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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Mary Jane Colter

By Kristy McCaffrey

Mary Elizabeth 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.

Lookout Studio
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.

From inside Hermit's Rest
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.

Bright Angel Lodge
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.

The Watchtower
Photo of my dad from inside the Watchtower.
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.

Hopi House
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.

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
My mom, myself and my daughter Kate
at Phantom Ranch in 2011.
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.

The La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona ~ then and now.
In 1948, Colter retired to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and passed away in 1958 at the age of 88.

Work Cited
Grattan, Virginia L. Mary Colter: Builder Upon The Red Earth. Grand Canyon Natural History Association, 1992.


I welcome comments and apologize in advance for not responding in a timely manner. I’m currently in Baja Mexico viewing the calving lagoons of the Pacific Gray Whale, and anticipate having no internet access. A small price to pay for interacting with these magnificent and gentle giants. My very best to everyone ~ Kristy


  1. Mary certainly had an extraordinary talent. I like that she kept the architecture true to the area instead of what was popular at the time. Ever notice how the people who make mammoth achievements seem to always have two things: a passion for their work and people who depend on them for support? Just thinking about how many times I've seen that combination.
    I hope you have a wonderful time exploring whales and enjoying nature.

    1. Hi Sarah!
      Yes, I think you're right about Mary having to care for her mother and sister. That always motivated her to work. And she made a way with her art despite early opposition, mostly from her father.

      And I had a wonderful time with the whales!!

  2. Hello Kristy. I agree with Sarah there seems to be a common thread with those who achieve great success, passion for what they do and having to provide for those whom they support. Mary was very fortunate to see her dreams come true and I'm sure she had her share of critics since she was stepping into a man's world in that era from both men and woman. Looks like she is not the only one seeking adventures, how awesome that you will be viewing the birthing of the Gray Whales. A memory I'm sure you will treasure. There are so may wonderful things in this world to see. :)

    1. Hi Barb,
      We must all follow our passion, no matter the detractors. That can be difficult, especially for women and especially over a hundred years ago. What I found most intriguing was what people thought of her. People who didn't like her described her one way, and her fans a completely different way. But she was always the same woman, I suspect. Thanks for stopping by. And it was beyond a privilege to spend time with the whales. The world is truly a special place if we only look.

  3. Thank you Kristy for remembering such a pioneer in the field and the contribution women made in the world. Mary sounds like the kind of professional that stood her ground and created beauty from the world around her.

    Enjoy your time with the gentle giants.
    Doris McCraw/Angela Raines

    1. Hi Doris! When I read about women like Mary, I know that we can create historical women who made things happen because here is a real-life woman who did just that. And she followed her instincts about design, trying to maintain a continuity with the landscape around her. I applaud her for that, because I'm sure there were many who said, "No, you can't do that." Why yes I can sir!! Cheers.

  4. Kristy,

    I so enjoy the armchair travels you take me on. I've never been to the Grand Canyon, so any time you share stories about your love of the Grand Canyon, it's an extra special treat for me.

    1. Hi Kaye,
      What a nice thing to say. I love how we can all share our knowledge. There is no end to it! Take care.