- Historic Sites
Landmarks On The Rim
People visit the Grand Canyon for scenery, not architecture. But an assortment of buildings there, infused with history and the sensibility of one strong woman, are worth a long look.
April 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 2
In 1914, the same year she completed Hermit’s Rest, Colter designed another eccentric building, Lookout Studio, which hangs over the edge of the canyon wall. Its roofline has since been altered, but it originally resembled a prehistoric cliff dwelling or, from other angles, a natural extension of the cliff itself. The Harvey Company built the Lookout to house a photographic studio to compete with the adventuresome KoIb brothers, cameramen who operated from a nearby frame building that is now also a landmark.
In 1919 the Grand Canyon was made a national park, and the Fred Harvey Company was named as the official concessionaire to operate out of six Colter buildings. Colter wasn’t the only architect to leave a mark on the canyon. In 1905 Charles Whittlesey designed El Tovar, a Swissstyle chalet that is still the grande dame of hotels in the historic district known as Grand Canyon Village. And Daniel Hull’s 1921 design for the park’s administration building borrowed from Colter’s Phantom Ranch, then a work-in-progress. Colter planned the ranch’s stone cabins to serve as an oasis for the hikers and mule riders who dared the arduous trek to the canyon floor. Stone for the ranch was quarried nearby, but all other materials—and the architect, who was then fifty-three years old—had to be brought in by mule.
Colter finished her last major Grand Canyon projects—the Watchtower and Bright Angel Lodge—in 1932 and 1935. The lodge, a log and stone building more moderately priced than El Tovar, incorporated several features that were pure Colter. The color for the exterior trim came from Mexico; she spotted it on a telephone pole that had weathered to just the right shade of gray. In the lounge a floor-to-ceiling fireplace is made from rocks that represent several billion years of the canyon’s geologic history—from stones worn smooth by the Colorado River to the more recent Kaibab limestone found at the canyon’s rim. And for the lounge Colter acquired a primitive hobbyhorse that had belonged to the first white child born in Arizona Territory.
The Watchtower, a seventy-foot-high circular structure at Desert View, can be considered Colter’s masterpiece. It is a re-creation of towers built by the prehistoric Anasazi people throughout the Grand Canyon region. (Colter once wrote admiringly that the “primitive architect never intentionally copied anything but made every building suit its own conditions.") Only ruins of the Anasazi towers remain, but Colter visited as many of these as she could, first spotting them from a small plane and then driving to them. Before a stone was laid, she had a wooden tower erected so that she could visualize how the Watchtower would look on the site and to determine if it would provide the view she wanted.
Thirty feet wide at its base, the structure is much larger than any Anasazi one. And stronger: the masonry walls are supported by a steel frame provided by Santa Fe Railway engineers. At irregular intervals protruding stones purposely break the smooth curves of the exterior to “create shadows and give more vigor to the walls,” Colter wrote. On the lower levels several exterior stones bear authentic rock art, mysterious carved symbols and drawings. (Such petroglyphs are now considered endangered national treasures, and it is unlikely that Colter would consider moving one today.) And to relate the new tower further to the prehistoric past, Colter built a small “ruin”—part of a wall and one window—just behind it and to the west.
Inside the tower the kiva, the large circular space on the first level, echoes the ceremonial room in an Indian pueblo. Today it is crowded with sales counters offering Indian jewelry and souvenirs, but the Colter-designed chairs crafted from tree burls and cowhides and the basketlike log ceiling that she salvaged from the first Grand Canyon hotel remain.
The second floor, which costs a quarter to visit, is known as the Hopi Room. In its center is a snake altar, used for a rain dance. A large round wall painting by a tribal artist, Fred Kabotie, tells the story of the first Hopi descent of the Colorado River. Kabotie wrote that “Miss Colter was a very talented decorator with strong opinions. … I admired her work, and we got along well … most of the time.”
In 1948, when she was seventy-nine, Colter retired, after some forty years with the Harvey Company. Nine years later, when La Posada, a hotel she’d designed and decorated in Winslow, Arizona, was torn down, she wistfully observed, “There’s such a thing as living too long.” She died the next year, at eighty-eight.
Mary Colter’s reputation at the Grand Canyon has received something of a boost with the restoration, completed last summer, of the Hopi House. The ninety-year-old building had been inexpertly renovated around 1935 and had deteriorated gradually ever since. Restoring it involved replacing 40 percent of the exterior rock (obtained from the same quarry as the original stone), replacing the leaky roof, and replastering the interior, a job that two Hopi men did in the traditional way—with bare hands.