Forgotten in St. Paul, Mary Colter shaped the West

It took a recent trip to the Grand Canyon for me to learn about one of St. Paul’s most accomplished and fascinating but least remembered luminaries.

I spent a few days at the canyon hiking its eye-popping trails, going on a mule ride and drinking in its rich cultural and geological lore. Along the way I kept passing these utterly charming, rustic, free-form structures of stone and timber that looked like they had sprouted from the South Rim rather than merely built there.

Hopi House, a multi-roofed sandstone pueblo that houses Indian art and gifts. Lookout Studio, a jagged edifice of stone tenuously pitched on the canyon’s edge. Hermit’s Rest, an old stagecoach rest stop with a fireplace alcove fit for a mountain man.

The signs said that the architect for all these buildings, and others in the park, was Mary Colter of St. Paul, Minn. Who?

I found out when I got home. According to an article by architect Diane Trout-Oertel, Colter grew up in St. Paul and graduated from what is now Central High School in 1883. After a few years at a California design school, she returned to St. Paul and taught art for several years at Mechanic Arts High School.

Then in 1902 she won the job of designing a New Mexico museum for the Fred Harvey Co., a Western hotel and restaurant chain. From there she went on to design several buildings for Harvey, typically returning between assignments to her Selby Avenue apartment.

She eventually settled in California and then Santa Fe, where she died in 1958 at the age of 88. The St. Paul newspapers were on strike at the time and the Minneapolis Star carried only a brief announcement, so few in the Twin Cities noticed when she was buried a short time later at Oakland Cemetery in St. Paul.

“Recognition of Colter in St. Paul is long overdue, and she surely deserves to be added to the city’s honor roll of outstanding citizens,” Trout-Oertel writes.

I’ll second that. Her name is writ large in the astonishing buildings she designed for Harvey in the Southwest, but it’s nowhere to be found in the city that first nurtured her talent.

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