Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park

Mary Colter: The Visionary Behind the Grand Canyon’s Landmark Architecture

March 6, 2009, 9:07 am

Lookout StudioAlthough those who experience the beauty of the Grand Canyon might be most likely to recount a hike down Bright Angel Trail or sunset viewed from Hopi Point, visitors may not realize that some of their memories of the canyon were likely made at one of the great, iconic buildings designed by legendary architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter.

Colter was the Chief Architect and Decorator for the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railroad during the first half of the 20th century, when tourism was first developing in the West. As Fred Harvey brought tourists from the Midwest to the Grand Canyon via the Santa Fe Railroad, he sought to create an atmosphere that was rustic and natural, but still comfortable and familiar. The Grand Canyon was, after all, the terminus of the rail line.

With this in mind, Harvey hired Colter as the interior decorator for the El Tovar Hotel, which he envisioned as the grand lodge at the end of the road. Colter quickly became more than just an interior designer, however, and was soon promoted to Chief Architect and Decorator. Colter’s creations, designed to blend and mesh with the landscape, helped define the way future buildings would be constructed in our national parks. Using local materials to create rustic buildings in the Southwestern style, she built many of her most unique structures along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Each of Colter’s designs had a unique theme, and thanks to preservation efforts, visitors can still experience these cultural and historical landmarks almost exactly as she envisioned them nearly 100 years ago. Below is a brief guide to visiting some of Colter’s enduring designs in Grand Canyon National Park.

El Tovar Hotel
While many aspects off the hotel have been updated throughout the years, visitors to the majestic El Tovar Hotel can still see elements of Colter’s interior design, including copper light fixtures, which have been updated but retain the original character, the dark, woodsy feel of the exposed rafters and the various taxidermy pieces that adorn the walls. Colter used all of these design elements to bring the feel and comfort of a Swiss style lodge to hotel guests.

Hopi House (1905)
Hopi House, located just a stone’s throw away from El Tovar was Colter’s first architectural commission at the Grand Canyon. It was built as a place to sell Indian artwork, and Colter designed the building to resemble a Hopi dwelling. She enlisted the help of Hopi artists from nearby villages to help build the structure, and used the buildings as a means introduce Indian country to visitors.

The American Indian handicraft store is still open today, and is the largest gift store at the Grand Canyon. Upstairs, visitors will find an American Indian Art Gallery. Take note of the low entryways, corner fireplaces and small windows, which illustrate the Hopi-inspired elements of Colter’s design. Also notice the images of Navajo rugs painted onto the floor. Although the original rugs and floorboards had to be replaced, the paintings help maintain the atmosphere that Colter created.

Lookout Studio (1914)
Perched on edge of the South Rim, Lookout Studio was designed as a place where visitors could relax and enjoy the sweeping views of the canyon.

Located just a short walk west of Bright Angel Lodge Grand Canyon Village, the studio provided a place where visitors could take photographs and use telescopes to observe the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon. Colter was inspired by the natural forms of the landscape and used stone and log timbers to create the comfortable yet rustic studio. Its shape mimics the surrounding rock outcroppings, blending almost seamlessly into the canyon’s cliffs.

Today visitors can still use the telescopes at Lookout Studio to peer across the Canyon. A gift shop also operates from the studio, selling a large selection of photography and other souvenirs.

Hermits Rest (1914)
Built into the slope of a mound of earth, Hermits Rest was first used as a rest stop for stagecoach travelers on the historic Hermit Road. Colter designed the building to appear as if it were inhabited by a hermit. Its exterior blends seamlessly with its surroundings, and the. The interior is adorned with a large fireplace and rustic wooden furniture. Ever the perfectionist, it is believed that Colter even placed spider webs and soot on fireplace to make it appear old although it had just been built.

With its location at the end of the road, its rustic furniture, and its striking floor-to-ceiling windows, Hermits Rest was meant to give visitors a place to sit and reflect. While the atmosphere has changed as visitation to the park has increased, Hermits Rest still offers some of the most impressive views of the canyon. Thanks to a recent rehabilitation of Hermit Road, visitors can travel out to this historic rest spot, located about eight miles west of Grand Canyon Village. The road is open to private vehicles from November through March. The rest of the year, visitors can take a free park shuttle, which stops at many breathtaking scenic overlooks along the way. End your journey with a relaxing pause at Hermits Rest, where you can take in the views while enjoying a snack from the café.

A free podcast is available to inform your visit.

Indian Watchtower at Desert View (1932)
This imposing tower on the eastern end of the Canyon’s South Rim was modeled after the Indian watchtowers of the Southwest. Colter spent the 1920s and 1930s visiting classic architectural sites throughout the region, and considered the Desert View structure to be a recreation of an Anasazi watchtower.

She designed the tower to provide the most expansive views of the Grand Canyon, without sacrificing its harmony with the surrounding natural features. The tower is 70 feet tall and its ground level features an observation room with sweeping views of the canyon below. Visitors can also climb to the top of the tower, for 360-degree views of the canyon and the nearby landscape, including Painted Desert to the east and the San Francisco Peaks to the south. Of special note is the Snake Dance mural in the Hopi Room, which was painted by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie.

As one of the pioneers in rustic architecture in our parks, Colter’s designs have informed the designs of structures throughout the National Park System. Her buildings in the Grand Canyon serve as an example of architectural and environmental harmony and will likely continue to inspire park-based architecture and create enduring images in the memories of visitors to the Grand Canyon for years to come.