Mary Colter discovered

  • ARCHITECT AND ARTIST: Mary Colter's buildings include the Watchtower at the Grand Canyon

    Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection
  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 style.

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.