The career of Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (1869-1958) is the story of a successful woman in a man’s field: architecture. Colter designed atmospheric structures for travelers—at Grand Canyon National Park and elsewhere in the Southwest. She spent her entire career working simultaneously for the Fred Harvey Company—the famous purveyor of tourist accommodations—and its partner, the Santa Fe Railway, creating buildings based on the western landscape and Native American and Hispanic culture.
Colter didn’t copy this milieu but fashioned environments from its essence, relying on her artistic talents—the result of training in the Arts and Crafts in her hometown of St. Paul, Minn., and studying architecture in California—her practical bent, and her fertile imagination to work historical feeling into modern buildings. She was famous for her thorough research, traveling long distances to remote locations in search of Native American ruins and artifacts to study. Her Watchtower at the Grand Canyon (1933) is the most amazing result of this method, but she is also famous for Lookout Studio, Hopi House, Hermits’ Rest, Bright Angel Lodge, Phantom Ranch, and additional structures at the park.
Colter’s other remarkable creations include El Navajo hotel and train station in Gallup, N.M., the restaurant and lounge at Los Angeles Union Station, shops and restaurants in the union stations of Chicago and Kansas City, and the expansion of La Fonda, the legendary hotel in Santa Fe, N.M. Her most famous work is La Posada in Winslow, Ariz., the last of the great Harvey House hotels, which opened to great acclaim in 1930. Typically, Colter designed La Posada to look like an old structure, as if it were the abandoned and restored hacienda of a Spanish colonial rancher. The hotel flourished for years as a layover for travelers headed to California, who often would stay for days there to explore the region. Later the place sank into neglect, but was restored and reopened in the late 1990s, helping to rejuvenate the town, and is now famous for its romantic accommodations, elegant grounds, and sophisticated dining.
After she died, Colter’s name sank into obscurity. But her reputation has been revived to great acclaim. At the Grand Canyon and elsewhere, her contributions are recognized, interpreted, and celebrated to an ever wider public. Books, videos, and articles about this remarkable artist have helped spread her fame, assuring Colter a permanent place in American history.
Arnold Berke is the senior editor of Preservation magazine at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.