Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (April 4, 1869 – January 8, 1958) was an American architect and designer.
Mary Colter was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a child, Colter traveled with her family through frontier Minnesota, Colorado and Texas in the years after the American Civil War. After her father died in 1886, Colter attended the California School of Design in San Francisco. In 1901, the Fred Harvey Company (of the famous Harvey Houses) offered her the job of decorating the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque. Colter began working full-time for the company in 1910, moving from interior designer to architect.
For the next thirty years, working as one of few female architects and in rugged conditions, Colter completed 21 projects for Fred Harvey. She created a series of landmark hotels and commercial lodges through the southwest, including the La Posada, the 1922 Phantom Ranch buildings at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and five structures on the south rim of the Grand Canyon: the Hopi House (1905), Hermit's Rest (1914), the observatory Lookout Studio (1914), the 70-foot Desert View Watchtower (1932) with its hidden steel structure, and the Bright Angel Lodge (1935); Colter decorated, but did not design, the El Tovar Hotel. The four "Mary Jane Colter Buildings", as a group, were listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1987. She worked with Pueblo Revival Style architecture, Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, Mission Revival Style architecture, Streamline Moderne, American Craftsman, and Arts and Crafts Movement styles, often synthesizing several together evocatively. Colter's work is credited with inspiring the Pueblo Deco style.
Fred Harvey conquered the west along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway through strategic use of pretty girls in high-necked collars, tourism, and souvenirs. He had anthropologists on staff to locate the most likely Native American art forms and artifacts like pottery, jewelry, and leatherwork. He had merchandisers on staff to redesign those artifacts into goods. And he had Mary Colter on staff to produce vernacular commercial architecture in strategic locations, based on some concern for authenticity, floorplans calculated for good user experience and commercial function, and a playful sense of dramatic theme inside and out.
A chain-smoking perfectionist, she cared about backstory and attractive features. Colter conceived Hermit's Rest as a sort of folly, as if it had been wired together by a reclusive mountain man, and a recent cleaning has unfortunately eliminated the artificial age-effects from the Hopi House. The Watchtower is the product of some travel and research, and she cared enough to prepare a written manual for guides. She also changed the name of Phantom Ranch (from Roosevelt Ranch) to capitalize on better mental images. The Bright Angel became a de facto model for subsequent National Park Service and Civilian Conservation Corps structures in the following years, influencing the look and feel of an entire architectural genre some call National Park Service rustic, and setting the precedent for using site materials and bold, large-scale design elements (the use of native fieldstone and rough-hewn wood at the bottom of the Grand Canyon was deemed the only practical thing to do). The Bright Angel Lodge also has a remarkable "geological fireplace" in the lodge's History Room, with rocks arranged floor to ceiling in the same order as the geologic strata in the canyon walls.
Colter's masterwork was probably the 1923 El Navajo in Gallup, New Mexico. Remarkable for its forward-looking blend of modern and Pueblo Revival Style architecture and the incorporation of Navajo sand paintings, the hotel was razed shortly before Colter's death. Of all of her work, though, Colter considered the sprawling, hacienda-style Spanish Colonial Revival architecture La Posada Hotel (1929) in Winslow, Arizona, her masterpiece. She designed the entire resort from the building to its gardens, furniture, china—even the maids' uniforms. The Santa Fe railroad closed the hotel in 1957, and the hotel was later turned into a drab 1960s office building. Fortunately, the hotel and gardens have recently been restored to its original grandeur.
Colter was the designer and creator of "Mimbreño china" and flatware for the Super Chief Chicago-Los Angeles rail service, begun in 1936 by the Santa Fe Railroad. Colter, herself an Indian art expert, based her designs on 1100 CE Mimbres patterns excavated by Harriet and Cornelius Cosgrove at the Swarts Ruin in New Mexico from 1924-1927. Mimbreño railroad china was produced until 1970; the Super Chief and business class dining services were discontinued in May 1971 with the takeover by Amtrak. Individual Mimbreño plates and pieces were offered to the public for the first time later in 1971 in two large public offerings. Mimbreño china remains avidly and competitively collected, with individual plates selling for many hundreds of dollars. (A line of authorized reproductions has been produced since 1989.)
Late in her career, Colter designed the exuberant station cafe and a surprisingly sleek, Streamline Moderne cocktail lounge at Union Station in Los Angeles, now padlocked except for occasional movie shoots and Los Angeles Conservancy tours. Mary Colter retired to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1948 and donated her collection of Native American pottery and Indian relics to Mesa Verde National Park.
- Historic American Buildings Survey: Bright Angel Lodge, Grand Canyon Village, South Rim Refer to "6 data pages"
- Daniels, Mary (November 11, 1990). "Pueblo Deco: Americana Architecture". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 3 July 2013.
- Berke, Arnold (2002). Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest. Princeton Architectural Press. ISBN 1-56898-345-X.
- History of La Posada Hotel in Winslow, AZ
Media related to Mary Colter at Wikimedia Commons