Mary Jane Colter
Many of us can probably remember back when we were just getting into this business as a raw recruit, a trainee, a “luggage boatman.” Learning your way down there meant, primarily, “Don't screw up.” This translated simply into: “Don’t flip, wrap, sink or die.” Learn to run a safe boat. My mentors were, I thought, casual in their treatment of the luggage boatman. Terse, cryptic instructions were usually issued just above rumbling drops. Things like “Gimme some room...and read your own water!” Gulp. One piece of advice stuck with me, one that I like to pass along to incoming trainees, mainly because I think it holds true for all of us: “It’s a big school down there.” Boy is it ever. Seems like you learn something every trip. Whether it’s forcibly acquired (i.e. inflicted) or discovered, or maybe its out of curiosity. All of us get a good question asked of us once in a while; those are the ones that you don't know the answer to, fact or embellishment. “I better look that one up,” you think. Motivated by a passenger again. More learning. The process continues. My mentors were right: it is a big school down there...in a lot of ways.
A major source of learning is your fellow boatmen. It’s amazing what kind of stuff these people come up with, their scope and breadth of interest, their appetite for subjects connected to the experience of “that place.” Heck, some of ’em are becoming archivists, whether they know it or not. Authorities, even. Surely, Grand Canyon figures heavily in this motivational equation, this quest-for-knowledge facet of the place and the people, from all walks of life, who are drawn to it. Recently, one of these types of boatmen, Wesley Smith, argued emotionally and convincingly for something he probably knows and cares more about than the rest of us do put together: heightened recognition and protection for the Watchtower at Desert View and the rest of the buildings designed by Mary Jane Colter on the South Rim—Hermits Rest, Lookout Studio, Bright Angel Lodge and Hopi House.
Anyone who has spent a little time visiting the South Rim has probably wandered into a Mary Jane Colter building, although you most likely never heard her name even mentioned. Her designs are easily the most striking and memorable of all the buildings on South Rim, perhaps the exception being the famous El Tovar Hotel (in which she decorated the cocktail Lounge). Her interesting life and numerous accomplishments are well documented in an outstanding and highly recommended book, written by Virginia L. Grattan: Mary Colter, Builder Upon the Red Earth. In it, Grattan describes how this schoolteacher from St. Paul, Minnesota became an architect, designer and decorator for the Fred Harvey Company in 1902. Westward expansion of the Santa Fe Railroad brought the Harvey Company to Grand Canyon in 1901, where increasing numbers of passengers needed accommodations. Amazingly, Colter’s association with the Harvey Company would last over forty-six years, during which time she designed or decorated over twenty different buildings along the Santa Fe Line: La Posada, El Navajo, La Fonda, The Alvarado, and Union Stations in Kansas City, St. Louis and Los Angeles, among others. Some remain standing, others do not. To this day, the largest concentration of her buildings is at the South Rim of Grand Canyon.
In chapter one of Grattan’s book, Colter’s innovative and unique approach to design is put in it’s proper historical perspective.
“When Colter began her career with Fred Harvey, American architecture still followed the fashions of Europe… But Colter’s architecture grew out of the land, out of the richness of its History. Her buildings pay homage to the early inhabitants of the region. Native Americans had inhabited the land for a millennia and had built upon it with the materials at hand, creating dwellings in harmony with the environment… She designed not replicas of these earlier buildings, but re-creations , buildings that captured the essence of the past. She built ancient-in-appearance Indian ‘ruins’ at Grand Canyon—the Watchtower and the Lookout—after the authentic ruins of Indian towers and dwellings found in the Southwest; Hopi House after the Hopi dwellings at Oraibi, Arizona; and Bright Angel Lodge in the style of early pioneer buildings at Grand Canyon… Colter’s buildings have the simplicity, even crudity, of the early architecture after which they were patterned. For her there was charm and dignity in these rustic beginnings. Like other architects in California and the Southwest just before the turn of the century, Mary Colter was more interested in rediscovering the cultural heritage of the region than in imitating European styles. Her buildings fit their setting because they grew out of the history of the land. They belonged.” 1
This quality inherent in her buildings didn’t happen by accident. Her attention to detail is legendary, as some co-workers could attest. In preparation for her design of the proposed observation tower, Colter “remembered the ruins of prehistoric towers found in various parts of the Southwest. Among the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings were the Round Tower of Cliff Palace and the Square Tower House. The Mummy Cave Cliff Dwelling at Canyon de Chelly also had towers. There were others at Hovenweep, Wupatki, Montezuma’s Castle and Betatakin. There was ample precedence for a tower." 2
She even went so far as to charter a small plane to locate and study tower ruins, later returning overland to more closely sketch and understand these structures. This went on for about six months, until she had enough information and familiarity with these unusual ruins to build a small table-sized model, replicating each bush and tree on the proposed construction site so as to easily facilitate any changes in the design and their impacts. But that’s only a glimpse at her preparation. Colter’s research on the Watchtower, to the casual observer, borders on the obsessive. As a result there is more information available about this building than any other Colter effort. She put together a “small handbook about it for the guides of the Harvey tours. The title indicates its scope—‘Manual for Drivers and Guides Descriptive of the Indian Watchtower at Desert view and Its Relation, Architecturally, to the Prehistoric Ruins of the Southwest.’ The one-hundred page booklet gives a history of the ancient towers and kivas after which she patterned the Watchtower. The interior of the tower was decorated with Indian cave and wall drawings, and Colter gave a detailed account of what each represented and where it had been found... Consequently, the book is a treasure-trove of Indian symbols and legends." 3
What strikes one most significantly about this woman’s work is how much she cared, how intuitively she was able to incorporate her strong convictions about the surrounding country and its impact in shaping its inhabitants and their dwellings, and then translating that knowledge into the task of actually building on the brink of one of the natural world’s awesome spectacles. This was not a task to be taken lightly. And she didn’t. Again from Grattan’s book:
“Colter was a perfectionist. She could be dogmatic and intractable. She knew the effect she wanted to achieve in a project and pursued it relentlessly. And nothing escaped her scrutiny. She was a most energetic person and on many days was at the job site from early morning until late afternoon. She supervised the placement of virtually every stone in the Watchtower and made the workmen tear out a section and do it again if it didn’t look right. At that time, she was a sixty-year-old woman who had spent a lifetime advocating and defending her aesthetic vision, and she was not about to be deterred by opposition, whether it came from company officials, contractors, or stonemasons." 4 The Watchtower, some will argue, is Mary Jane’s masterpiece.
Another example of Colter’s meticulous work is displayed in her design of the “geological fire place” in Bright Angel Lodge. Beginning at the hearth level with river-worn rock, it proceeds through the layers, chronologically, all the way to the ceiling, with a Kaibab “rim.” For insurance of accuracy, she sought the help of then Park Naturalist, geologist Edwin Dinwoodie McKee, even postponing construction briefly until McKee’s return assured her that the sequence and rock types were indeed correct. It is this kind of innovation, style, and again, attention to detail that have made these projects extraordinary. Their inclusion on the registry of National Historic Landmarks* is a testimony to their value and to the time, care and energy their architect put into them.
I’d been on a personal South-Rim-Mary-Jane-tour with some fellow guides a couple years back—that was the first time I discovered Virginia Grattan’s book. Returning to the rim much too infrequently encouraged us to look at Colter’s buildings, and the Watchtower especially, with a new appreciation. But we’d come away disheartened by the amount of souvenirs cluttering the “observation rooms” and their “viewing windows”, especially the “kiva room” at the Watchtower and the entire Lookout. It seemed that the spirit in which the buildings were crafted was lost amongst the jumble of T- shirts, tomahawks and bumper-stickers. So it didn’t take Wesley long to convince me that something had to be said.
As guides in Grand Canyon, (who, by the way, work for outfitters, i.e. concessionaires) our job description includes a pretty good amount of interpretation. I thought I had better look this word up.
Websters defines interpretation as “a teaching technique that stresses appreciation and understanding, combining factual with stimulating explanatory information.” Sounds like a tall order, but not when one has a subject to draw on as rich in background and as immediately tangible as those structures that Colter put together at the South Rim.
The upcoming General Management Plan is due sometime in January 1995 for input. This will be the time to give the NPS as much feedback as possible on any number of important proposals, among them reorganization of some existing buildings (and their respective functions.) Changes are needed, and they are coming. Get involved in the process! If you’re not already on the mailing list, write to General Management Plan Information, Grand Canyon National Park Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023. Or call 602/638-7816.
We encourage vigilant restoration and additional protective measures for all the Colter buildings, as well as increased interpretive efforts. Something more befitting, more appropriate, to honor the legacy Mary Jane Colter has left us at the South Rim of Grand Canyon.
* All of Colter’s buildings on the South Rim, with the exception of the Bright Angel Lodge, are now listed on the 1993 Damaged and Threatened Natural Historic Landmarks, under Priority 2. “Priority 2 Landmarks are those which exhibit potentially serious damage or which in the near future may be seriously threatened, but the endangerment itself is not sufficiently critical at this time to warrant Priority 1 status." (From State Historical Preservation Office, Arizona State Parks)
Note: as of this writing, Hopi House is receiving extensive restoration efforts.
footnotes: Mary Colter, Builder Upon The Red Earth by Virginia L. Grattan, published by Grand Canyon Association (formerly GCNHA), Box 399, Grand Canyon, AZ. 86023.-GCA is a non-profit organization.