The Grand Canyon’s sublime beauty made it an instant tourist attraction once the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (AT&SF) Railway completed a branch line from Williams, Arizona (west of Flagstaff), to the Grand Canyon's south rim in 1901, thereby opening up one of the seven wonders of the natural world to tourism on a grand scale. Formed over a period of 17 million years by the swift currents of the Colorado River, the 277-mile-long canyon is the deepest gorge in the world at 6,093 feet.
Although rudimentary tourist accommodations began to appear along the Grand Canyon’s south rim in the 1880s, including the 1896 Grand Canyon Hotel (now demolished), it was not until the railroad arrived that development began in earnest. The AT&SF Railway formed an agreement with the Fred Harvey Company in the 1870s to allow the concessionaire to operate station hotels and restaurants in order to lure passenger traffic from other rail lines. By 1900, hotels and restaurants known as Harvey Houses had gained a reputation for comfort, consistent quality, and efficient service. Company managers also provided areas for the sale of native arts and crafts. Theorizing that an image and ambiance conducive to marketing these products could be realized through distinctive architecture, the AT&SF and the Harvey Company hired Mary Jane Elizabeth Colter, a then little-known architect and designer, to implement this vision . While she wasn’t the only architect to work at the Grand Canyon’s south rim (her contemporary, Charles Whittlesey, designed the El Tovar Hotel in 1904–1905), its development is inextricably linked to Colter.
Pittsburgh native Mary Colter lived in Texas, Colorado, and Minnesota before relocating to the west coast to study at the California School of Design (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Employment was scarce after graduation and she accepted a job teaching high school mechanical arts in St. Paul. In 1901 Colter received an offer from the Harvey Company to arrange the interior of the Indian Building, a store for Native American crafts, adjacent to the new Alvarado Hotel (both now demolished) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For this commission, in addition to creating displays for Native wares, Colter developed a special ambience that introduced visitors to the American Southwest. This included hiring an anthropologist to build a replica Hopi religious altar as part of the store interior. Her work at the Alvarado attracted the attention of Harvey Company executives, who commissioned Colter to collaborate on the interior of El Tovar Hotel’s cocktail lounge and to design the Hopi House (1904–1905), a Native American gift shop to be located across from the El Tovar in the Grand Canyon. Five years later, the Fred Harvey Company offered Colter a permanent position as its chief architect, designing and decorating its hotels, restaurants, and train stations across the Southwest, a position she held until her retirement in 1948.
Colter had long since abandoned the classically inspired, European architectural paradigm of her training, choosing instead to utilize local materials (including stone, rough-sawn lumber, and peeled logs) to create dramatic forms rooted in the Southwest’s Native American and Spanish heritage. At Bright Angel Lodge (1935), Colter specified a stacked stone fireplace, the layers of rocks recreating the semblance of the canyon’s geological strata, personally supervising the collection and assemblage of stones. The men’s employee dormitory in Grand Canyon Village, (Victor Hall, 1936) features herringbone-patterned wood siding while Colter Hall (1937), the women’s dormitory, combines stone and wood.
Colter designed several other buildings for the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railway, notably Phantom Ranch (1922) at the bottom of the canyon, the El Navajo Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico (1923), and La Posada Inn in Winslow, Arizona (1930), in addition to interiors at the Painted Desert Inn (1947) in Arizona and the La Fonda Hotel (1929, in collaboration with John Gaw Meem) in Santa Fe. While these are all fine examples of her work, those in Grand Canyon National Park—the Hopi House, Hermit's Rest (1914), Lookout Studio (1914), and the Desert View Watchtower (1931–1932)—are her most outstanding buildings. Informed by her sensitivity to archaeology, culture, history, and landscape, these buildings are significant not only as a major component of the Grand Canyon District, but as a touchstone for developing the rustic architectural aesthetic that became known as “Parkitecture” and guided the design of structures throughout the national park system for the next half century.
Although President Theodore Roosevelt created the Grand Canyon Game Preserve in 1906 and designated it a national monument in 1908, it was not until 1919 that Woodrow Wilson signed the Grand Canyon National Park into existence. The newly formed National Park Service (NPS) assumed administrative duties from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) that year. While under the aegis of the USFS, landscape architect Frank Waugh developed a master plan in 1918 that would unify the extant structures with new planned facilities to accommodate the growing number of visitors at Grand Canyon Village. Daniel Hull, architect and director of the NPS Landscape Engineering Division, modified the plan in 1924. In the interwar years, NPS or AT&SF staff architects designed several buildings in the village. In 1987, the historic districts of Grand Canyon Village and the Mary Colter buildings, along with five individual structures (El Tovar Hotel, Grand Canyon Railroad Depot, Grand Canyon Lodge, Grand Canyon Park Operations Building, and Grand Canyon Power House), were designated National Historic Landmarks.
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