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Destination: Southwest

A Grand Canyon Original

By train, searching for the legacy of Mary Colter, an unsung architect who designed many of the hotels and unique buildings that dot the South Rim and introduced travelers to the Southwest

November 07, 1999|SUSAN SPANO / TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. — It takes something special to make you look away from the Grand Canyon. But if you stand on the South Rim, there are several things capable of wresting your gaze from the natural wonder at your feet. All of them are man-made marvels.

Or I should say woman-made, because they were created between 1905 and 1937 by a talented and driven architect named Mary Colter. Her buildings, including Hopi House, Lookout Studio, Hermit's Rest and the Watchtower, decorate the canyon's brink like a shelf of curios, all perfectly part of the spectacular setting.

Colter designed these and other buildings when she worked for the Fred Harvey Co., which operated hotels, restaurants, shops and dining cars for the Santa Fe Railway beginning in 1876. At a time when the Southwest was still wild, a train trip from Chicago to L.A. was dicier than the Trans Siberian Railroad is today. The hospitality company and its Harvey Girls, clad in the white and black high-necked uniforms Judy Garland later made famous in the 1946 movie about the waitresses, welcomed and coddled travelers, helping open the region to tourism. Moreover, the goods sold in its shops, the decor of its hotels and the look of its advertising introduced Southwestern arts and crafts to America.

Colter was no starched and smiling Harvey Girl. But she played a huge role in putting the Southwest, beginning with the Grand Canyon, on the map by creating hotels and shops along the Santa Fe's railroad tracks and by decorating the interiors of dazzling new train stations in Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Mo., and L.A.

Until recently, however, she was little known, partly because some of her hotels have been torn down and her work as an interior designer has been obscured by remodeling. But Colter, born in 1869 in Pittsburgh, was at the time one of the few female architects working in the U.S., a woman in a man's world who had to fight hard for recognition.

Lately, interest in her has grown. She was the subject of two recent documentaries, an award-winning educational film and a public television special broadcast last summer. When I visited the Grand Canyon three years ago, nobody talked about her much; now her name is on the lips of tour guides, park rangers and cashiers. And in the windy little town of Winslow, Ariz., a group of artists is refurbishing La Posada, Colter's favorite hotel, which opened during the Great Depression in 1930.

So the time seemed right to tour Colter's work. Given her railroad connection, taking the train made sense, so I started my trip at L.A.'s beautiful Union Station and ended it in the hamlet of Lamy, N.M., about 15 miles northwest of Santa Fe. (Originally the railroad bypassed Santa Fe, though a spur line now used mainly for tourist excursions eventually connected it to the main line.)

Driving would have been easier. But Amtrak's Southwest Chief seemed convenient, leaving L.A. for Chicago every day. Moreover, Amtrak recently added a stop in Williams, Ariz., where passengers can transfer to the vintage cars of the Grand Canyon Railroad and ride 65 miles north to Grand Canyon National Park.

There were hitches along the way. After spending the night on the Southwest Chief, I arrived in Williams at 5 a.m. But the Amtrak stop, in a ponderosa pine forest visited by herds of elk, was a 10-minute shuttle bus drive away from the Grand Canyon excursion train's depot, in the center of town. There I had to wait 4 1/2 hours before leaving for the South Rim. What's more, there were one- to three-hour delays throughout my travels on the Southwest Chief. ("We're not late," an Amtrak steward told me, "just off schedule.") And then there was the problem of being without a car once I reached the Grand Canyon.

The service and atmosphere on the Southwest Chief isn't what I imagine it was when Fred Harvey ran the dining cars and Mary Colter designed the china. But I'm glad I took the train because Amtrak makes some effort to see that long-haul passengers are comfortable (particularly if you book a sleeper). Without a car you have fewer decisions to make, and when the lonesome whistle blows, it takes only a little imagination to feel the old romance of riding the rails.

You also have to use your imagination to appreciate Colter's work at Los Angeles Union Station, America's last great depot, which opened in 1939. Even if you aren't catching a train, this refurbished Spanish Colonial Revival and Streamline Moderne gem is well worth a visit, with Moorish arches and tiles and a waiting room right out of a 1940s movie.

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