Landmarks On The Rim

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If you drive West as far as you can along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, you will come to a bowl-shaped building of logs and boulders nestled into the canyon’s side. Its picture windows give out on one of the great views in the world: over Yuma Point, then across the Colorado River to alluringly named landforms like Confucius Temple and the Tower of Ra that rise from the canyon floor.

 
 

If you drive West as far as you can along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, you will come to a bowl-shaped building of logs and boulders nestled into the canyon’s side. Its picture windows give out on one of the great views in the world: over Yuma Point, then across the Colorado River to alluringly named landforms like Confucius Temple and the Tower of Ra that rise from the canyon floor. The structure is called Hermit’s Rest, and that’s just what it looks like—an elaborate shelter built stone by stone by some hoary recluse according to the dictates of his own eccentric vision.

But Hermit’s Rest only looks like folk architecture. Actually it is the creation of an accomplished architect, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, one of the few American women architects practicing in the years before World War I. Colter worked for the Fred Harvey Company, an enterprise that thrived by providing accommodations and services for the Santa Fe Railway. The Grand Canyon is the place to go to see Colter’s work. Many of the hotels, railroad stations, and other public buildings she designed and decorated in the Southwest and Midwest are gone, but all six of her major projects at the Grand Canyon are still standing, four of them National Historic Landmarks.

Colter wanted Hermit’s Rest to look as if it had been put together by a mountain man surviving on his own in a spectacular wilderness. The approach was typical; she often started by imagining a history—complete with inhabitants—for her projects. One of her favorite works, a hotel in Winslow, Arizona, was to her the rambling rancho of an early-nineteenth-century don. She conceived of the Grand Canyon’s Hopi House as an authentic pueblo dwelling, and the scenario for Hermit’s Rest was inspired by the colorful prospectors and guides who inhabited the canyon in the nineteenth century.

 

Because she wanted her structures to look as though they had a history, she went to some lengths to make them appear lived in. For one project she had cushions made from old leather blacksmith’s aprons to look as if people had been sitting on them for years. Another time she prepared a collection of brand-new hooked rugs by having construction workers tramp across them. At Hermit’s Rest she ordered the stones for a vaulted ceiling blackened with soot, so it would look as if the open fireplace had been smoking for years. When the building opened in 1914, some of her employers expressed surprise that there were cobwebs in the corners. Colter, by all accounts a feisty person, replied that they would be even more surprised if they knew “what it cost to make it look this old.”

 

The energetic sales associate of Hermit’s Rest, Jim Pons, known as Poncho, is the resident expert on Colter. Last fall he offered to take me on a tour that started at a stone arch that originally framed the path leading to Hermit’s Rest. The arch looks haphazardly constructed, but Poncho assured me that Colter had supervised every detail. Later, from the veranda, he pointed out another Colter touch, a weathered tree limb lodged between the exposed beams to enhance the impression that the building was hand built.

The Fred Harvey Company opened Hermit’s Rest as a place where passengers on tours of the canyon could stop for free tea and wafers. These days buses from Grand Canyon Village deposit tourists and hikers there, at the head of the Hermit Trail, an eight-and-a-half-mile trek (rated “very strenuous”) down to the Colorado River. The day I was there a thunderstorm had driven everyone indoors. With flames dancing in the huge stone fireplace (“Any excuse for a fire!” the manager, Jim Fowler, rejoiced) and hikers drying out, Hermit’s Rest reminded me of the lodge on a rainy day at the summer camp I attended as a young boy.

At Hermit’s rest she ordered the stones for a vaulted ceiling blackened with soot, so it would look as if the open fireplace had been smoking for years.

Disregarding the weather, Poncho insisted I follow him outside, for there was something else he wanted to show me. At the edge of the veranda he hopped over the low wall and began a sure-footed trot down the steep slope of the canyon. All I could do was tag along, digging in my heels, down one hundred feet or so, following what appeared once to have been stone steps, until we turned beneath a boulder and stopped on a small stone terrace that had been carefully carved out of the side of the canyon. This, Poncho explained, was Mary Colter’s own retreat, the place she came to paint and sketch and be alone with the broad vista of the Grand Canyon.