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Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter

Born: 4-4-1869 - Died: 1-8-1058

By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

To the modern traveler visiting New Mexico "Santa Fe style" conjures many images but early in the 20th Century, it signified a new American expression of urban architecture and design. Mary Colter was at the forefront of the mission and Pueblo revival style, prevalent in New Mexico today.

Although born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on April 4, 1869 to Irish immigrants, Colter considered St. Paul, Minnesota to be her hometown. During her early childhood her family moved from Pennsylvania to Colorado and Texas, finally settling in St. Paul in the 1880s, where her father worked as a city employee. At an early age Mary showed an interest in art and a strong will to pursue that interest. She convinced her parents to allow her to attend the California School of Design in San Francisco after graduating from high school.

The school was founded in 1874 and catered mostly to women. In fact, a photograph of her classmates reveals an all women class. Her teacher, Arthur F. Mathews, had a profound influence on Colter's architectural direction. Not only was she taught the basics of art, she apprenticed in an architect's office where she learned both design and execution from an active architect. Within the two venues she honed many of the skills she later applied to her more than 40 years as a Fred Harvey Company interior decorator and architect.

During Colter's student days in San Francisco, the country was in the midst of discovering its own architectural style, one that would reflect both an American vision of beauty in its buildings and sensitivity to its environment. The Arts and Crafts Movement, described as "a look of dark, handmade natural woods and homey handcrafted Victorian clutter," reached its height in the late 19th century and early 20th. Within that movement were several unique American styles: Spanish Mission, Prairie and California Craftsman. The Craftsman Style emphasized exquisite cabinetry and joinery, as well as truly appreciating the craftsman's skill and raising that skill to the level of Art while the mission and prairie styles adopted historic and romantic imagery that spoke to the American fascination with its past.

Between 1915 and 1930 two variants of the mission style were most often manifested in Southwestern architecture: Mission-Spanish Revival and Pueblo-Spanish Revival. Both of these architectural expressions found their inspiration in the old California Spanish missions of the late 1700s and the Southwest's prehistoric pueblos. These two design principles were integrated into Colter's subsequent work. She has been described as "the quintessential practitioner of the Arts and Crafts Movement."

Upon graduating from the California School of Design, Mary Colter did not immediately become part of the architectural establishment. Instead, she returned home to teach for 15 years at the Mechanic Arts High School in St. Paul. Finally in 1902, she became a working architect/designer, thanks to the Fred Harvey Company. The company had an exclusive contract with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF) to provide hotels and food service to travelers between Chicago and Los Angeles. In addition to a clean room and tasty food, elegantly presented, Fred Harvey brought an awareness of the culture and history of the Southwest to travelers.

Accounts vary regarding her introduction to officials of the company. According to one account it was during a vacation to San Francisco that Mary, visiting with a friend who worked in a Fred Harvey gift shop, expressed an interest in working for the Fred Harvey Company and managed to make it happen. Another more plausible version was credited to the intercession of Minnie Harvey Huckel, daughter of Fred Harvey. The story goes that Minnie convinced her husband, John Frederick Huckel, a company vice-president, to hire Colter to design the exhibit and sales spaces for Native American crafts in the new Indian Building at the company's Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The Fred Harvey Company had made a business decision to merchandise Indian crafts to passengers as they traveled through the Southwest. The 1902 Colter designed Indian Building, part of the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, was both museum and shop where items were displayed to such good effect that tourists soon clamored for similar items to purchase from on-site artisans. Native artists such as Elle, a Navajo weaver from Ganado, enjoyed wide-spread fame from the Harvey business strategy. Unfortunately, the Alvarado Hotel, built in the Mission Revival Style, was demolished in 1970. Surviving photographs of the interior of the Indian Building illustrate Colter's design concepts, utilizing Native crafts and artistry.

Two years later in 1904 Colter was again hired to design and decorate a new sales building at Grand Canyon's South Rim called Hopi House. Today's traveler has the pleasure of seeing first-hand the Colter style. Hopi House was conceived in sharp contrast to the Chalet style of the nearby El Tovar Hotel. Relying upon information from the Mennonite missionary and Hopi ethnographer, Henrich R. Voth, as well as her own careful study of pueblos at Oraibi, Colter created her version of a stone Hopi house and staffed it with working Hopi artisans, including the famous potter, Nampeyo.

After a short stint as display manager for the Frederick and Nelson Department store in Seattle, Washington, Mary was hired permanently as a Fred Harvey Company architect and designer, in 1910. Working with ATSF's licensed architects (Colter was from the non-license era), she brought to fruition her best work. For the rest of her Fred Harvey Company career she moved between projects as head architect, designer, decorator and interior designer.

During the 1910s most of her work was concentrated in the Grand Canyon where she served as both architect and decorator of Hermit's Rest and Lookout Studio. Her innovative use of native stone gave a rustic look and feel to both structures, and blended with the environment, two of her trademarks. Hermit's Rest appeared to be a haphazard cabin of an old miner and Lookout Studio seemed to be a continuation of the canyon wall itself.

Colter was also quite busy in New Mexico decorating the Spanish-Pueblo style Harvey House at Lamy, New Mexico. El Ortiz, designed by Louis Curtiss, evoked the ambience of a Spanish hacienda. As one visitor wrote, it was "like a private house of someone who had lavished thought and care upon every nook." Keeping with the theme of a hacienda, Colter used Mexican furniture, Navajo rugs and retablos, to enhance the intended mood. Unfortunately El Ortiz was torn down in 1943.

With the advent of World War I, luxury passenger service ended and the government took over the railroads for military use. Thus, Colter's plans for buildings at Indian Gardens and Bright Angel Camp at Grand Canyon and the El Navajo in Gallup were shelved. She continued working on her designs but nothing was constructed until the war was over.

At the conclusion of the War, Colter was back at work. She was both the architect and decorator for Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon and El Navajo in Gallup, New Mexico. The design and construction of the Gallup Harvey House was "an extraordinary blending of modern architecture and ancient art." The hotel and train station exemplified her exacting and ingenious use of Native American imagery, blending her "most severe and abstract building" style on the exterior with a regionally conceived interior. Colter’s innovative style used Cubist elements in a Southwestern motif.

Sand painting designs for El Navajo were based upon a collection belonging to Sam Day, Jr., of St. Michaels, Arizona. The designs were rendered by the Fred Harvey artist Fred Geary, aided by Navajo medicine man Miguelito, with Sam Day acting as interpreter. Navajo singers were upset by the use of sacred images contained in the sand paintings, even though they had been purposely altered. However, when the hotel opened in 1923, 29 Navajo singers and medicine men conducted a house blessing led by Little Singer, Little Stern Man and Miguelito. Newspaper accounts of the event said that Native and non-Native elements of western New Mexico were brought together in a harmonious celebration of diversity and appreciation. Although much of El Navajo was destroyed in 1957 to widen Route 66, the surviving railroad station was restored in 1995, retaining much of its original appearance. Today it serves as Gallup's Cultural Center, Greyhound Bus station and a train stop.

Also during this time period, Colter decorated shops at the Union Station in Chicago and did the interior of the newly renovated and expanded La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe. Working closely with architect John Gaw Meem she created beautiful and relaxing interior spaces for the enlarged hotel and many of her artistic touches are still in evidence. As per her established aesthetic, the Spanish-Pueblo style hotel was decorated with Navajo rugs, bright colored tiles, and heavy Spanish furniture. She hired artist Olive Rush to paint murals in various rooms and prefigured contemporary "Santa Fe style" with style elements like wrought iron jackrabbits holding ashtrays.

In the 1930s, Colter was drawn away from New Mexico and back to Arizona and the Grand Canyon. She first traveled to Mexico to study Spanish Colonial architecture, before working on La Posada in Winslow, Arizona. This hotel, restaurant and train station has been described as the one "closest to her heart," and still open for business.

In 1935, Colter worked on Bright Angel Lodge, Grand Canyon, her own creation. Her use of local materials in a rustic format inspired other designers and builders within the National Park Service to conform to her vision of not intruding upon the natural beauty but blending with it. One of her most noteworthy innovations was Bright Angel's fireplace, which mimics the geological history of the canyon. Watchtower at Desert View, located at the eastern side of the park, reflected ruins at Hovenweep in Colorado and Utah and was another example of environmental integration and architectural innovation. Like El Navajo, she enlisted the aid of the Native American community. Hopi artists, like Fred Kabotie, painted murals for the Watchtower and the Hopis held a dedication ceremony. Another of her enduring contributions was the Mimbreño dinnerware used by the ATSF's Super Chief. By adapting designs from the Mimbres culture pottery from southwestern New Mexico, she once again introduced the traveling public to the cultural richness surrounding them.

During her long involvement with the Southwest and native culture, Colter collected many superb examples of Navajo rugs and jewelry and Pueblo pottery. She donated her collections of pottery, baskets and jewelry to Mesa Verde National Park and most of her books to Grand Canyon Community Library. In 1944 at the age of 75 Colter retired from the Fred Harvey Company, although she re-decorated the renovated Alvarado Hotel and La Fonda cantinas in pure Colter style. She chose Santa Fe to retire to, first living on Cerro Gordo and then Plaza Chamisal, where she died on January 8, 1958. Her body was taken to St. Paul, Minnesota and laid to rest in Oakland Cemetery alongside her parents and sister.

Through her work, Colter was able to help introduce tourists and travelers to the landscapes and cultures of the Southwest. "…Colter's innovative designs helped to make the West pleasurably accessible to travelers for whom it was starkly but alluringly new" and much of her work continues to be appreciated. For years, this “incomprehensible woman in pants,” rode horseback “through the Four Corners making sketches of prehistoric pueblo ruins, studying details of construction [and] the composition of adobes," all to better capture that illusive essence that surrounds the Southwest. "She had seen the Southwest develop from a sparsely settled territory into a popular tourist area, and she had helped to popularize the region through the beautiful hotels and restaurants she had created for the rail-traveling public."

Sources Used:

Berke, Arnold. Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.
Grattan, Virginia L. Mary Colter: Builder Upon the Red Earth. Grand Canyon, AZ: Grand Canyon Natural History Association, 1992.
Howard, Kathleen L. and Diana F. Pardue. Inventing the Southwest: The Fred Harvey Company and Native American Art. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Publishing Company, 1996.
Waters, Frank. Masked Gods: Navaho and Pueblo Ceremonialism. Denver: Sage Books, 1950.