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Television Review

Colter Built Her Own Vision of the West

July 24, 1999|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The list of celebrated women in the history of 20th century architecture is a short one. The few who managed to overcome the prejudices that have excluded them from the profession were often undermined by the competitive egos of male colleagues, who were convinced of the fundamentally greater importance of their own careers.

"Mary Jane Colter: House Made of Dawn," which airs Sunday at midnight on KCET-TV, is the story of one of the rare women who broke through these boundaries to make a significant contribution to American architecture. As a designer, she stood outside the mainstream of her historical time.

During the first half of the century, while Modernism was reinventing the language of architecture for a new machine age, Colter was designing rustic hotels that harked back to more romantic images of the American landscape. At its worst, her work slipped into quaint sentimentality. But the best of her designs--rough stone buildings with heavy post-and-beam roofs set amid dramatic natural settings--are wonderful expressions of the mythological American West, a place of simple truths and innocent charms.

Colter honed that vision working for the Fred Harvey Co., designing themed hotels that were meant to draw an ever-increasing flood of tourists to the Santa Fe Railroad. But Colter was clearly too sensitive to the nuances of local culture to become a mere promoter of kitschy sideshows. A restrained simplicity was a feature of all her best work.

At Hermit's Rest, for instance, built in 1914 on the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, stone rubble walls, low arched ceilings and gently stepped floors subtly mimic the bedding planes of the canyon walls. La Posada--a Spanish-inspired fantasy built along the Santa Fe line in New Mexico--is equally attuned to its natural surroundings, its long, low lines hugging the desert landscape. In later years she turned to Art Deco themes, designing the Fred Harvey Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge in Los Angeles' Union Station.

Sadly, this documentary never places Colter in a broader historical perspective, either as a woman or as an artist struggling to find her voice. Nor does it raise the underlying question for any woman working in architecture today: What was it in Colter's psychological makeup that allowed her to accomplish so much in a world that remains dominated by men? For the women who have long searched in vain for role models in their profession, that oversight will be particularly annoying.

* "Mary Jane Colter: House Made of Dawn" airs Sunday at midnight on KCET-TV.

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