Mary Colter, like other female artists of the Southwest, was inspired by the region’s vivid landscapes and indigenous cultures. But unlike Georgia O’Keeffe or Terry Tempest Williams, Colter remained largely unknown to the public and her peers during her lifetime. Following her death in 1958, she sank further into obscurity — until recently. Arnold Berke’s biography, Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest, brings to light Colter’s legacy to American architecture and design.
As Berke tells it, when the Santa
Fe Railroad and the Fred Harvey Company opened the Southwest to
mass tourism, the two companies also sparked Colter’s career.
Between 1902 and 1949, Harvey hired her to design several of the
era’s grand Southwestern hotels, including La Posada in
Winslow, Ariz., and the now-demolished El Navajo in Gallup, N.M.,
which Colter decorated with original Navajo sand paintings. Colter
also furnished Santa Fe’s La Fonda Hotel, and her Mexican tin
light fixtures still grace the walls of the New Mexican room and
French pastry shop.
While designing buildings and
furnishing their interiors, Colter used local natural materials,
blended building sites into the surrounding landscape, and drew on
Native American and Mexican cultures. She best combined these
traits at Grand Canyon National Park, where her Bright Angel Lodge,
Hermit’s Rest, Hopi House, Lookout Studio and the cylindrical
Indian Watchtower — perched at the edge of the canyon and
decorated inside with Hopi murals — helped shape the national
park system’s “rustic” architectural
For too long, visitors to the Southwest have
admired Colter’s buildings with no idea of the woman behind
them. Now, Berke’s biography recognizes Colter’s genius
and rescues her from the anonymity of history.
Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest, Arnold
Berke. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, NY, 2002.
Paperback: $24.95. 320 pages.
Mary Colter discovered
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