Friday, November 25, 2016

Mary Colter--Designer of the Grand Canyon

One of the truly amazing parts of visiting the South Rim of Grand Canyon is the many historical buildings that pepper the beautiful landscape. While I’d visited the canyon in my childhood, I had no recollection of the buildings from that trip. It was only this past summer when my husband, son, and I visited again that I realized many of those historic buildings were designed by the same person in the early 1900s…and that person was a woman, one Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter.

Mary E. J. Colter

Mary Colter was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in April 1869. Her family moved around the country in her young life but eventually settled in St. Paul, Minnesota. She graduated high school at age 14, and after her father’s death a few years later, went on to study architecture and design in California at a time when women weren’t known to follow such pursuits. While a student, she worked with a local architecture firm to get hands-on experience, and after graduation, taught her newfound skills for several years back in St. Paul.

In 1901, Colter put those skills to work in a new way when she landed a summer job decorating the Indian Building (a building where Native American artisans could sell their wares) of the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The building was owned by the Fred Harvey Company, and this summer job led Colter to work full-time as architect and designer for the company for the next thirty-eight years.

El Tovar Hotel
© Jennifer Uhlarik

In 1902, construction began on the $250,000 Grand Canyon luxury hotel, El Tovar, which was designed by Charles Whittlesey. Colter was given the task of decorating the hotel. At the same time the 95-room guesthouse was being built, Colter designed another Indian Building for Fred Harvey Company, Hopi House, which is situated right beside the iconic hotel. She modeled the style after traditional Hopi-style architecture, but used reclaimed or found materials from the area, such as Civil War-era telegraph poles and rails, for the construction. The Western Union rails were used as hidden supports for the building while the poles were left exposed as part of the building’s native charm and character. The exterior of the three-story building was constructed in a combination of stones and adobe. El Tovar and Hopi House opened in January 1905, within weeks of each other, and Hopi House is still an active place for the Native American community to sell their jewelry and other handmade items.

Hopi House
© Jennifer Uhlarik   

Her next major architectural accomplishments were Hermit’s Rest and Lookout Studio. Both opened in 1914. Hermit’s Rest was made to look like a naturally-occurring rock formation, except for the stone chimney that juts out from the top of it. Inside is a magnificent stone fireplace. Colter was said to have personally rubbed soot into the stones of the fireplace in order to give it an aged, well-used appearance. Lookout Studio provides a wonderful view of the canyon and Bright Angel trail, and Colter’s innovative architecture made it seem as if the building were part of the canyon itself.

By 1922, Colter was on to her next Grand Canyon project—designing the various structures that compose Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of Grand Canyon. She dreamed up a series of small cabins made of local fieldstone and rough-hewn wood. When she presented the plans to the Fred Harvey Company, they were thrilled with the design and said they would name them Roosevelt’s Chalets. Colter promptly snatched up her plans and said they couldn’t use them unless they went with the name she’d chosen for the new lodgings. The company conceded the point, and Phantom Ranch was born. And as an added bonus, Colter’s no-nonsense style design on these buildings became the standard for all National Park architecture across the country.

Probably her most famous design feat was Grand Canyon’s Desert View Watchtower, completed in 1932. The seventy-foot-tall building stands on a concrete foundation, has a steel structure, and is overlaid with local sandstone. It was created to look like ancient Native American lookout towers Colter had seen in other places. Beside it is a smaller round building meant to resemble a kiva, or a circular room where many Puebloan Indian groups would conduct spiritual rituals. The interior was decorated with traditional Hopi paintings and artwork, many created by Fred Katobie. Today, the buildings are used as tourist lookouts with unique views of the canyon, as well as gift shops.

Colter’s next project was Bright Angel Lodge, opened in 1935. This lodge was built to replace other structures that had used the rim space since 1901 but weren’t holding up well. Again, Colter used her now-famous National Park Rustic style in building the lodge. Inside, she created a fireplace that mimicked the strata of the canyon. She collected river rock from the Colorado River, plus each different layer of stone represented in Grand Canyon, all the way to Kaibab limestone at the rim, then meticulously placed each stone in its proper order on the face of the fireplace. Another interesting feature of the Bright Angel Lodge is the History Room, which has preserved Harvey Girl uniforms, china from the El Tovar Hotel, and many other historical pieces of the South Rim.

Her final two designs were Victor Hall and Colter Hall, opened in 1936 and 1937 respectively. These two structures were, and are, used for employee dormitories. They were crafted from local stone, and located near the various restaurants, retail stores, and hotels.

In addition to the buildings she designed for Fred Harvey Company around Grand Canyon, she also renovated many historic buildings and hotels in the southwestern states, as well as designed Mimbreno china and flatware for use by the Santa Fe Railroad. The dishes were discontinued after Amtrak bought out the Santa Fe Railroad in 1971, and are now highly sought-after collector’s pieces.

Colter retired in 1948 after a long and productive career, but she left a legacy of beautiful and unique buildings—both her own designs and those she decorated. Over five million visitors to Grand Canyon still enjoy her handiwork today.

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won five writing competitions and finaled in two other competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and four fur children.


Ride into adventures alongside nine determined women of yesteryear whose acts of compassion and bravery attract male attention. Marcy helps displaced Indians. Emmy tends wounds at Fort Snelling. Ronnie stows away on a cattle drive. Daisy disguises herself as a Pony Express rider. Elinor becomes an abolitionist. Mae tames wild horses. Hannah gets help for accident victims. Lucy’s curiosity unnerves criminals. Kate nurses soldiers on the battlefield. Will real dangers douse the sparks of love?


  1. Wow, she literally designed the Grand Canyon. This was very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Yes she did! And the truly fascinating part is to see her innovative work still thriving today.

  2. Fascinating story, Jennifer about a very interesting, enterprising woman!