Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (1869-1956)
Used by permission from the National Park Service
Millions of people visit the Grand Canyon each year, many of them passing through a building designed by Mary Jane Colter. Colter’s buildings there, including Bright Angel Lodge, Phantom Ranch, Hermit’s Rest, Lookout Studio and Desert View, seem to blend into their surroundings, and this was Colter’s intention.
“Colter’s philosophy was that a building should grow out of its setting, embodying the history and flavor of the location,” wrote Virginia Grattan, Colter’s biographer. “It should belong to its environment as though indigenous to that spot.”
Colter began her artistic journey April 4, 1869 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a child, she wanted to be an artist, and later she enrolled in the California School of Design in San Francisco. She worked there as an apprentice architect to help fund her studies, gaining exposure to new architectural theories based on the idea that buildings should be sympathetic to their environment rather than copies of European styles.
After completing her education at the California School of Design, Colter began a 15-year teaching career at Mechanic Arts High School in St. Paul, Minnesota. Teaching jobs were plentiful for women during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, Colter remained interested in design and found a summer job with the Fred Harvey Company in 1902, decorating the interior of the “Indian Building” that was adjacent to Harvey’s new Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque. In 1902, the Harvey Company commissioned Colter to design the Hopi House at the Grand Canyon. Colter wanted to create a building that would fit the natural setting and reflect the history of the region. Because Hopis had lived in the Grand Canyon area for hundreds of years, Colter patterned the building after Hopi dwellings in Oraibi, Arizona.
After completing the Hopi House, Colter returned to her teaching job and then took another position in Seattle as a department store decorator. In 1910, the Fred Harvey Company offered her a permanent position as architect and interior designer of Harvey facilities. She moved to Kansas City and worked at the company’s headquarters.
During Colter’s forty-six years with the Harvey Company, she was responsible for 21 projects, including La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, La Posada in Winslow and the Union Stations in Kansas City, St. Louis and Los Angeles. Her style of architecture became known as National Park Service Rustic. Many National Park Service structures built between the 1920s and 1940s used native stone and rough-hewn wood. Characteristic of this style is the History Room of Bright Angel Lodge where Colter had a “geological fireplace” built. It features rocks hauled from the canyon floor and arranged in the same order as the strata of the canyon’s walls.
Mary Jane Colter died on January 8, 1956 in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the age of 88.