Landmarks On The Rim

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By this time the wind was whipping us with rain; from below, thunderheads approached. The nonchalant way Poncho stood on the edge of the veranda, with a sheer drop behind him, made me queasy, so as soon as I snapped a picture of him we began the ascent back. The unplanned jaunt down the side of the canyon had left me cold and wet, but in a way I felt I knew Mary Colter better now that I had seen her personal hermit’s rest.

Born in Pittsburgh on April 4, 1869, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter was raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. After her father died in 1886, the artistically inclined seventeen-year-old enrolled in the California School of Design in San Francisco, where she also apprenticed in an architect’s office. After graduating from art school in 1890, she returned to Minnesota and began teaching art to support her mother and older sister.

At some point in the years that followed, Colter applied for a job at the Fred Harvey Company, and in 1902 it responded with a temporary offer. The company had been founded in 1876 by a young Englishman who foresaw that the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway would need services as it moved westward. One of the first Harvey House restaurants opened next to the depot in Holbrook, Arizona, in 1884. It was housed in boxcars, but it set its tables with Irish linen and French china. As the railroad expanded, Fred Harvey’s enterprise grew with it, the relationship between the two companies becoming so close that when Harvey hired Colter, the railroad paid part of her salary. Soon Harvey was famous for food, accommodations, and service, the last by the legendary waitresses known as Harvey Girls.

 

In 1901 the company opened a department to merchandise Indian-made goods, and the next year it hired Colter, who was becoming an avid student of Native American culture. Sent to Albuquerque to decorate Harvey’s first emporium, she responded as if she had been handling Indian arts and crafts all her life, hanging baskets from the walls and ceiling and displaying blankets in tempting, brightly colored piles. Between the displays, Indian rugs marked a beckoning path. Colter’s addition of a replica of a Hopi altar offended some Hopis and, legend has it, afflicted the man who installed it: His “tongue was swollen and hanging from his mouth.”

When she finished the Indian-store job, Colter returned to St. Paul and teaching. The company next called her two years later—with a commission to design and decorate a building that would house Indian crafts at the Grand Canyon, on a site across from El Tovar, a hotel then under construction. Colter decided on a pueblo style, an appropriate choice, for according to the Hopi creation story, their people had emerged on earth at the Grand Canyon, from an underground world. Hopis living in the region worked on the project.

Colter specifically modeled Hopi House, a red sandstone building with many setbacks and roofs connected by ladders, on the Hopi pueblo at Oraibi, Arizona. Hopi craftsmen lived on the upper floors and demonstrated their skills for tourists. Log beams intertwined with smaller branches ran across the ceiling, and Colter decorated the rooms with piles of Navajo rugs, pots displayed on wooden tables, and, for atmosphere, an antique caballero’s saddle, sombrero, and spurs on a hand-hewn bench. Evidently unimpressed by the saga of the swollen tongue in Albuquerque, Colter installed a Hopi altar and a sand painting, an intricate artwork produced by trickling powdered minerals onto a background of sand. Sand paintings were created for rituals and were supposed to be destroyed when the ceremony was over.

Her choice of a hopi style at the Grand Canyon was appropriate, for according to their creation story, the Hopis emerged on earth there.
 

Hopi House opened on January 1, 1905, whereupon Colter again returned to St. Paul. Not until 1910, when she was forty-one, did the Fred Harvey Company permanently hire her as an architect and designer. She was a chain smoker, is remembered for her unruly hairdos, and was a difficult and demanding colleague. Her practice of involving herself in the smallest detail irritated her crews. “Everyone hated to see her come on the job,” an employee told Virginia L. Grattan, who wrote the excellent biography Mary Colter, Builder Upon the Red Earth . While I was at Hermit’s Rest, Poncho Pons explained that Colter was so outspoken at staff meetings that mutual griping among Harvey company executives became part of the corporate culture.

Despite her success, she lived a solitary life. She kept an apartment near Harvey headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri, but spent most of her time in Harvey hotels on the road. Even her outside interests were work-related. She poured energy into her collection of Indian jewelry, and the eventual discovery that she was snapping up at cost the best pieces the Harvey buyers brought in caused a minor scandal.