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Landmarks On The Rim

June 2024
10min read

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.

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.

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.


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.

Inside, the floors gleam with polyurethane. The Hopi wall paintings have been cleaned and put behind glass, heating ducts and electrical conduits have been hidden, and the second floor is now opened up to allow tourists “more room to browse, shop and feel at ease with making a purchase,” in the words of a feasibility study. It is a restoration superbly executed—in every respect except one: By Mary Colter’s standards, the building looks too new.


We know that Colter imagined a past for the buildings she designed. When Hopi House opened in 1905, it already had a dusty look, as if it had been inhabited for generations. The building, as it was restored in 1995, has considerable presence, but visually it communicates little history. If she could see it today, we can be sure the outspoken Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter would have something to say about that.


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