A Grand Canyon Original

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. -- It takes something special to make you look away from the Grand Canyon. But if you stand on the South Rim, there are several things capable of wresting your gaze from the natural wonder at your feet. All of them are man-made marvels.

Or I should say woman-made, because they were created between 1905 and 1937 by a talented and driven architect named Mary Colter. Her buildings, including Hopi House, Lookout Studio, Hermit’s Rest and the Watchtower, decorate the canyon’s brink like a shelf of curios, all perfectly part of the spectacular setting.

Colter designed these and other buildings when she worked for the Fred Harvey Co., which operated hotels, restaurants, shops and dining cars for the Santa Fe Railway beginning in 1876. At a time when the Southwest was still wild, a train trip from Chicago to L.A. was dicier than the Trans Siberian Railroad is today. The hospitality company and its Harvey Girls, clad in the white and black high-necked uniforms Judy Garland later made famous in the 1946 movie about the waitresses, welcomed and coddled travelers, helping open the region to tourism. Moreover, the goods sold in its shops, the decor of its hotels and the look of its advertising introduced Southwestern arts and crafts to America.

Colter was no starched and smiling Harvey Girl. But she played a huge role in putting the Southwest, beginning with the Grand Canyon, on the map by creating hotels and shops along the Santa Fe’s railroad tracks and by decorating the interiors of dazzling new train stations in Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Mo., and L.A.

Until recently, however, she was little known, partly because some of her hotels have been torn down and her work as an interior designer has been obscured by remodeling. But Colter, born in 1869 in Pittsburgh, was at the time one of the few female architects working in the U.S., a woman in a man’s world who had to fight hard for recognition.

Lately, interest in her has grown. She was the subject of two recent documentaries, an award-winning educational film and a public television special broadcast last summer. When I visited the Grand Canyon three years ago, nobody talked about her much; now her name is on the lips of tour guides, park rangers and cashiers. And in the windy little town of Winslow, Ariz., a group of artists is refurbishing La Posada, Colter’s favorite hotel, which opened during the Great Depression in 1930.

So the time seemed right to tour Colter’s work. Given her railroad connection, taking the train made sense, so I started my trip at L.A.'s beautiful Union Station and ended it in the hamlet of Lamy, N.M., about 15 miles northwest of Santa Fe. (Originally the railroad bypassed Santa Fe, though a spur line now used mainly for tourist excursions eventually connected it to the main line.)

Driving would have been easier. But Amtrak’s Southwest Chief seemed convenient, leaving L.A. for Chicago every day. Moreover, Amtrak recently added a stop in Williams, Ariz., where passengers can transfer to the vintage cars of the Grand Canyon Railroad and ride 65 miles north to Grand Canyon National Park.

There were hitches along the way. After spending the night on the Southwest Chief, I arrived in Williams at 5 a.m. But the Amtrak stop, in a ponderosa pine forest visited by herds of elk, was a 10-minute shuttle bus drive away from the Grand Canyon excursion train’s depot, in the center of town. There I had to wait 4 1/2 hours before leaving for the South Rim. What’s more, there were one- to three-hour delays throughout my travels on the Southwest Chief. (“We’re not late,” an Amtrak steward told me, “just off schedule.”) And then there was the problem of being without a car once I reached the Grand Canyon.

The service and atmosphere on the Southwest Chief isn’t what I imagine it was when Fred Harvey ran the dining cars and Mary Colter designed the china. But I’m glad I took the train because Amtrak makes some effort to see that long-haul passengers are comfortable (particularly if you book a sleeper). Without a car you have fewer decisions to make, and when the lonesome whistle blows, it takes only a little imagination to feel the old romance of riding the rails.

You also have to use your imagination to appreciate Colter’s work at Los Angeles Union Station, America’s last great depot, which opened in 1939. Even if you aren’t catching a train, this refurbished Spanish Colonial Revival and Streamline Moderne gem is well worth a visit, with Moorish arches and tiles and a waiting room right out of a 1940s movie.

The Harvey House restaurant Colter decorated in the west wing is still there, but it is locked and used only for special events. You can peek through the windows, though, at the big rectangular copper-topped bar, tooled leather banquettes and gorgeous floor, patterned in zigzagging red and black tiles to suggest an Indian blanket. Colter was 70 when she decorated it, still in her artistic prime and able to add up-to-the-minute touches--such as the Art Deco lighting fixtures--to the room’s pervasive Arts and Crafts design scheme.

Mary Jane Elizabeth Colter developed her passion for the handmade, homespun Arts and Crafts style as a student at the California School of Design in San Francisco. While her contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright, forged the road to modernism, Colter drew inspiration from Spanish-Mexican haciendas and the art of Hopi, Zuni and Navajo Indians.

With bright violet-blue eyes, her hair in a flyaway French roll and her radio tuned to a Mexican music station, she roamed the old Southwest, exploring archeological sites, collecting baskets, jewelry and pots, and getting to know the Native American craftspeople who made them. Besides the crafts she bought to decorate her hotels and shops, Colter eventually amassed a large personal collection of important Indian artifacts that she bequeathed to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.

After she graduated from design school, her first commission was the decoration of the 1902 Indian Building at Albuquerque’s Harvey House (known as the Alvarado Hotel, it was demolished in 1970). She filled it with artfully arranged baskets, rugs and pots. Two years later, the company hired her to decorate the sumptuous new El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon and design a gift shop nearby, patterned on Hopi dwellings she’d visited.

When you get off the train at Grand Canyon Depot and climb the hill to El Tovar, Hopi House is the first thing you see, with its rough red stone walls gleaming in the noonday sun and two upper stories set back from the first, accessed by exterior ladders. Colter employed Hopi masons to build the shop, where Native American artists, like the renowned potter Nampeyo, gave demonstrations. It still functions as a store, and in the gallery on the second floor, pots made by Nampeyo’s daughter and granddaughter are for sale. Inside, cottonwood branches still line the ceiling between beams, and aromatic kindling smolders in corner fireplaces.

During the construction of her Grand Canyon buildings, Colter routinely made something of a nuisance of herself, forcing workers to tear down rows of rock when she spied a stone she didn’t like. Together with suiting a building to its site, this attention to detail became her hallmark. She was a cantankerous sort who could handle a pistol and took to wearing a Stetson pulled down over her ears and Indian rings on almost every finger. She never married, which made her an even greater oddity in her day.

Lookout Studio, a short walk west of Hopi House, is another early Colter work, constructed of logs and buff-colored stone in 1914 as an observatory at the edge of the canyon. From a distance it seems to be just a pile of rock, but as you get closer to the structure, now a souvenir shop, you begin to make out the crooked chimney and the terraces that provide sterling views of Indian Garden, halfway down Bright Angel Trail. Colter, who intended Lookout Studio to recall Anasazi ruins from the Four Corners area, cultivated its ramshackle air by letting weeds grow from the roof. Today it still looks not so much built as left behind.

On this trip to the Grand Canyon, I stayed in a comfortable double at El Tovar, one of the grandest Harvey Houses in the Southwest. Designed by Chicago architect Charles F. Whittlesey and decorated by Colter, the hotel’s guest rooms and public spaces have been much remodeled over the years. There’s a display outside the dining room of the Southwest Chief china Colter designed using Indian motifs.

Her work is more apparent at rustic Bright Angel Lodge, completed in 1935 about a quarter mile west of El Tovar. With its vintage reception desk, massive beams, iron candelabra and yawning fireplace, the lobby is as warm and welcoming as ever. Down the hall, the History Room has an exhibition on the Fred Harvey Co., some of the antiques Colter used in the lodge and another fireplace, this one built of layers of stone that replicate the geologic strata of the canyon.

Of all the hotels on the South Rim, Bright Angel is my favorite (not including Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon, also designed by Colter). Bright Angel was a model for later national park buildings across the country, especially those constructed during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

I signed up for a Desert View bus tour to see Colter’s stunning, 70-foot Watchtower, 25 miles east of Grand Canyon Village and built as a scenic rest stop for passengers on Fred Harvey canyon tours. She took great pains with this 1932 re-creation of an ancient Indian watchtower, visiting archeological sites at Hovenweep and Mesa Verde for inspiration, incorporating petroglyphs in its rough stone walls, commissioning the Hopi painter Fred Kabotie to do interior murals, and writing a detailed manual for guides.

Many consider the Watchtower Colter’s masterpiece because of its extraordinary authenticity and the way it fits into the landscape. And it is impressive, standing at the edge of the canyon with unparalleled 360-degree views. But I’m fonder of Hermit’s Rest, built in 1914 at what is now the end of West Rim Drive. (I reached it by national park shuttle, a 30-minute ride.)

Colter had in mind a stone shanty made by a mountain man, which is still what Hermit’s Rest suggests. Funny little clerestory windows, a huge, half-domed fireplace and views across the canyon to Point Sublime are part of its appeal, as is the network of hiking trails that starts nearby. About 200 feet below, I found the tumbledown stone terrace where Colter used to hide out, sketching and chain-smoking.

By the late 1920s, Colter had become an important member of the Fred Harvey team and a force to be reckoned with. So when the need arose for a new Harvey House in Winslow, midway between Flagstaff and the New Mexico border, she got the job. Unfortunately, the Harvey Co. couldn’t anticipate the Great Depression or the fact that the automobile (and later the airplane) would put passenger trains nearly out of business and the landmark Harvey hotels they supported on the railroad’s disposal list.

Colter arrived in Winslow in 1929 to build a 70-room inn, La Posada, patterned after a Spanish hacienda, with graceful arcades, courtyards, fountains and antiques. I got there 70 years later, after a two-hour train ride east from Williams on the Southwest Chief. The great wonder of it all is that when I climbed off the train, La Posada was not only still there, steps away from the tracks, but also open for business, thanks to a young couple from Southern California.

When Allan Affeldt bought La Posada in 1996, his wife, artist Tina Mion, thought it was just another one of Al’s harebrained schemes. But the couple moved in a year later and, with the help of several artist friends, started chipping away at sealed-up archways, retooling the plumbing and redecorating the rooms, all named for luminaries who stayed there. I got the Mary Colter room in the west wing, which was pretty and comfortable but not nearly as luxurious as the Howard Hughes Hideaway or the Teddy Roosevelt Suite.

Winslow is a slow-lane town, but there are things to do, like visiting the Old Trails Museum. There I met one of the founders of a group called the Winslow Harvey Girls, who appear in parades and other town events in full Harvey Girl regalia. I also rented a car and drove about 50 miles east to Petrified Forest National Park, where I toured the Painted Desert Inn, built in 1924 and redecorated by Colter in 1947. It is being renovated, but you can still see the murals Colter commissioned from Hopi artist Kabotie.

The Southwest Chief picks up passengers in Winslow and runs parallel to Interstate 40 and bumpy old Route 66 to Albuquerque. Along the way you pass the Painted Desert, Mt. Taylor and the Acoma Indian Reservation. In Gallup, N.M., where Colter’s El Navajo Hotel opened in 1923 after being blessed by medicine men, the train picks up a Navajo host who lectures about the region in the double-decker lounge car. There’s a 20-minute stop in Albuquerque, with Native American craftspeople selling their wares by the track, before the Southwest Chief turns north for Lamy and Santa Fe.

Lamy lost its Colter-decorated Harvey House, El Ortiz, in 1943. The Posada closed its doors in 1957, the same year Gallup’s El Navajo was razed to make space for a parking lot. Colter retired to Santa Fe after working for the Fred Harvey Co. for 40 years. She died in 1958 at 89.

When I finally reached Santa Fe--by Amtrak shuttle from Lamy--I stopped by La Fonda hotel on the plaza, which Colter decorated in 1925 and redecorated in 1949. Her beautiful fireplaces and Spanish Colonial light fixtures are intact, as are a few of the murals she commissioned for the hotel.

There and in the galleries on Canyon Road that showcase “Santa Fe style” arts and crafts, I saw the shadow of Colter’s hand as a collector. Fortunately, her architecture is more visible. To see it, all you have to do is follow the trail she blazed across the Southwest.