April 4, 1958 – Mary Colter
Mary Colter was an architect and interior designer whose distinct style was inspired by the imagery, culture, and landscape of the American Southwest.
She was the primary architect for the Fred Harvey Company, designing hotels and rest shops along one of the major routes of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway from 1902 until her retirement in 1948. Colter’s projects include the buildings she created for the Grand Canyon National Park: Hopi House, Hermit’s Rest, Lookout Studio, and Desert View Watchtower, demonstrating her commitment to regionally appropriate, site-specific architecture, and her integration of Native American construction techniques and design motifs in her work.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she was the daughter of Irish immigrants. Her family moved around a lot before landing in Saint Paul, Minnesota, when Colter was 11 years old. Saint Paul in the 1880s was a place of dynamic growth, physical expansion, and cultural progress, yet it still had the feel of the frontier. The Dakota peoples on the Lower Sioux Indian Reservation 100 miles west of the city served as a reminder the Dakota War of 1862, after which much of the tribe was forced to leave the newly formed state. This seems to have had a lasting effect on Colter.
Colter’s curiosity of Native American culture became her lifelong passion. Through her art class at Saint Paul High School, she was also exposed to the new design developments in the city, especially the Arts and Crafts movement. Saint Paul’s progressive culture played a large role in her early education, yet the city offered her few opportunities for artistic training. After she graduated from high school in 1883, she moved to Oakland, California, to attend the recently founded California School of Design, one of the first art schools in the West. Colter’s studied drawing and painting and gained an apprenticeship at a local architecture firm. At the time, San Francisco architects had grown restless for a new Western aesthetic which played a role in her growing enthusiasm for architecture and design.
At the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair, Colter was inspired by the Columbian Exposition, where she admired architect Sophia Hayden’s Women’s Building, which included Mission Style furnishings which influenced her future designs.
She wrote newspaper pieces about the new Western aesthetic. At the same time, The Fred Harvey Company, a service-industry organization committed to providing rail passengers with high-quality food and clean, comfortable lodging at a series of impeccably appointed restaurant-hotels known as Harvey Houses, was making an impact on American culture. It was founded in 1876 by Fred Harvey.
In 1883, Harvey implemented a policy of employing a female, whites-only serving staff. He sought single, well-mannered, and educated American women, and placed ads in newspapers for “white, young women, 18–30 years of age, of good character, attractive and intelligent”. The girls were paid $18.50 a month, plus room and board, a generous income for the era.
The women had a strict 10 p.m. curfew, administered by a senior Harvey Girl who served as the role of house mother. The official starched black and white uniform, designed to diminish the female physique, consisted of a skirt that hung no more than eight inches off the floor, opaque black stockings, and black shoes. Hair was restrained in a net and tied with a regulation white ribbon. Makeup of any sort was prohibited. The Harvey Girls were required to sign a six-month employment contract, and forfeited half their base pay should they fail to complete the term of service. Marriage was the main reason for a young lady to terminate her employment.
This served as the inspiration for the MGM Technicolor musical The Harvey Girls (1946), directed by George Sidney, and starring Judy Garland, John Hodiak, Ray Bolger, Angela Lansbury, Preston Foster, Virginia O’Brien, Marjorie Main, and Chill Wills, plus Cyd Charisse in her first speaking role. The Harvey Girls won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe, by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer.
Harvey’s daughter, Minnie Harvey Huckel became aware that Colter used references to Native American arts and crafts in her work and may have suggested to her father that he hire Colter for the interior design for the Harvey Company’s Hotel Alvarado Indian Building in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 1902, Colter started working for the Fred Harvey Company, where she built a career that lasted for her professional life.
From 1902 through 1948, Colter designed 27 hotels, gift shops, and rest areas along one of the major routes of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway that, despite its commercial purpose, transcended the kitsch of the growing tourism industry to capture the mystery and romance of the American Southwest. The notable features of her designs were tiny windows allowing shafts of light to accent red sandstone walls; a low ceiling made of twigs resting on peeled log beams; a hacienda enclosing an intimate courtyard; a rough boulder structure, built into the earth to look like a natural rock formation. These details shaped the way people pictured the Southwest for generations.
Colter’s projects show her understanding of, and commitment to, the natural and cultural landscape in which she worked. With her designs, she brought a spirited irreverence in her compositions and a clever demonstration of her own inventive Arts and Crafts sensibility. For The Indian Building and Museum adjacent to the Hotel Alvarado (1902), she used Native American crafts within a turn-of-the-century framework with a pastiche of exotic artifacts, handicrafts, and Mission-style furniture.
With the Hopi House (1905) and Devils Watchtower (1933) in Grand Canyon National Park, she hired indigenous builders, demanded the use of local materials, and saw to minute historical details obtained through research expeditions at various Native American ruins. Colter strove for stylistic accuracy without attempting to make a copy replica, or reproduction.
In her smaller-scaled tourist architecture at the Grand Canyon, Colter introduced more innovative designs, including those for Hermit’s Rest and Lookout Studio (both 1914). For Lookout Studio, she created a single-level, horizontal structure of limestone that mimicked the eroded rock below, ensuring unobstructed views by using architectural camouflage, allowing the drama of the Grand Canyon to enrich tourists’ experiences.
Other Harvey projects gave her the opportunity to design station-hotels along the Sante Fe Railway line, which her architectural vision could be used at a grander scale. Of the El Navajo Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico (1923), she wrote:
“I have always longed to carry out the true Indian idea, to plan a hotel strictly Indian with none of the conventional modern motifs.”
The El Navajo and La Posada Hotel (1930) in Winslow, Arizona, both show Colter’s nod to the regional designs while evoking the originality and wit of her projects.
Colter was the creator of Mimbreño dishes and flatware for the glamorous Super Chief Chicago-Los Angeles rail service, begun in 1936 by the Santa Fe Railroad. They are now highly collectable.
Colter retired to Santa Fe in 1948. Locals saw her as woman in pants riding horseback, sketching ruins, and meticulously studying construction details. Although she never had a degree in Architecture, and is often called a “decorator”, four of her projects, Hopi House, Hermit’s Rest, Lookout Studio, and Desert View Watchtower have been designated National Historic Landmarks, suggest that architect would be the more accurate and enduring description.
Colter died in Santa Fe in 1958. It was generally understood by the people who knew her that Colter was gay. Nothing written about her points to any sort of romantic relationship with a male, but deep attachments to women, including living for a time with Mabel Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan. Her life is celebrated at Santa Fe Pride events, and in LGBTQ histories of the American Southwest.