Mary Colter's Architectural Legacy to National Parks

  • Grand Canyon Lodge Sun Room

    Mary Colter Redefined Western Architecture

    1901 saw the start of Mary Colter’s 50-year career with the Fred Harvey Company, which had transformed US travel by creating destination stops along new American rail lines. Luckily for future generations, Colter’s refreshing design talent and tough, capable approach quickly elevated her from hotel decorator to chief architect. Her enduring shops, restaurants and hotels originally enjoyed built-in customers  enthusiastically travelling by rail.   

    Photo courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park

  • Bright Angel Lodge

    Bright Angel Lodge - Grand Canyon South Rim

    A famous collection of Colter buildings are gathered along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. The most difficult to reach, Phantom Ranch, lies at bottom of the canyon and is accessible only by mule. Colter’s Bright Angel Lodge, built with local stone and actual trees, set the precedent for a new architectural style labeled “National Park Service Rustic”. 

    Photo courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park

  • Lookout Studio on the South Rim

    Lookout Studio - Grand Canyon's South Rim

    National Park Service Rustic buildings evoke a romantic relationship with the earth. Lookout Studio, a fantastic example which is perfectly harmonious with the land around it, appears to have grown out of the Grand Canyon wall. Its vertical tower provides not only dramatic views and stunning opportunities for photography, but architecturally reflects the vertical rock formations found in the canyon. Described by many as a “pile of stones”, Colter’s Lookout Studio was intentionally designed to resemble a decaying primitive Indian structure.

    Photo courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park

  • Hopi House

    Hopi House - Grand Canyon's South Rim

    Throughout her life, Colter collected old Indian artifacts, jewelry, baskets and pottery, which she used in her projects and sometimes kept for her own collection.  The Colter-designed Hopi House, just steps away from the Grand Canyon El Tovar Lodge, was profoundly influenced by this passion for Indian Culture and Art. Built to resemble the indigenous Hopi dwellings of the nearby ancient settlement in Oraibi, it stands as a tangible reminder of Indian culture and lifestyle.

    Photo courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park

  • Hermits Rest

    Hermits Rest - Grand Canyon's West Rim Drive

    At Hermits Rest, a public rest stop at the end of the West Rim Drive, randomly heaped stones and large irregular tree trunks evoke the image of an ancient mountain dwelling in ruins. Horizontal lines of the canyon are reflected in low hugging and haphazardly built stonewalls. Hermits Rest embodies Colter’s design philosophy that a building must grow out of its setting and embrace the history of the location. It must belong to its place. 

    Photo courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park

  • Watchtower overlooking the Grand Canyon

    Watchtower - Grand Canyon's east end

    Watchtower, the last of Colter’s canyon concession buildings is located at the end of the easterly 25-mile scenic drive to the Desert View service area. The landmark tower resembling an over-scaled Pueblo Watchtower is a manifestation of her considerable research into archeological prototypes and construction techniques of the prehistoric towers discovered in the Southwest. Inside, circular forms create dramatic interior spaces reminiscent of the religious and social events of the ancient Native Indians.

    Photo courtesy of OwenXu

  • El Tovar Hotel

    El Tovar Hotel - Grand Canyon South Rim

    Meanwhile other architects were creating buildings for the National Park Service. At the terminus of the Grand Canon Railway on the South Rim, Charles Whittlesey, Chief Architect, for the Santa Fe Railway, designed El Tovar Hotel built in 1905. An early park lodge, this hotel stands stately and elegant on the exterior in sharp contrast to the crumbling romantic style of Mary Colter.

    Photo courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park

  • Grand Canyon Lodge terrace

    Grand Canyon Lodge - North Rim

    Notable, too, is Gilbert Stanley Underwood’s Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim. Similar to Colter’s buildings, the original Lodge built of local limestone and timber in 1928 mirrored the shapes and colors of the Canyon and blended seamlessly with the landscape. Tragically, a fire destroyed the magnificent lodge four years after completion. A lodge built in 1937 on the foundations dramatically changed the appearance but not the rustic sprit nor romantic relationship with the canyon.

    Photo courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park

  • La Posada Hotel interior

    La Posada - Winslow, Arizona

    Winslow Arizona's La Posada Hotel, listed in the National Register of Historic Places has been shortlisted as one of the “World’s Best Places to Stay” since its restoration. Often considered Colter’s masterpiece, this romantic Spanish-style hacienda and its gardens meld into the surroundings. To create a framework for her design, legend has it Colter crafted her own fantasy about a wealthy four-generation Spanish family who might have lived there.  (Winslow is 58 miles east of Flagstaff

    Photo courtesy of Daniel Lutzick

  • Visitors brave the Grand Canyon SkyWalk

    Grand Canyon SkyWalk - Hualapai Reservation

    A 4-5 hour drive west of the Grand Canyon lies the engineering marvel called Skywalk, which cantilevers out over the Canyon.  Balancing 70 feet beyond the canyon edge this horseshoe-shaped glass bridge provides unimpeded canyon views and a sheer drop experience of its floor 500 - 800 feet below. The original architectural renderings fittingly portray a contemporary National Park Service Rustic-styled visitor center resembling canyon outcroppings. Disappointingly, the actual structure built does not reflect that style.  

    Photo courtesy of Leonardo Stabile

  • Cliff fortress of Mesa Verde National Park

    Mesa Verde National Park - Four Corners

    When Mary Colter retired in 1948, her extensive collection of Indian artifacts, pottery and jewelry was donated to the Mesa Verde National Park near Durango, Colorado. The recently completed Visitor and Research Center will display a portion of her collection. Colter would be pleased the center is architecturally harmonious with the land, and references both modern and Indian heritage.  You can see the parallels between Colter's designs and the ancient Indian ruins pictured here.  

    Photo courtesy of Ken Lund