Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Mary Jane Colter, Architect of the Southwest

One can only imagine how difficult it must have been to be a woman in the nineteenth century trying to have a career.  Mary Jane Colter, born in Pennsylvania and brought up in Minnesota, certainly succeeded by both strokes of luck and strokes of genius.
When Colter’s father passed away in 1886, she apparently took it upon herself to learn a trade in order to help with family finances.  She attended California School of Design—apparently in an all women’s class. Graduating in 1890, she apprenticed with a Californian firm and learned the then-popular, revived California Mission style. Sadly, her talents were put to other use for several more years, teaching at the Mechanic Arts High School and University Extension School in St. Paul. Then, by a stroke of good fortune, she came to the attention of Minnie Harvey Huckel, daughter of Fred Harvey who was building hotels and restaurants along the line of the Santa Fe Railroad.  While my colleague, Julie Lence, will be telling you all about Fred Harvey and the ‘Harvey Girls’ in a blog in a couple of weeks, I will concentrate on Colter’s works for the firm.
Mary Jane colter reading blueprints, 1921

Colter was originally hired for a summer job in 1902 decorating the Indian Building at the  Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque. The building was the hotel’s gift shop basically, and Colter created a series of rooms of both Hispanic and Native American design. She would go on to work for the Fred Harvey Company for thirty-eight years, doing both architecture and decor. It was Harvey’s exclusive contract with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad to provide hotels and restaurants between Chicago and Los Angeles that would afford Colter those years of work.
Colter spent time working as a display manager for a department store in Seattle before being hired permanently by Harvey in 1910. It was then she branched out into being both architect and decorator.  Her first works continued at Grand Canyon.  The area had been declared a National Monument in 1908 by President Teddy Roosevelt and while it was not until 1919 that it was established as a national park, tourism was definitely on the rise. When the ATSF Railroad brought in trains from Williams to Grand Canyon in 1901, making what had been a bone-jarring trip over rutted roads obsolete, the Grand Canyon’s fate as a tourist destination was sealed.
Colter’s style mixed Spanish Mission with Spanish Pueblo and Native American—Hopi Kivas, prehistoric ruins, sky villages, early pioneer buildings, surrounding geology, even woven baskets were subsumed into Colter’s designs. She had an eye for taking the surrounding geography into consideration and blending her construction with it. During the years she worked for Harvey she was decorator and  interior designer as well as architect. Her 1904 second project for Harvey was Hopi House, at Grand
Hopi House
Canyon’s South Rim. Another artisan sales building, it stands in contrast to El Tovar next door, which was done by another architect in the western chalet style. Hopi House is stone and was based on pueblos. It has the look of having been there before the idea of a national park ever took hold.
At Grand Canyon, Colter also created Hermit’s Rest and Lookout Studio and, after World War I, Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon. Colter’s imagination often took form from stories surrounding the buildings.  For instance, Hermit’s Rest was named for Louis Boucher who used to guide tourists into the canyon in the 1890s and for whom Hermit Canyon was named.  Phantom Ranch was not only named for Phantom Creek but, in her mind, for the many ‘ghosts’ that roamed the area.
Lookout Studio
Other famous commissions of Colter’s included Desert View Watch Tower (1932) on the south rim of Grand Canyon, made to look as if it had been there for ages but with a steel inner frame constructed by railway bridge builders; Bright Angel Lodge (1935) in stone and timber, looking like an early pioneer homestead; El Navajo Hotel in Gallup, NM (1918 & 1923, demolished 1957) had a nod toward modern architecture; and dining rooms for Union Stations, the most famous being L.A. with its vaulted ceilings and Navajo design tiled floor (1939). But perhaps the most famous of  Colter’s works were the interior design of La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, and the complete design of
La Posada
La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona (1929).  Her vision for that was of  the hacienda of a wealthy Spanish Colonial landowner, and she designed everything from the china to the gardens.  While much of Colter’s interior design is gone—furniture, uniforms, lighting and so on—it has been restored and is now on the National Register of Historic Places along with ten other of her buildings, five of which are designated National Historic Landmarks. Her last work before her retirement to Santa Fe in 1948 was the 1947 renovation of Painted Desert Inn in the Petrified Forest National Park, AZ.
A chain-smoking, tough-minded woman, Mary Colter knew how to behave in a man’s world, insisting on the details  she wanted, overseeing minutiae that were of importance to her.  She lived to the age of eighty-eight, seeing some of her works demolished, others remodeled beyond recognition, yet today her legacy lives in buildings that capture the essence of the Southwest, functional yet timeless.  Her work will live on in the Mary Jane Colter National Historic Landmark District of Grand Canyon National Park.


Mary Jane Colter reading blueprints, 1931, National Park Service

Hopi House, Wikipedia

Lookout Studio, NPS, Public Domain

La Posada, public domain


Patti Sherry-Crews said...

I've been to and admire many of these places! I think I knew some of them were designed by a woman, but I was surprised by some like La Fonda. A contemporary of Frank Llyod Wright with similar thoughts on architecture reflecting surrounding and yet not as well known! Thanks for an interesting post.

Andrea Downing said...

I was at La Fonda last year and never thought for a moment about who designed it. That's the thing--we go to these places and never stop for a moment to consider the story behind them, especially at Grand Canyon. I remember years ago--I think I was 15 at he time--I came off the train in L.A. and was totally mind-blown by the station, the design. But I never bothered to discover who had designed it--sad really.