Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Mary Elizabeth Colter: American Architect and Designer

Once again, the beginning of the school year took over my life for a couple of months. Now that we have settled into a routine, I have some time to continue the exploration of the cache of incredible female artists, photographers, and architects of which you are unfamiliar!

Mary Elizabeth Colter
Let's examine the compelling life and work of Mary Elizabeth Colter, an architect and designer working during the early twentieth century in the West. Colter was one of the few female American architects in her day. She was the designer of a number landmark buildings and spaces for the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railroad, notably in Grand Canyon National Park. Colter's work had enormous influence as she helped to create a style that blended Spanish Colonial Revival and Mission Revival architecture with Native American motifs and rustic elements, that became popular throughout the Southwest.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to William H. Colter, an Irish immigrant, and Rebecca Crozier, she moved with her family to Colorado and to Texas before settling down in St. Paul, Minnesota, which she considered to be her home. Colter graduated from high school in St. Paul at the age of 14.  After her father died in 1886, Colter attended the California School of Design (now the San Francisco Art Institute), and apprenticed with a local architectural firm. She then taught art, drafting, and architecture in St. Paul for some years, at the Mechanic Arts High School for fifteen years and lectured at the University Extension School.
In 1901, Colter met Minnie Harvey Huckel, daughter of founder Fred Harvey, owner of the well-known rail stop Harvey House restaurants and pioneer of cultural tourism. The 46-year relationship with Harvey began with her task to decorate the Indian Building at the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque (unfortunately, since demolished).
Colter designed the interior of the museum at the Alvarado Hotel,
pictured in the center of the above photo, known as the Indian Building.
Colter began working full-time for the Fred Harvey Company in 1910, promoted from the role of interior designer to architect. For the next 38 years, she served as chief architect and decorator for the company, often working in rugged conditions to complete 21 landmark hotels, commercial lodges, and public spaces for the Fred Harvey Company, by that time, run by the founder's sons. She and the Harvey Company civilized travel across the Southwest by providing what it lacked-restaurant efficiency, palatable food, clean-cut and primly dressed pretty young women, high-end tourism, and quality souvenirs. Anthropologists on his staff located Native American art and artifacts such as pottery, jewelry, and leather work and merchandisers designed goods based on those artifacts. In strategic locations, Colter produced commercial architecture with striking decor based on concern for authenticity, floor plans were calculated for smooth user experience and commercial function and she employed a playful sense of the dramatic inside and out.
Travel pamphlets designed by Mary Elizabeth Colter
The Santa Fe railroad bought the La Fonda hotel on the plaza of the old city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1925 and leased it to the Harvey Company to operate. For a major expansion, Colter was assigned to do the interior design and decoration. She hired artists and artisans from the nearby pueblos to make the furniture. Native American styles were employed in hand-crafted chandeliers, copper and tin lighting fixtures, tiles and textiles, and other ornamentation. La Fonda became the most successful of the Harvey House hotels with its striking blend of Pueblo and Spanish artistic influences, today known as the Santa Fe Style.
Mary Elizabeth Colter
Hopi House
Grand Canyon, South Rim
ca. 1905
Mary Elizabeth Colter
The Watchtower, with its construction hoist still attached, circa 1933
ca. Begun 1932
Colter created a series of remarkable works in the Grand Canyon National Park, most located on the South Rim: the 1905 Hopi House, the 1914 Hermit's Rest and observatory Lookout Studio, and the 1932 Desert View Watchtower, a 70-foot tall rock tower with a hidden steel structure, as well as the 1935 Bright Angel Lodge complex, and the 1922 Phantom Ranch buildings at the bottom of the canyon. Colter decorated, but did not design, the park's El Tovar Hotel. In 1987, the Mary Jane Colter Buildings, as a group, were listed as a National Historic Landmark. (She also designed the 1936 Victor Hall for men, and the 1937 Colter Hall, a dormitory for Fred Harvey's women employees.)
Colter worked in a wide array of styles including Pueblo Revival, Spanish Colonial Revival, Mission Revival architecture, Streamline Moderne, American Craftsman, and Arts and Crafts Movement styles, often synthesizing several together evocatively. In addition, Colter's work is credited with inspiring the Pueblo Deco style. She was one of the first architects to give buildings a site-specific sense of place.  
Mary Elizabeth Colter
Art Deco Ashtray Design
Colter was a chain-smoking, Stetson-wearing dynamo, a tough-minded woman in a man's world who knew how to negotiate for and insist on what was most important to her. The architect was a stickler for authentic materials and motifs, which she deployed with theatrical flair. cIn an economic climate where Colter's male counterparts earned up to ten times more for their efforts, her career was quite successful. Harvey was an innovative tourism entrepreneur who also tapped into the postcard publishing business that featured photographs of his 84 hospitality facilities, those "Harvey Houses," which went a long way to expose Colter's work to the general public. Many of her female contemporaries, including those who were apprenticed with the equality-minded and internationally famous Frank Lloyd Wright did not fare as well.
Though operated by the Fred Harvey company, the buildings Colter designed were built and owned by the Santa Fe Railway, which produced construction blueprints based on Colter's floor plans and elevation drawings. The Santa Fe Railroad's chief architect, E.A. Harrison, signed off on her work, which later may have unfairly diminished her role. While sometimes referred to as the company decorator, she always called herself (correctly) "Harvey architect and decorator."
By the early 1960s, Mary Colter was virtually unknown. In recent years books about her have brought her name back into the consciousness as a brilliant American place-maker. The art critic Robert Hughes once called Colter "one of the pioneers of the American theme-park mentality." This is somewhat true—in some ways she was a precursor to Disney, an architect of entertainment. But her holistic approach to design and construction makes lavish popular theme parks seem like superficial hodgepoge. Like the centerpiece castle in Disneyland, Colter's Watchtower was a composite of several sources; however, unlike Snow White's castle, the Watchtower could be mistaken for an actual artifact from the past.
Mary Colter retired to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1948. Four of her Grand Canyon National Park buildings are protected within the Mary Jane Colter National Historic Landmark District, 11 are on the National Register of Historic Places. 
Mary Colter,
ca. 1919
For more information about her Grand Canyon structures, see, National Park Service Women's History Month entry. 
San Diego Reader, Pioneering Women Architects of the Wild West,  Ruth Newell, June 7, 2011,, accessed November 2, 2016.
Curbed, Meet Mary Colter The Architect Who Conjured the Romance of the American West, Jeff Book,, July 29, 2015, accessed November 2, 2016.
Friends of BNSF Railway Company,, accessed November 2, 2016.