National Trust for Historic Preservation Library, University of Maryland
Women of FXFOWLE
By Meredith Gaglio, Columbia University
Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (1869–1958) was an American architect and interior designer whose distinct architectural style was steeped in the imagery, culture, and landscape of the Southwest. As the primary architect for the Fred Harvey Company, she designed hotels, shops, and rest areas along one of the major routes of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway from 1902 until her retirement in 1948. Colter’s most well-known projects include the buildings she created in Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park—the Hopi House, Hermit’s Rest, Lookout Studio, and Desert View Watchtower—all of which demonstrate a commitment to regionally appropriate, site-specific architecture and to a desire to integrate Native American construction techniques and design motifs within her work.
Early Life and Education
Born on April 4, 1869, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she was the daughter of Irish immigrants: William Colter, a merchant, and Rebecca Crozier Colter, a milliner. She experienced a somewhat transient early childhood, moving with her family from Pennsylvania to Texas and Colorado before finally settling in Saint Paul, Minnesota, at the age of eleven.11Virginia L. Grattan, Mary Colter: Builder Upon the Red Earth (Grand Canyon, Ariz.: Grand Canyon Historical Association, 1992; originally published 1980): 2.
A relatively young city, Saint Paul in the 1880s was a place of dynamic economic growth, physical expansion, and cultural progress, yet it still retained vestiges of its frontier heritage. In particular, a population of Dakota peoples on the Lower Sioux Indian Reservation about one hundred miles west of Saint Paul served as a reminder of Minnesota’s past tenants and, perhaps, the Dakota War of 1862, after which much of the tribe was forced to leave the newly formed state. These two apparently incongruous aspects of late-nineteenth century Saint Paul seem to have affected the architect in a lasting way. When an uncle presented the Colter family with a series of brightly colored sketches procured from Sioux prisoners who had been interned at Fort Keogh, Montana, in the 1870s, Colter’s curiosity toward Native American culture emerged—an interest that would blossom into a lifelong passion. Through her art courses and other studies at Saint Paul High School, she was also exposed to the new artistic developments in the city, elements linked to the Arts and Crafts movement that she would come to embrace.22Arnold Berke, Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002), 27. The impact of these Sioux drawings on Colter should not be underestimated: in 1956, she donated the set to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, calling the sketches her “most priceless and precious possession.” Despite the seminal role that Saint Paul’s progressive culture played in her early education, the city offered her few opportunities for further artistic training after she graduated from high school in 1883. Following William Colter’s death just three years later, Rebecca Colter moved Mary and her sister to Oakland, California, so that Mary might attend the recently founded California School of Design.
Established by the San Francisco Art Association in 1874, the California School of Design, one of the first art schools in the West, sought to provide its students with a comprehensive art education. Colter’s coursework emphasized drawing and painting, but it was an apprenticeship at a local architecture firm, as well as the lively discourse among San Francisco architects restless for a new Western aesthetic in the late 1880s, that undoubtedly played a role in her growing enthusiasm for architecture and design.
Colter’s time in California was brief: when she graduated from art school in 1891, she returned with her family to Saint Paul and accepted a teaching position at the Stout Manual Training School in nearby Menomonie, Wisconsin.33James David Henderson, “Meals by Fred Harvey”: A Phenomenon of the American West (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1969), 20.
By 1895, Colter found employment in Saint Paul as a drawing instructor at the progressive Mechanic Arts High School, where the innovative educational program permitted students to pursue courses in both academic subjects and technical arts; those students won design awards at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and later at the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair.44Berke, Mary Colter: Architect, 31–33. Berke suggests that Colter may have attended the World’s Columbian Exposition, where she would have observed and admired Sophia Hayden’s Women’s Building. He further speculates that the 1904 students’ designs, which included Mission Style furnishings, were very much influenced by their teacher. Besides being a respected professor and counselor to her students, she was very active in Saint Paul’s cultural circles as a lecturer at the University of Minnesota extension school, a book reviewer and editor for the Saint Paul Daily Globe, a student of archaeology and history, and a metal craft practitioner.
These activities brought Colter considerable recognition in turn-of-the-century Saint Paul, which may have led to her employment with the Fred Harvey Company—a reputable service-industry organization committed to providing rail passengers with high-quality, well-prepared food and clean, comfortable lodging at a series of impeccably appointed restaurant-hotels, known as Harvey Houses.55Henderson, “Meals by Fred Harvey”, 20. Some scholars believe that Fred Harvey’s daughter, Minnie Harvey Huckel, probably met Colter in Saint Paul, perhaps at the New Century Club, a women’s civic group of which the designer was a member, and where she lectured on topics such as “The Utilitarian Basis of the Aesthetic” (1900) and “The Red Craftsman” (1907). Huckel, aware that Colter often incorporated references to Native American arts and crafts in her work, may have suggested to her father and brother that they hire Colter to produce an interior design for the Harvey Company’s newest project, the Hotel Alvarado Indian Building, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.66Berke, Mary Colter: Architect, 55. Both Berke and documentary filmmaker Karen Bartlett prefer this explanation, a marked turn from Virginia Grattan’s interpretation, put forward in her 1980 biography of Colter, in which she suggests that the architect’s surprising affiliation with the company emerged from a chance encounter between Colter and the manager of a Harvey gift shop in San Francisco; see Grattan, Mary Colter: Builder. Whatever the circumstances, in 1902 Colter started working for the Fred Harvey Company, where she built a career that would direct the rest of her professional life.
From 1902 through 1948, Colter served as the primary architect and designer for the Fred Harvey Company, completing twenty-one hotels, curio shops, and rest areas along one of the major routes of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway77Grattan, Mary Colter, 125–26.—architecture that, despite its inherent commercial purpose, transcended the kitsch of a burgeoning tourism industry to capture the mystery and romance of the American Southwest. Some characteristic features of her designs were tiny windows allowing shafts of light to accent red sandstone walls; a low ceiling of saplings and twigs resting on peeled log beams; a hacienda enclosing an intimate courtyard; a rough boulder structure, built into the earth as if part of a natural rock formation. These details shaped American visions of the Southwest for generations to come.
All twenty-one of Colter’s projects reveal her acute understanding of and commitment to both the natural and cultural landscape in which she worked, as well as an adaptable, multifaceted aesthetic. Through her interior designs, Colter demonstrated a spirited irreverence in her compositions, offering a clever demonstration of her own inventive Arts and Crafts sensibility; for example, in the Indian Building and Museum adjacent to the Hotel Alvarado (1902), she situated Native American crafts within a turn-of-the-century domestic framework through a lively pastiche of exotic artifacts, salable handicrafts, and Mission-style furniture.
Meanwhile, in the projects she termed “re-creations,” such as the Hopi House (1905) and Desert View Watchtower (1933) in Grand Canyon National Park, she almost devoutly “follow[ed] quite closely in general architectural features [the projects’] great prototypes.”88Mary Colter, Manual for Drivers and Guides Descriptive of the Indian Watchtower at Desert View and Its Relation, Architecturally, to the Prehistoric Ruins of the Southwest (Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz.: Fred Harvey Company, 1933), 13. Employing indigenous builders, demanding the use of local materials when possible, and attending to minute historical details obtained through research expeditions to various Native American historical ruins, Colter strove for stylistic verisimilitude without attempting to make, as she put it, a “copy,” “replica,” or “reproduction.”99Ibid.
In her smaller-scaled tourist architecture at the Grand Canyon, Colter introduced more innovative designs, including those for Hermit’s Rest and Lookout Studio (both 1914), places for Canyon visitors to stop that were intended to be “hidden under the rim,” according to Colter.1010Ibid., 11. In Lookout Studio, she created a single-level, horizontal structure of rusticated Kaibab limestone that mimicked the stratification of the eroded rock below, ensuring unobstructed views from other promontories by means of architectural camouflage and thus allowing the innate drama of the Grand Canyon to enrich tourists’ experiences.
Other Harvey projects drew Colter away from the Grand Canyon, giving her the opportunity to design station-hotels along the Sante Fe Railway line, through which her architectural vision could manifest at a greater scale. Of the El Navajo Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico (1923), she mused, “I have always longed to carry out the true Indian idea, to plan a hotel strictly Indian with none of the conventional modern motifs.”1111Colter, quoted in the New Mexico State Tribune, May 25, 1923, in Claire Shepherd-Lanier, “Trading on Tradition: Mary Jane Colter and the Romantic Appeal of Harvey House Architecture,” Journal of the Southwest 38, no. 2 (Summer, 1996): 183. probably referring to the ersatz Native Americana common to so many of the inferior hotels arising in the Southwest after World War I. Both the El Navajo and La Posada (1930) hotels (in Gallup, New Mexico, and Winslow, Arizona, respectively), demonstrated Colter’s engagement with regional design issues and evoked the originality and wit of her earlier projects.
Colter retired to Santa Fe in 1948 and died there in 1958. Frank Waters, the great historian and expert on Native Americans of the Southwest, in his book Masked Gods: Navaho and Pueblo Ceremonialism (1950), recalled Mary Jane Colter as “an incomprehensible woman in pants” riding horseback, sketching ruins, and meticulously studying construction details.1212Frank Waters, Masked Gods: Navaho and Pueblo Ceremonialism (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1950), 111. Although her contemporaries often called her a “decorator,” her projects, of which four—Hopi House, Hermit’s Rest, Lookout Studio, and Desert View Watchtower—have been designated National Historic Landmarks, suggest that “architect” would be a more accurate and enduring description.