This is the 73rd issue of Trend/Countertrend. My first missive was published 6 years ago this October. While trying to decide what paradoxical topic to write about this month I realized that most of you would not have received my debut newsletter. It’s one of my top 10 favorites, so I decided to do a reprise.
Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter was a trendsetter in the best sense of the word. She was born in 1869 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a few years after the Civil War ended--an era when women couldn’t aspire to much in the way of careers. Growing up, her family was constantly on the move, but ended up in St. Paul, Minnesota. After her father died, Mary knew she’d need a career that would support her and her family. She convinced her mother to let her attend the California School of Design in San Francisco. After graduating, she returned to Minnesota, where she began teaching at the Mechanic Arts High School.
While not the most auspicious start for a woman that ultimately became a peer of Frank Lloyd Wright, it opened the door for her to enter the male dominated field of architecture. In 1901 she was hired by the Fred Harvey Company (of the famous Harvey Houses) to decorate the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque. Based on that success, she was offered a full time job designing a series of landmark hotels and commercial lodges for the company.
Over the next 30 years she worked in very rugged conditions, completing 21 projects for the company. Eleven of her structures are on the National Register of Historic Places; 5 have been designated National Historic Landmarks. She is credited with creating the ‘Rustic Style’ design aesthetic of the National Parks system, having designed most of the important manmade structures in the Grand Canyon, including Bright Angel Lodge, Hopi House, Hermit’s Rest, Indian Watchtower, and Phantom Ranch. Today, 5 million tourists visit, admire and enjoy these structures.
Mary possessed a special genius for interpreting the past to create new buildings and interiors that continue to enchant travelers crossing the Southwest. She was an early advocate of environmentalism and design authenticity. Critics say that her works emerge effortlessly from their site and, even when new, affect a look of age through the use of authentic materials and building methods.
Colter was a storyteller and an originator of “retail-tainment.” She designed her buildings not just to lodge, feed, or otherwise serve travelers, but also to entertain, engage, and educate them. She had great respect for Native American culture and heritage, and in her work she sought to protect and respect their traditions while delighting the eye and stimulating the mind.
She’s best remembered for her 3 classic hotels in the Southwest, but only one survives today. La Posada, just off Route 66 in Winslow, Arizona, was considered by Colter to be her masterpiece. (www.laposada.org). This gracious hotel opened in 1930, just months after the stock market crash of 1929. It closed in 1957, and was scheduled to be demolished. Thankfully, it was saved, and has recently been restored to its original beauty. It’s definitely worth a side trip and stay if you ever visit that part of the country. Just about every movie star of the 30’s and 40’s stayed at La Posada. The rooms are all individually designed and named after those stars. The Turquoise Room restaurant serves some of the most innovative Southwestern cuisine in the nation, drawing extensively on Native American ingredients and traditions.
Colter didn’t follow trends, she set them. She achieved very little measure of fame during her lifetime, and was never recognized by the popular national publications nor the journals and magazines of the architectural world. Because her buildings and interiors, all of them open to the public, have surely entertained more visitors than those of many other big-name designers, I consider Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter the best known unknown architect in the United States.
To learn more about this amazing woman, I recommend the book Mary Colter, Architect of the Southwest, by Arnold Berke, from Princeton Architectural Press.