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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


The Harvey House restaurant Colter decorated in the west wing is still there, but it is locked and used only for special events. You can peek through the windows, though, at the big rectangular copper-topped bar, tooled leather banquettes and gorgeous floor, patterned in zigzagging red and black tiles to suggest an Indian blanket. Colter was 70 when she decorated it, still in her artistic prime and able to add up-to-the-minute touches--such as the Art Deco lighting fixtures--to the room's pervasive Arts and Crafts design scheme.

Mary Jane Elizabeth Colter developed her passion for the handmade, homespun Arts and Crafts style as a student at the California School of Design in San Francisco. While her contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright, forged the road to modernism, Colter drew inspiration from Spanish-Mexican haciendas and the art of Hopi, Zuni and Navajo Indians.

With bright violet-blue eyes, her hair in a flyaway French roll and her radio tuned to a Mexican music station, she roamed the old Southwest, exploring archeological sites, collecting baskets, jewelry and pots, and getting to know the Native American craftspeople who made them. Besides the crafts she bought to decorate her hotels and shops, Colter eventually amassed a large personal collection of important Indian artifacts that she bequeathed to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.

After she graduated from design school, her first commission was the decoration of the 1902 Indian Building at Albuquerque's Harvey House (known as the Alvarado Hotel, it was demolished in 1970). She filled it with artfully arranged baskets, rugs and pots. Two years later, the company hired her to decorate the sumptuous new El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon and design a gift shop nearby, patterned on Hopi dwellings she'd visited.

When you get off the train at Grand Canyon Depot and climb the hill to El Tovar, Hopi House is the first thing you see, with its rough red stone walls gleaming in the noonday sun and two upper stories set back from the first, accessed by exterior ladders. Colter employed Hopi masons to build the shop, where Native American artists, like the renowned potter Nampeyo, gave demonstrations. It still functions as a store, and in the gallery on the second floor, pots made by Nampeyo's daughter and granddaughter are for sale. Inside, cottonwood branches still line the ceiling between beams, and aromatic kindling smolders in corner fireplaces.

During the construction of her Grand Canyon buildings, Colter routinely made something of a nuisance of herself, forcing workers to tear down rows of rock when she spied a stone she didn't like. Together with suiting a building to its site, this attention to detail became her hallmark. She was a cantankerous sort who could handle a pistol and took to wearing a Stetson pulled down over her ears and Indian rings on almost every finger. She never married, which made her an even greater oddity in her day.

Lookout Studio, a short walk west of Hopi House, is another early Colter work, constructed of logs and buff-colored stone in 1914 as an observatory at the edge of the canyon. From a distance it seems to be just a pile of rock, but as you get closer to the structure, now a souvenir shop, you begin to make out the crooked chimney and the terraces that provide sterling views of Indian Garden, halfway down Bright Angel Trail. Colter, who intended Lookout Studio to recall Anasazi ruins from the Four Corners area, cultivated its ramshackle air by letting weeds grow from the roof. Today it still looks not so much built as left behind.

On this trip to the Grand Canyon, I stayed in a comfortable double at El Tovar, one of the grandest Harvey Houses in the Southwest. Designed by Chicago architect Charles F. Whittlesey and decorated by Colter, the hotel's guest rooms and public spaces have been much remodeled over the years. There's a display outside the dining room of the Southwest Chief china Colter designed using Indian motifs.

Her work is more apparent at rustic Bright Angel Lodge, completed in 1935 about a quarter mile west of El Tovar. With its vintage reception desk, massive beams, iron candelabra and yawning fireplace, the lobby is as warm and welcoming as ever. Down the hall, the History Room has an exhibition on the Fred Harvey Co., some of the antiques Colter used in the lodge and another fireplace, this one built of layers of stone that replicate the geologic strata of the canyon.

Of all the hotels on the South Rim, Bright Angel is my favorite (not including Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon, also designed by Colter). Bright Angel was a model for later national park buildings across the country, especially those constructed during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

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