Mary Colter: The Forgotten Architect of the American Southwest.
The groundbreaking architect celebrated Native design and culture at a time when most Americans had little or no idea of how Native Americans lived.
Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, most people gaze in awe at this mile-deep chasm. But I was here to see the 70-foot-tall tower perched on the edge of the canyon.Desert View Watchtower,built in 1932 on the basis of ancient Indian structures, is the work of Mary Colter (1869-1958). One of the few female architects of her time, Colter rejected European design in favor of buildings rooted in the Native American and Spanish heritage of the American Southwest.
Colter designed everything fromHotel La Posadain the style of a hacienda in Winslow, Arizona (1930), to a hotel interiorPainted Desert Inn in Petrified Forest National Park(1947). But her iconic buildings in the Grand Canyon are the best evidence of how she helped early (mostly white) tourists better understand how the region was home to diverse, millennia-old Native American cultures and civilizations.
Of the millions of people who visit the Grand Canyon each year, few know Colter’s story. She never married and had no children. Instead, she became the primary architect for two companies that worked in tandem to “open” the American West (already populated by Native Americans) to settlers and later tourists after the American Civil War (1861-65): Atchison, Topeka, and Santa . Fe Railway (nicknamed Santa Fe); and the Fred Harvey Company, which built restaurants and hotels along the route.
The Desert View Watchtower sits on the edge of the Grand Canyon and was inspired by Native American structures (Image credit: travelinglight/Alamy)
The two companies found it difficult to find decent hotels and affordable food along the Santa Fe rail line. In the 1880s, Santa Fe joined forces with Fred Harvey to lure tourists to the Southwest by commissioning the construction of high-quality housing along the line.
Coulter was Fred Harvey’s chief architect and designer for 47 years, from 1902 to 1948. She designed hotels, souvenir shops and recreation areas, recreating the landscapes and culture of the region. Its Pueblo-style plaster walls, exposed wood and stone, and niches for saints helped define the vernacular design style of the American Southwest. Her design choices were governed by the backstories she envisioned for her buildings. La Posada was a Spanish ranch style building from the early 1800s,Hermit’s Rest —the refuge of a village mountaineer, the Watchtower overlooking the desert is an ancient indigenous building that guards the canyon.
Although white, Colter has studied Native American art and architecture throughout her life, and her “vision” of the Southwest has helped introduce tourists to Native American culture. Coulter was a pioneer in a male-dominated field “responsible for important commissions that have stood the test of time and are part of America’s cultural heritage,” said H. Ruth Todd of Page & Turnbull, an all-female architecture firm that is slated to restore several Grand Canyon buildings. Colter.
Architectural designer Geraldine Blackgoat (Navajo) said that although she did not study Colter at a school “that focuses primarily on white male architects,” she “credits Colter for using her privilege to recognize and pay tribute to the folk of Indian design”. .
Coulter was a rare breed: a white woman in a male-dominated field who rejected European design to honor Native American culture (Image credit: Natural History Archive/Alamy)
Colter’s first task for Fred Harvey was to design the interior of an Indian building in Hotel Alvarado in Albuquerque. The floor plan led visitors past Native American artifacts to shops where travelers could purchase their own indigenous products. Colter wanted to showcase high-quality crafts related to indigenous culture, so she and her team hired Native American artists to demonstrate their techniques, including Navajo weaver Elle of Ganado, who wove blankets in the building. She later became one of the most famous Native American artists of that era.
Colter’s interest in Native American culture began when an uncle gave the family a series of sketches of Sioux prisoners interned in Montana in the 1870s. Coulter kept the drawings and maintained a lifelong interest in Native American culture, collecting art, attending dances, and traveling throughout the Southwest and Mexico to study Native American and Latin American art and architecture.
Along the way, Coulter established strong ties with the Native American communities of the American Southwest. In the hotel Colter’s El Navajo in Gallup, New Mexico, renowned Navajo medicine man Michelito helped create 12 Navajo sand paintings on the hotel’s walls. And at the grand opening of El Navajo in 1923, 2,000 Native Americans were present, including 15 famous Navajo medicine men, who led chants and blessings. Her Indian buildings in the Grand Canyon had similar opening ceremonies, and the opening of the Desert View Watchtower in 1933 was blessed by Hopi elders.
El Navajo was demolished in 1957, much to Colter’s dismay. Many of its other railroad-related buildings survive, but fell into disuse with the advent of automobile travel.
The Hopi House, which Colter designed in 1905, was modeled after the 1,000-year-old dwellings of a Hopi village in Oraiba, Arizona (Image copyright Niebrugge Images/Alamy)
Today, the Grand Canyon is home to the largest concentration of Colter’s remaining works. Of her eight buildings in the canyon, four were designated as National Landmarks in 1987: Hopi house , review studio Hermit’s Rest and Watchtower.
To visit the Watchtower, I drove 1.5 hours north of Flagstaff, Arizona to the park’s east entrance. I was traveling alone, and Colter’s apparition was with me – “an inscrutable woman in pants” wearing a Stetson, according to the famous western author Frank Waters.
My route was throughnavajo nation, the largest Indian reservation in the United States. The Navajo are one of 11 tribes associated with the Grand Canyon area, including the Hopi, whose mesa-top villages are among the longest continuously inhabited settlements in what is now the United States.
Several Colter buildings in the Grand Canyon evoke the Hopi, a matrilineal society known for its artists and potters. Along with other Pueblo tribes, the Hopi trace their lineage back to the Pueblo ancestors who built the cliffs and towers that inspired the Colter Watch Tower. Colter traveled to such ruins as Hovenwhip and Mesa Verde , to study construction engineering, and was a stickler for details during construction. A watchtower in the desert is made of stones from the area, painstakingly put together.
Colter hired Hopi artist Fred Caboti to paint the interior design of the Watchtower in the Desert (Image credit: David Wall/Alamy)
The lobby of the Watchtower reminds nod , a circular ceremonial space found in Pueblo culture. Colter hired artists, including Hopi artist Fred Caboti, to paint the tower’s interior design. Ed Caboti (Teva/Hopi), Fred’s grandson and an artist in his own right, was recently part of a team working to preserve the paintings of his grandfather and others at the Watchtower. According to the National Park Service, these efforts were part of the Desert View Tribal Heritage Project launched in 2015 to make the Watchtower “a place to celebrate, share and explore inter-tribal cultural heritage”.
Cabot recognized the Colter Watchtower as “an attempt to pay tribute to the ancient people of the Colorado Plateau.” Echoing the concern of many that Coulter commoditized Native American culture, Cabot “had a problem with taking things from ancestral places and using them here at the Watchtower.” While most of the Native American-inspired artwork in the Watchtower was created for the site, Coulter also took petroglyphs from the Ash Fork region of Arizona to incorporate into her design.
The Colter Hopi House (1905) is modeled after traditional Hopi pueblo dwellings. It is a multi-level building made of sandstone, the roof of which on one level serves as a terrace on the other. It was built by Hopi workers and hired local artists, who were presented to tourists as a kind of diorama.
Some would say that Coulter leaned toward “staged authenticity,” but she was at least meticulous about that authenticity. Waters wrote that she made sketches of prehistoric Pueblo ruins, studying structural details, adobe compositions, and washes. “She could teach masons how to lay mud bricks, plasterers how to mix mortar, carpenters how to fix joints in wooden beams,” he said..
Colter served as a kind of cultural bridge between the natives and the white tourists (Credit Image: Jorge Tutor/Alami)
If Colter was complicit in the commercialization of Native culture, she also served as a cultural bridge, inviting tourists into memories of a reimagining of the Hopi dwelling and ancestral pueblo tower. “Today, she’s teaching tourists through her work,” Blackhout said.
In commemoration of its origin, the “Desert Watchtower” has now turned intoTribal Arts Center, where Native American artists demonstrate their crafts and tell visitors about their connection to the Canyon. As I was about to leave, a woman with a German accent and a tour bus pass asked me if I knew when the Watchtower was built and who designed it.