Hike 6 miles from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim to the Colorado River below and you’ll descend nearly 5,000 jaw-dropping, eye-bulging feet before arriving at a string of simple cabins and a dining hall crafted with rounded river stones and wooden eaves.
In 1922, they were going to name the new lodging after National Park champion and 26th President Theodore Roosevelt. Then the project’s pioneering female architect from St. Paul spoke up.
“A woman ahead of her time, Mary Colter had other ideas,” according to a Grand Canyon pamphlet. “The company’s architect, with her characteristic independence, preferred the more romantic, mysterious-sounding ‘Phantom Ranch.’ ”
Colter grew up in St. Paul and taught drawing at Mechanic Arts High School for 15 years. She started working summers for Fred Harvey, who wooed westward travelers with upscale hotels, shops and restaurants along the Santa Fe Railway. By 1910, Colter joined Harvey’s company full-time for what became a 40-year career as an architect and designer. Her legacy lives on at Phantom Ranch and up on the rim, where her Grand Canyon designs include the Hopi House, Hermit’s Rest and the Watchtower.
This marks the 100th year for Grand Canyon National Park, attracting 6 million annual visitors. But it’s also the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter — once dubbed “one of the world’s best-known unknown architects.”
Her story “is a particularly American one, a version of the ‘Go West, young man’ theme that brought considerable success, in this case, to a woman,” according to Arnold Berke, author of “Mary Colter, Architect of the Southwest.”
Despite her gender-busting career in the male-dominated architecture field, Colter never found much fame during her lifetime.
“Colter was virtually unknown,” partly because male bosses often signed off on her work, Sarah Allaback wrote in her 2008 book “The First American Women Architects.”
After Colter died at 88 in 1958 and was buried in St. Paul’s Oakland Cemetery, “she slipped out of sight, reduced to an obscure footnote, if that,” Berke wrote in 2002. Slowly, he noted, “Colter’s life and contributions have begun to receive the recognition that they always deserved but never enjoyed.”
Long before designing Grand Canyon buildings and hotels in the Southwest, Colter was born a world away — in Pittsburgh in 1869. Her Irish immigrant parents moved to St. Paul in 1880 when Mary was 11. She came from humble means. Her parents operated a clothing store and worked in the furniture business. When Mary graduated from high school in St. Paul in 1883 — at 14 — her father worked as a St. Paul sewer inspector.
Colter’s dad died suddenly from a blood clot in his brain in 1886. He was 53, she was 17, her widowed mother was 47 and her older sister was 23.
“Mary urged them to send her to art school so that she would be able to support them by teaching art,” Virginia Grattan wrote in her 1980 book, “Mary Colter: Builder Upon Red Earth.”
Colter graduated from the California School of Design in Oakland in 1890 and apprenticed for an architect. Returning to the Midwest, she taught drawing and architecture in Menomonie, Wis., before launching her 15-year stint at what became Mechanic Arts High School.
Teaching freehand and mechanical drawing, she saw her monthly salary climb to $90. “With her exuberant energy and ambition,” Grattan said, Colter often lectured on world history and architecture and served as a literary editor at the St. Paul Globe newspaper.
On a summer trip to San Francisco, she visited a friend who worked at a Fred Harvey shop. She told the manager she would be interested in joining the company. Later, as she was making repairs on the roof of a family cabin in northern Minnesota, a telegram arrived with a job offer.
Her Grand Canyon structures and Southwestern hotel designs eschewed the American architectural trends of the time that, in Grattan’s words, “superimposed” Europe’s classical Roman columns “on the American landscape.
“Mary Colter was more interested in rediscovering the cultural heritage of the region than in imitating European styles,” Grattan said.
She often trekked to remote corners of the Southwest to study Indian ruins and artifacts.
One anecdote shows her love of Indian art wound back to her St. Paul childhood. A relative gave her family gifts from Indian Country, including sketches drawn by Dakota prisoners held after Custer’s Last Stand at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn.
When her mother heard about a smallpox outbreak on the reservation, she burned all the family’s Indian artifacts — except some sketches Mary hid under her mattress. Mary later called those drawings “her most priceless and precious possession” and bequeathed them to the battlefield’s National Monument in Montana.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.