always considered this her home. She desired to pursue art as a career but couldn’t due to family opposition. It wasn’t until the death of her father that she moved toward following her dream.

Hopi House
Mary attended the California School of Design in San Francisco, studying art and design. Few universities taught architecture, so she apprenticed with a practicing architect. This was unusual for a woman, but Mary was determined. In 1890, as a new graduate, her biggest concern was finding a job to support her mother and sister. She returned to St. Paul as a teacher. In 1892, at the age of 23, she began a 15-year teaching career at the Mechanic Arts High School, an all-boys institution. Mary taught freehand and mechanical drawing, and after eight years her salary rose to 90 dollars a month. Ambitious, she also lectured at the University Extension on world history and architecture, and participated in the Century Club lectures in Minnesota and Iowa. In addition, she reviewed books as the literary editor of the St. Paul Globe. On her own, she studied archaeology. To her delight, she would eventually receive a job offer from the Fred Harvey Company.

Hermit's Rest
The Fred Harvey Company operated gift shops, newsstands, restaurants, and hotels of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway beginning in 1876. Mary’s first assignment was to decorate the Indian Building which was adjacent to a new hotel built in Albuquerque. Once that job was complete, however, the company had no more work for her and she returned to St. Paul to teach.

Lookout Studio
In 1904, when the Santa Fe Railway determined to extend a line to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, the Fred Harvey Company decided to build a hotel at the edge. Plans were commissioned for El Tovar, and Mary was hired to design an Indian building across from the hotel, which resembled a Swiss chalet. Her building, Hopi House, was based on Hopi dwellings located in Oraibi, Arizona. Once again, with this project complete, Mary returned to St. Paul and to teaching, needing the steady income it provided. Soon thereafter she took a job in Seattle to develop a decoration department for the Frederick and Nelson Department Store, and her mother and sister accompanied her. Tragically, her mother died within a year after becoming ill from pernicious anemia.

The Watchtower
In 1910, at the age of 41, Mary was finally offered a permanent job with the Fred Harvey Company. She would design and decorate the new Fred Harvey hotels, restaurants, and union station facilities, a coveted position, especially for a woman. She wasn’t without her detractors, as a railroad man once complained of her “poorly illuminated buildings.” Mary often used soft lighting to create a restful atmosphere.

Bright Angel Lodge
Those who knew Mary Colter describe her in many ways. To her critics, she was a small woman with piercing violet eyes and hair that was never combed. She chain-smoked, was outspoken, and even cruel at times. To her friends, she was tall and stately, a wonderful woman, fun to talk with, and a happy person interested in life around her. Once her designs of Phantom Ranch were constructed—individual cabins, a large dining hall, and a recreational hall at the bottom of Grand Canyon—she took the mule trip down to view her new buildings. At 53, she remained in good health.

Phantom Ranch
For 30 years, she worked as an architect (few women did) and completed 21 projects for the Fred Harvey Company. She considered the La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona her masterwork. It still stands today.

La Posada Hotel

In 1948, Colter retired to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and passed away in 1958 at the age of 88.

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Patti Sherry-Crews said...

What an interesting post, Kristie! I have been to some of those building, admired them at the time and still vividly remember them today. I had no idea a woman designed them. Thanks for the information!

Kristy McCaffrey said...

Hi Patti,
Mary Jane Colter was certainly an interesting woman and it's always fun to know more about the places we visit like the Grand Canyon. Thanks for stopping by! Have a great week.