Don Alphonso de los Pajaros walked one last time among the peacocks. The market crash of 1929 had wiped him out. La Posada, his family home for 120 years, had been sold to the Santa Fe Railway. The childless Don Alphonso whispered goodbye to the birds and old trees, to the art and the furniture, and to the memories collected by four generations of his fabled forebears watching quietly from every corner of the hacienda. ‘Keep watch for me,’ he murmured.1

Thus begins Mary Colter’s fantasy description of the man she imagined when she built her masterpiece, the La Posada Hotel. The tale goes on, describing how the Don’s estancia was passed down generation by generation from his great, great grandparents. She imagined each new Don Pajaro adding his own touches until finally it was sold to the Harveys, and Don Pajaro the fourth walked somberly out the door with "two parrots perched happily on his shoulders."

Mary Colter, Grand Canyon, women of Grand Canyon

Mary Colter (right) showing blueprint to Mrs. Ickes (wife of the Secretary of Interior) circa 1935. Photo Credit: NPS

Though she was one of only 22 women architects according to the 1890 U.S. census2, a major contributor to southwestern architecture, and the primary inspiration for the Pueblo Deco style, Colter is still a relatively unknown figure, in architecture and in American history.

The first I remember hearing of Mary Colter was a two-minute description of her as I—two weeks into my new position as a reservationist for Hatch River Expeditions—floated down the Colorado River. We rounded a corner and squinted toward the rim where Colter’s Desert View Watchtower3 added to the skyline of limestone cliffs and scrubby trees. Our guide explained that Colter had created many of the buildings on the South Rim as well as Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Bright Angel trail. "She promised her parents that if they let her go to school for architecture she would get married afterwards," our guide only half joked from the rear of our boat before pushing us further down the river.

Walking among her buildings, one gets a sense of the atmosphere Colter so deliberately created: one of history. Colter conceived of each structure with the reason for its existence in mind. And, as with La Posada’s Don Pajaro, that reason necessarily included a human component. Her Hopi House was (in her imagining) a market for Hopi artisans, while Hermit’s Rest was pieced together by a recluse living off the land in the Canyon.

A Phantom Ranch cabin at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Photo Credit: NPS by Erin Whittaker

A Phantom Ranch cabin at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Photo Credit: NPS by Erin Whittaker

Additionally, much like her famous contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright (who was born only two years earlier and entered school at the same time), Colter sought to create buildings that worked with the natural landscape rather than against it. She sourced local materials (sometimes out of necessity as with Phantom Ranch, which was constructed at the bottom of a steep, 9 ½ mile trail) and built structures that looked like the environments around them. The Bright Angel lodge takes this idea so far that it actually includes a "geologic" fireplace. It is built from the rocks of each of the layers of the Grand Canyon, stacked in order and rough proportion to their layers within the canyon. It even includes a diagonal section representing a group of rock that was uplifted and then eroded away before new layers were deposited above it.

Further, Colter not only drew from, but honored local cultures in her designs. The Desert View Watchtower, for example, utilized Colter’s extensive knowledge of Puebloan art and architecture. Its main floor is designed to resemble a kiva with a fireplace in the center and wooden beams knitted together around the perimeter of the ceiling. Fred Kabotie, Hopi artists and silversmith, was commissioned to create murals for the inside of this structure that now functions as a cultural heritage site, showcasing local Native American artists. (She worked again with Kabotie in 1947 for her renovation of the Painted Desert Inn in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park.

Though it was not initially the place she considered home, Colter came to know the Southwest well, and it’s lucky for us that she did. Her first position in the region was designing the interior of the Indian Building at the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque for Fred Harvey. This first contract with Harvey opened a door, allowing to Colter creating other buildings throughout the Grand Canyon and the Southwest that we still enjoy today for their unique personalities and keen understand of the environments and cultures that surround them.

Mary Colter: Quietly Building the Grand Canyon was last modified: March 18th, 2016 by Jessica Clark

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