GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter was, by many accounts, a persnickety, bossy perfectionist and creative visionary who wasn't afraid to persuade key National Park Service staff, construction workers or Fred Harvey Company executives into doing things her way. As a result of her relentless ways, the renowned Fred Harvey Company architect created some of the most significant structures in the American Southwest.
Two of the buildings designed by Colter - Hermits Rest and Lookout Studio - turn 100 this year. The two distinctive structures are both popular stops for Grand Canyon visitors as well as students of historic and rustic architecture.
Colter was famous for her habit of conjuring background stories for her building designs and her personal attention to even the tiniest of details. She is recognized as one of the most important architects of the last century, and she is widely admired for her use of native materials and designing buildings that blend perfectly with their natural surroundings.
"Although Lookout Studio and Hermits Rest have been architectural anchors of the Grand Canyon for a century, their timeless quality is abundantly apparent against the backdrop of the ancient walls of the Grand Canyon," said Bruce Brossman, regional director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts. "In large part because of the National Park Service's as well as Xanterra's commitment to historic preservation, we are fortunate that visitors to the Canyon can observe these structures and hopefully appreciate the significant roles they played in bringing tourism to the American Southwest."
A National Historic Landmark, Hermits Rest is located eight miles to the west of Grand Canyon Village. Colter's back story was that the log and rock structure was the secret hideaway of a fictional hermit who wandered through the region, traveling along a trail into the Canyon that is now called Hermit's Trail.
The structure, which looks like a rustically constructed stone house, features a gift shop and a small quick-service food outlet, and it is a popular rest area for motorcoach passengers, cyclists and other Grand Canyon visitors. The building features a large front porch, where visitors today relax and take in the vistas, and a large main room with a massive fireplace capped by a 20-foot-high arched hearth. The coup de grace is what appears to be years of soot and smoke residue surrounding the hearth. This was added prior to the 1914 opening to give the appearance of a well lived-in space. Furniture was constructed from tree trunks and a bearskin rug was positioned on the stone floor. A warm, cheery fire greets guests in the cooler months today.
Colter's other building that year was Lookout Studio. Built out of native stone and situated right in Grand Canyon Village just to the west of Bright Angel Lodge, Colter found her inspiration from the natural landscape. The multi-level building - designed to blend seamlessly with the canyon layers and edge - seems an extension of the Grand Canyon itself. Colter designed the oddly shaped roofline to reflect the natural shapes of the Canyon rock and included a chimney made of irregularly shaped rocks to allow soil and debris to collect and native bushes to grow between the cracks, further blurring the line between building and nature. It was designed and built to compete with the Kolb Studio just a short distance down the rim at the head of Ralph Cameron's Bright Angel toll trail.
Lookout Studio is still used today as a gift shop that sells photography and books related to the Grand Canyon, rock and fossil specimens collected from outside the park and traditional souvenirs.
More about Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter
Apparently, no one ever told Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter that being a woman in the late 1800s and early 1900s meant that she could not do certain things, like become an architect. She was hired in 1902 at the age of 33 by the Fred Harvey Company and continued to work for the company for 46 years.
Although she was a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, she earned her own significant place in the world of American architecture by incorporating history and an appreciation for archaeology into her designs.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1869, Colter lived in Texas, Colorado and Minnesota before receiving her training at the California School of Design in San Francisco. Her first job for the Fred Harvey Company, in 1902, was to design the interior of the Indian Building next to the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque. She developed a reputation for her innovative use of natural materials in forms reflective of nature, an architectural style that became known as "rustic architecture." That style is also called "parkitecture" in reference to national park buildings.
Colter's professional talents extended far beyond architecture. She conceived and designed Mimbreno china that was used in the Santa Fe Railway dining cars and is still being used today in the El Tovar dining room. The artwork on the china is based on patterns found in ruins in New Mexico.
Colter retired from Fred Harvey Company in 1948 and died in 1958 at the age of 88.
More like this story
- The art and architecture of Mary Jane Colter: Hermit's Rest
- Hopi House installs Mary Colter timeline and interpretive exhibits showcasing top-floor "Nampeyo's Apartment" and "Hopi Door"
- The art and architecture of Mary Jane Colter: Desert View Watchtower
- Mary Colter joins sister car Fred Harvey at Grand Canyon Railway
- Hermit Road open to private vehicles, allowing visitors a unique trip to the rim