The sun blazed high in a brassy sky, and heat danced in undulating waves across the high plateau town of Winslow, Arizona. In the far distance, a train with the name Santa Fe Railway embossed on its side hurried along steel rails toward the La Posada Hotel. It was May 15, 1930, opening day for the newest link in the chain of Fred Harvey hotels found along the Santa Fe line between Chicago and the Pacific Coast.
The main lobby of the grand establishment was crowded with local and state politicians, Native Americans, businessmen and their wives, enthusiastic patrons, and, of course Harvey Girls, those dedicated women who worked as wait staff at restaurants and hotels from Kansas to California. Among those celebrating the launch of La Posada was its architect, Mary Colter. The sixty-two-year-old designer beamed with pride as she surveyed the rambling earth tinted structure. Inspired by the great ranchos of old Mexico, the hotel was the embodiment of simplicity, spacious comfort and colorful interest, characteristic of early Spanish craftmanship.
One of Mary’s friends handed her a glass of champagne to toast the event, but, before she could raise her glass, a pair of rowdy, well-dressed cowboys on horseback burst into the entrance of the magnificent vestibule. One of the exuberant men rode over to Mary, hopped off his horse, scooped her up in her arms, and placed her on the check-in counter. The two cowboys celebrated Mary’s accomplishment by firing their guns into the air. Before the gathering had a chance to fully process the actions of the joyful pair, the cowboys quickly walked their horses out of the hotel.
Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter’s business relationship with Fred Harvey, the hotelier, restauranteur and retailer, and the Santa Fe Railway lasted more than forty years. The gifted architect and designer created numerous, large scale projects for the Harvey Company and the rail line. All of which helped promote both businesses and made train travel pleasurable for those heading west.
Mary was born on April 4, 1869, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and from an early age demonstrated an artistic talent. She relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota, with her parents in 1880 and graduated from high school in 1883 at fourteen. Mary’s father passed away in 1886 and shortly afterwards she moved to San Francisco to attend the California School of Design. Her chief interest was arts and crafts, an artistic movement that emerged during the late Victorian period. It was an art form characterized by hand-craftmanship, native materials, honest construction, and clean, simple designs. Mary had first become interested in arts and crafts when she was eleven and a relative gave her family a half dozen drawings made by a Sioux Indian. The drawings depicted the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn.* Not only did those drawings influence Mary artistically, but sparked a lifelong interest in Southwest Indian tribes.
Once Mary graduated from the California School of Design, she returned to Minnesota to help care for her mother and young sister. She took a teaching position at the Mechanic Arts High School in St. Paul. When Mary wasn’t helping students develop their own creative styles she continued with her own studies in design, archaeology, world history, and architecture. She became a much sought after artist in the Twin Cities area, designing displays for the armory building in St. Paul, crafting metal dishes, and making jewelry.
A chance meeting with Minnie Harvey Huckel in early 1902 changed Mary’s life forever. Minnie was a collector of Southwestern art with aspirations of having her father, Fred Harvey, display and sell Native American art from the Southwest in the gift stores in his hotels. Mary and Minnie had a great deal in common and became fast friends. Minnie admired Mary’s work and in a short time persuaded the executives at the Fred Harvey Company to hire the rising designer and architect star. The thriving corporation needed a decorator who had an imagination and was familiar with Indian arts and crafts. Mary was well-suited for the position.
Fred Harvey opened his first restaurant for the Santa Fe Railway in 1876. Before Mary was hired, he had spent twenty-five years adding to his chain of eateries along the railways. His contract with the rail line included the development of hotels on the routes and exclusive rights to its dining car service. The Fred Harvey Company was a growing concern and someone with Mary’s talent was essential if the organization was to advance further.
Mary’s first assignment for the Harvey Company was to furnish and decorate the Indian and Mexican Building and Museum in Albuquerque, located in the center of what newspapers in 1902 referred to as “the finest hotel in the Southwest.” According to the May 10, 1902, edition of the Albuquerque Citizen, the massive structure included the Santa Fe Railway depot on one side and the hotel called The Alvarado on the other. Built at a cost of $125,000, the main building was three-hundred feet long and one-hundred ninety feet wide, with open court and peristyle. “An Arcade 200 feet long connects the hotel with the new Santa Fe passenger depot, an edifice which is in perfect harmony with the artistic lines of the Alvarado,” the article noted. “The central building is three stories high, with wings and annexes of two stories, and wide verandas. The walls are plastered with a cement of drab color, in pleasing contrast to the red tile roof.”
The museum was one of the first things passengers saw while disembarking from the train saw. The Southwestern Indian artifacts Mary used to decorate the shelves and tables included handwoven rugs, clay pottery, baskets with intricate patterns, and beadwork featuring designs of the Zuni god of war. The pieces she selected to display and how she placed them about the rooms told a story of the artifacts’ makers and creativity. Santa Fe Railway ticket holders delighted in examining the profusion of wares to be purchased.
Executives at the Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railway were thrilled with the job Mary did. The way she had grouped items together to inspire buyers to decorate their homes using the artwork exhibited and demonstrated a sense of salesmanship the businessowners appreciated. Mary wasn’t simply an artist, she understood commerce as well.
In 1904, Mary began work on a second project for the Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railway. Looking to capitalize on the growing tourist attraction that was the Grand Canyon, the two firms decided to build a market for Native American crafts on the south rim of the natural wonder. Plans to construct a train depot and hotel in the area were being made as well. Mary was tasked with designing a structure that would acknowledge the influence of the Indians of the Southwest and act in harmony with the setting. She took her inspiration from the Hopi Indian dwellings – multi-storied homes made from mud, native stone, and local timbers for ceiling beams. According to the biography about Mary entitled Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest by Arnold Berke, the architect “reproduced the size, proportions, and materials using local Kaibab limestone for the structure, Coconino sandstone for the facing, and peeled, local logs for the floor and roof supports, although she relied on sections of Santa Fe rails to span some of the wider openings.”
Finished on New Year’s Day 1905, the three-story building was reddish in color, with mesquite pinyon wood ladders that provided access to the terraces on each level. Mary’s attention to detail made certain the interior of the pueblo was as genuine as the exterior. The corner fireplaces and chimneys were made from broken pottery jars stacked and mortared together and vigas were installed on the ceiling and thatched with young trees.
Mary decorated the Hopi House with Kachina dolls, baskets, wood carvings, pottery, jewelry, and hand-woven Navajo blankets and rugs. Apart from the main area of the structure where the majority of the goods for sale were housed, Mary set aside rooms to display artwork of the Northwest Coastal Indians and artifacts of the Spanish-Mexican culture.
When the Hopi House officially opened for business, customers enjoyed a unique shopping experience. In addition to being able to browse through one-of-a-kind arts and crafts, they got to see the Native artisans at work. Whether weaving rugs or baskets, Hopi Indians were on sight to share with consumers the skill and creativity that went into each piece made.
In 1910, Mary took a permanent position with the Harvey Company and relocated to Kansas City, Missouri, where the corporate offices were located. She frequently traveled across country via the Santa Fe Railway to visit Fred Harvey restaurants and hotels. One of the trips she took was to the town of Lamy, New Mexico, south of Santa Fe. Lamy was an important location for the railroad as it was the junction between the railroad’s main east-west line and Santa Fe. It was determined that a hotel needed to be built at the location to service train passengers and railroad crews who worked in the area maintaining the passage. The hotel was called the El Ortiz, and Mary’s job was to decorate the interior.
The palatial hotel was a one-story affair with ten guest rooms which opened onto an enclosed patio where an elaborate fountain could be seen. Once again Mary used a mixture of Mexican and Native influences to create an aesthetically pleasing look. Using sections of old telephone poles, she constructed vigas for the ceilings and planter boxes. As in her other designs, Navajo rugs, beaded wall hangings, and Mexican colonial benches, bowls, trays, and clay jars decorated the interior. The main foyer of the hotel featured a large fireplace with patterned brick work. Thick, dark wooden tables and chairs, some with leather backs perched on top of colorful Native rugs filled the inviting room. The light fixtures and sconces Mary designed were rustic and made with Southwestern textiles.
The El Ortiz was celebrated by executives at the Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railway as “the gem of the rail line.” According to the July 24, 1911, edition of the Arizona Republic, visitors were routinely surprised to find such a beautiful establishment in such a remote location. “There is no other feature of the Santa Fe that has so served to make the line popular as has the chain of perfectly equipped restaurants and hotels created along the route from Chicago to the Pacific Coast,” the article elaborated. “Like an oasis in the desert, the dining and lunch rooms have been placed where they are most available and convenient to the traveling public.
“So careful have been the managers of the system in placing these houses at the point where they are most needed that there is at present not a single city or junction point of importance along the entire line of the Santa Fe where the sign ‘Fred Harvey’ does not appear before a dining or lunch room….
“No description is adequate to the taste used in the construction of the Harvey hotels, and the excitement of travelers alighting tired and travel worn, to find themselves before a hotel capable of giving a service not surpassed in the country’s largest cities, furnish the most eloquent and convincing praise of the architect, the builder, and above all, of Harvey himself, who had the foresight to realize the need of such a system, and the initiative and ability to perfect it.
“Traveling over the line of the Santa Fe a few days ago, the worker found himself held over at Lamy, a junction point on the main line. Three hours of waiting were staring him in the face and a drizzling rain outdoors made the prospect a little worse than dismal. On sight of a Harvey house with a peculiar sign before it marked ‘El Ortiz’ he picked up courage to believe that the evening might be pleasant in spite of the murky weather.
“A cold wind had come up with the rain, and the glow of a log fire in the open fire place of the large hotel living room gave a cordial welcome that caused the rain and the hours of waiting to be forgotten…. ‘Who would have expected to find such a beautiful room and such a building in this isolated place?’ the traveler wondered aloud. As no one had expected it, except those who knew the perfection of the Harvey system by previous experience there was no replies advanced to this wondering interrogation.”
Buffalo Bill Cody appreciated the hotel and Mary’s work as well. The January 23, 1911, edition of the Santa Fe New Mexican reported on the Wild West showman’s stay. “Bill was greatly impressed with the Spanish style of the El Ortiz and after he had viewed the placita and seen the various rooms, he toasted his shins in front of the immense fireplace on which blazed a log that reminded him of the frontier days,” the article noted. “The great scout and hunter said with a sign of pleasure, ‘Gee, but this would make a cracker jack ranch house, now wouldn’t it, boys?’”
After proving herself with three distinctive projects, the powers-that-be at the Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railway decided to give Mary the monumental task of decorating the restaurants and shops at the Kansas City Union Station. Construction for the magnificent structure began in 1913 and cost $7 million. Fourteen railroad lines would use the station and hundreds of thousands of passengers would visit the train stop. It would be the third largest train station in the United States and the principals at the Santa Fe Railway and the Harvey Company wanted the terminus to be beautiful and modern, and to provide to the best comfort and convenience for travelers.
Designing the Union Station was much grander than Mary’s previous assignments. She decided to create a look that ran counter to what she had done before. Instead of oak beams and mantels she used Roman columns and gold inlay countertops. It was opulent with marble floors and crystal chandeliers. A massive celebration was held on October 30, 1914, to commemorate the grand opening of the station Mary had spent more than a year decorating. “Travelers will be sent on their way in style,” an article in the November 6, 1914, edition of the Atchison Daily Globe noted about the terminal. “Every convenience has been installed for the service of travelers. Elevators will convey passengers from train sheds to waiting rooms; information booths are conveniently situated in the main lobby; facilities for handling baggage are the most up-to-date. The dining and lunch rooms are under the management of Fred Harvey, and that means perfection in the culinary department.”
Shortly after Mary completed the job in Kansas City, she began another project out west. She returned to the Grand Canyon to oversee construction on a building she designed that would be known as Hermit’s Rest. The structure would serve as a rest area for tourists disembarking the Santa Fe train and horse drawn carriages traveling along the trail of the south rim of the canyon. Sightseers could picnic or have afternoon tea at the scenic location.
A suggestion was made early on in the planning by an executive at the Harvey Company that Mary design a rest stop that looked like a Swiss chalet. She disregarded that idea and decided to create a hideaway that resembled a place a hermit might build. Mary not only designed the unique building, but helped with the construction as well; from the selection of the timber to be used to the placement of every stone. When completed the structure looked exactly as Mary had hoped – a wobbly pile of boulders and timber ready to tumble into the canyon.
The interior of Hermit’s Rest was one large room, forty-six by eighteen feet, with a large fireplace and hardwood floors dotted with the skins of wild animals. Travelers passed through an arch of massive boulders as they made their way to the rest stop. Mary installed an immense bell she found at an antique store in the archway.
Over the years, tourists from all over the world used the setting as a perfect spot to photograph family and friends. The cost to build Hermit’s Rest was $39,000. Mary’s accomplishment was praised by administrators at the railroad, the Harvey Company, and by vacationers to the spot. “Everything around bespeaks the hand and ideas of a genius in design and workmanship,” a reporter in the May 29, 1915, edition of the Ogden Standard offered about Mary’s creation.
Lookout Studio was created as a space where tourists could best view the scenic Grand Canyon and where they could purchase traditional handmade Southwestern and Native American items. Perched on a cliff, Mary designed the building to look as though it was growing out of the surrounding ledges. The structure, built in 1914, was made from Kaibab limestone, had three viewing decks, and a crooked chimney. Mary, who intended Lookout Studio to recall the Anasazi ruins from the Four Corners area, created its ramshackle air by letting weeds grow from the roof. The rough features further allowed the building to blend in with the landscape. Mary’s goal with all of the construction she did at the Grand Canyon was to make the structures appear not so much built as left behind.
The interior of Lookout Studio was as equally well thought out as the exterior. A rustic, arched, stone fireplace stood in the main room of the building. There were exposed stone walls all around the timber-framed ceilings. The scored, concrete floors were decorated with Indian rugs and photographs of maps of the canyon were scattered about the substantial desks and tables.
A Fred Harvey Santa Fe Railroad brochure from 1938 describes Lookout Studio as “severe and contemplative.” The brochure recounted, “It’s a tiny, rustic club with bright hued Navaho rugs, electric lights, cozy fireplace, and many easy chairs. One may sit through the long, quiet, still days, and rest and read and watch the changes caused by sun and shadow upon the panorama spread below.”
Tickets on the Santa Fe Railway increased as news of the Harvey Company’s contributions to the Grand Canyon area was promoted. Additional lodging was necessary to accommodate the steady influx of tourists to the Arizona location. Once again Mary was called upon to create such a building. In late 1916, she began designing a collection of cottages to be built at the head of Bright Angel Trail at the south rim of the canyon. The sketches she made for the project were of stone cabins with vigas that protruded above the main and rear entrances. The building of Indian Gardens, as it was tentatively called, was halted in April 1917 when the United States entered World War I. The government appropriated the railways to transport supplies from one area of the country to the other. Train service to the Grand Canyon was halted until the conflict could be resolved.
Mary’s services were not needed by the Santa Fe Railway or the Fred Harvey Company for the Grand Canyon area until 1921 when another tourist facility was needed. This time Mary would be working on a project inside the canyon rather than on the rim. She called her design Phantom Ranch. It would be comprised of a main lodge and four, two-person cabins. The modest stone framed buildings would be constructed using material gathered at the location. According to Mary Colter’s biography, the wood for the doors and windows had to be hauled to the site by mule. Chimneys for the fireplaces and low-pitched gable roofs were featured on each building. The stained, muted color used to paint the wood and the green used for the roofs were selected because they mingled perfectly with the setting.
The grand opening of Phantom Ranch was held on November 9, 1922. Earlier in the year a circular about the destination had been issued by the Santa Fe Railway promotional department. The circular encouraged tourists to take the train to the Grand Canyon and hike the trails to the “beautiful” Phantom Ranch. This unique little ranch, occupying several acres alongside Bright Angel Creek and walled in on two sides by rocks thousands of feet high, is about half a mile beyond the suspension bridge across the Colorado River where Bright Angel Canyon opens into the granite gorge,” the Santa Fe Railway advertisement read. “It is the deepest down of any canyon ranch in the world. There’s nothing like it anywhere.”
Mary’s next venture to enhance traveling by rail was the renovation of the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was the largest hotel in the Harvey Company chain. The improvements Mary made to the establishment, built in the early 1900s, cost more than a quarter million dollars. The wing she designed to be added onto the existing structure was comprised of seventy-six bathrooms, each with a private bath, a barber shop, and an assembly hall seating two hundred fifty people. Mary’s plan included adding decorative treatments to harmonize with the mission style of the hotel.
According to the January 1, 1922, edition of The Evening Herald, Mary was committed to preserving the Spanish atmosphere of the establishment. “On each side of the addition there will be a little Spanish garden surrounded by walls with small gateways and picturesque openings,” The Evening Herald article explained. “In the garden facing the [rail] road tracks there will be a Spanish fountain lending a charm and color which will delight the traveler…. While the decorations of the public rooms will follow the quaint Spanish style, the bedrooms of the new addition will be modern in every detail…. Throughout the length of the enlarged lobby the Spanish feeling will be strong, with walls and ceiling of rough plaster and wood and furniture of quaint mission design. Lighting will be torches designed from ancient examples of Spanish wrought-iron work.”
The renovation of the Alvarado Hotel took six months and shortly after its completion Mary traveled to Gallup, New Mexico. Gallup was on the Santa Fe Railway’s main line, and executives with the railroad and the Harvey Company believed the hotel and the train station in the fast-growing town needed an overhaul. Mary’s assignment was to duplicate the success she’d had improving the Alvarado Hotel with the El Navajo. She was grateful for the opportunity because she could once again draw on her passion for Native American arts and crafts to design a one-of-a-kind structure.
The look Mary used to revitalize the El Navajo was more modern than other structures she designed. The addition, housing a hotel and restaurant, featured sharp-edges, a flat-roof, unique groupings of windows, and square balconies. The interior of the building mirrored the distinctive exterior with smooth concrete floor and polished ceiling beams. Mary furnished the hotel with thick chairs, wicker settees, Navajo rugs, and Indian pottery and baskets. She added framed Navajo sand paintings to the walls throughout the hotel. The use of the traditional art was celebrated at the official opening of the El Navajo in late May 1923.
“I have just returned from Gallup, New Mexico, the big coal mining town in McKinley County, where I witnessed the ceremonials in the dedication of the new modern hotel called El Navajo, built by the Santa Fe Railway company for the Fred Harvey system,” an article in the May 29, 1923, edition of the El Paso Times noted about the opening of the El Navajo. “I witnessed the ceremonies performed in the dedication by the chiefs, braves and warriors of the great Navajo Indian nation, the most powerful and prosperous Indians in the United States, who still maintain their ancient customs, rites and ceremonies and are the last of the ‘vanishing Americans.’
“The unique feature of the ceremonies was the decoration of the hotel with sand paintings used with the consent and approval of the Indians, through which their religious belief and tribal history are handed down from generation to generation with the understanding that the hotel and sand paintings should be blessed by the Navajo ceremonies, and this is the first time that they ever consented for the presentation of these paintings.”
Mary Colter would go on to renovate and expand other Harvey Company hotels along the Santa Fe Railway including the La Fonda in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the La Posada in Winslow, Arizona. With each lofty assignment, Mary created extraordinary buildings that stood as comfortable works of art for railroad passengers.
One of the last significant structures Mary was asked to design at the Grand Canyon was the Watch Tower. Located on the east rim at Desert View, the Watch Tower would provide sight seers traveling to the canyon via the Santa Fe Railway with another vantage point to enjoy the natural wonder. Mary’s inspiration for the design of the observation tower was the Round Tower at Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park. The Cliff Palace in Colorado is the site of the Puebloan cliff dwellings. The Round Tower was built on top of a huge stand of stone boulder more than thirteen centuries ago.
After several months studying the Pueblo Indians’ construction techniques and the materials used, Mary submitted plans for the building to the Harvey Company in June 1931. The base of the tower was made of steel and set in concrete; layers of stone were then added to the foundation. The stones used were collected from a small canyon near the building site. The position and grouping of the stones, in addition to their size gave the appearance of being haphazardly placed, something only nature could produce. Mary strived to ensure the buildings she created at the Grand Canyon would not detract from the landscape.
Adjacent to the Watch Tower was a Kiva, a subterranean building or room used by Pueblo Indians for religious rites. It wouldn’t have been a true Mary Colter architectural design had she not paid homage to the Indians who inspired her work. The interior of the structure was decorated with murals by artist Fred Kabotie. Kabotie, a celebrated Hopi painter and illustrator, filled the Kiva with drawings depicting the physical and spiritual origins of Hopi life.
The Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railway hosted a grand opening commemorating the completion of the Watch Tower on May 13, 1922. Among the hundreds of guests on hand for the event were more than sixty native dancers, drummers, and chanters. The Indians performed a dance to bless the building. During the dance, gifts of apples and oranges were presented and distributed among the Hopi Indian children. According to the May 22, 1933, edition of the San Bernardino County Sun, the giving of the fruit was an act of charity to win consideration from the “mighty rain gods.”
The other invited guests who came to admire the newly constructed landmark expressed their admiration for the work and the setting. “From the Watch Tower at Desert View, a high point twenty-five miles east of El Tovar hotel and Bright Angel Lodge, you get an extended view of the river which at this point is five miles down, and an exceptionally long-range view of the Canyon, both east and west,” one newspaper report at the opening ceremony explained. “From the Watch Tower we could see, in the far distance, the Painted Desert where is located the Hopi and the Navaho Indian reservation. From here you can also trace the course of the Little Colorado with its seven to one-thousand-foot sheer, granite walls, and note where it joins the Colorado River. It was breathtaking.”
Executives at the Santa Fe Railway and the Harvey Company were confident such reports would reach hundreds of individuals and their families looking for a vacation destination. The hope of the two major businesses was to encourage travelers to come west and experience the extraordinary landscapes as well as the Native American lifestyle. For more than twenty years, Mary Colter’s contributions helped the companies realized their objective.