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Mary Colter

Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter was born in 1869 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. Upon her father's death, she convinced her mother to send her to San Francisco to study architecture at the California School of Design. She then taught art, drafting, and architecture until in 1902, Minnie Harvey Huckel, recommended her to decorate the interior of the new Indian Building at the Alvarado Hotel, the Harvey House in Albuquerque. At the time, shoppers asked the clerk to see any goods they were interested in. Colter's revolutionary idea was to spread the crafts about the room for all to see, touch, and fondle.

hopi houseIn 1905, she designed the Hopi House at the Grand Canyon. Up to this time, railroads usually built the tourist facilities in the National Parks, and they copied European designs. The El Tovar looks like a Norwegian hunting lodge. Colter said, no: let's make the buildings look like they belong in the southwest. The Park Service agreed with this idea, and thus was born "Park Rustic", the use of stone and weathered wood to build National Park facilities.

Colter was a chain-smoking perfectionist. When building the Watchtower, which many consider her masterpiece, she spent weeks flying about the Southwest looking for ideas, then her personal driver took her to sites, then she built a clay model of her concept. She was not ready to build, however, until she erected a 70 foot tower on the prospective site to check out the view. When she left the construction site for a few days and her boys kept on working without her, she made them take all the work down when she got back. The rocks weren't exactly where they were supposed to be.WATCHTOWER

Many of Colter's buildings have been torn down or renovated. In Grand Canyon National Park there are eight of her buildings and several of her art pieces. The largest Colter collection extant in the world.

Event Year Notes
Born 1869  
Decorate Indian Building at Alvarado 1902 demolished 1970
Hopi House 1905 Grand Canyon
El Tovar Cocktail Lounge 1905 only blue roof beams left
Hired permanent position 1910  
El Ortiz 1910 demolished 1943
Union Station Kansas City 1913  
Lookout 1914 Grand Canyon
Hermit Rest 1914 Grand Canyon
Painted Desert Exhibit 1915-1916 Panama California International Exposition in San Diego
Indian Garden 1916 Never built
Women granted the right to vote! 1920 One of the most powerful women in the Fred Harvey and Santa Fe Railroad Companies can now vote
Phantom Ranch (click to see a video of the Ranch) 1922 53 years old at time
El Navajo 1923 Gallup
Union Station Chicago 1925  
La Fonda 1929 Santa Fe: In wheelchair at time
La Posada 1930 Turned to offices 1959: now being restored: Winslow
Watchtower 1933 Grand Canyon
Bright Angel Lodge 1935 Grand Canyon
Victor Hall 1936 Grand Canyon
Mimbreno dishes 1937 sold at El Tovar
Colter Hall 1937 Grand Canyon
Union station St. Louis 1939 Restaurant and cocktail lounge
Cosina Cantina in Alvarado 1940 demolished 1970
Painted Desert Inn 1947 Interior
Retired 1948  
La Cantinita at La Fonda 1949 Santa Fe
Died 1958  

Visit the new Mary Colter Scavenger Hunt page.

A Grand Canyon National Park podcast on Mary Colter.


Berke, Arnold. Mary Colter: Architect of the Soutwest.

Grattan, Virginia l. Mary Colter: Builder up on the Red Earth.

Mary Jane Colter: House Made of Dawn. Karen A. Bartlett director Phoenix: KAET, 1997.