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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


I signed up for a Desert View bus tour to see Colter's stunning, 70-foot Watchtower, 25 miles east of Grand Canyon Village and built as a scenic rest stop for passengers on Fred Harvey canyon tours. She took great pains with this 1932 re-creation of an ancient Indian watchtower, visiting archeological sites at Hovenweep and Mesa Verde for inspiration, incorporating petroglyphs in its rough stone walls, commissioning the Hopi painter Fred Kabotie to do interior murals, and writing a detailed manual for guides.

Many consider the Watchtower Colter's masterpiece because of its extraordinary authenticity and the way it fits into the landscape. And it is impressive, standing at the edge of the canyon with unparalleled 360-degree views. But I'm fonder of Hermit's Rest, built in 1914 at what is now the end of West Rim Drive. (I reached it by national park shuttle, a 30-minute ride.)

Colter had in mind a stone shanty made by a mountain man, which is still what Hermit's Rest suggests. Funny little clerestory windows, a huge, half-domed fireplace and views across the canyon to Point Sublime are part of its appeal, as is the network of hiking trails that starts nearby. About 200 feet below, I found the tumbledown stone terrace where Colter used to hide out, sketching and chain-smoking.

By the late 1920s, Colter had become an important member of the Fred Harvey team and a force to be reckoned with. So when the need arose for a new Harvey House in Winslow, midway between Flagstaff and the New Mexico border, she got the job. Unfortunately, the Harvey Co. couldn't anticipate the Great Depression or the fact that the automobile (and later the airplane) would put passenger trains nearly out of business and the landmark Harvey hotels they supported on the railroad's disposal list.

Colter arrived in Winslow in 1929 to build a 70-room inn, La Posada, patterned after a Spanish hacienda, with graceful arcades, courtyards, fountains and antiques. I got there 70 years later, after a two-hour train ride east from Williams on the Southwest Chief. The great wonder of it all is that when I climbed off the train, La Posada was not only still there, steps away from the tracks, but also open for business, thanks to a young couple from Southern California.

When Allan Affeldt bought La Posada in 1996, his wife, artist Tina Mion, thought it was just another one of Al's harebrained schemes. But the couple moved in a year later and, with the help of several artist friends, started chipping away at sealed-up archways, retooling the plumbing and redecorating the rooms, all named for luminaries who stayed there. I got the Mary Colter room in the west wing, which was pretty and comfortable but not nearly as luxurious as the Howard Hughes Hideaway or the Teddy Roosevelt Suite.

Winslow is a slow-lane town, but there are things to do, like visiting the Old Trails Museum. There I met one of the founders of a group called the Winslow Harvey Girls, who appear in parades and other town events in full Harvey Girl regalia. I also rented a car and drove about 50 miles east to Petrified Forest National Park, where I toured the Painted Desert Inn, built in 1924 and redecorated by Colter in 1947. It is being renovated, but you can still see the murals Colter commissioned from Hopi artist Kabotie.

The Southwest Chief picks up passengers in Winslow and runs parallel to Interstate 40 and bumpy old Route 66 to Albuquerque. Along the way you pass the Painted Desert, Mt. Taylor and the Acoma Indian Reservation. In Gallup, N.M., where Colter's El Navajo Hotel opened in 1923 after being blessed by medicine men, the train picks up a Navajo host who lectures about the region in the double-decker lounge car. There's a 20-minute stop in Albuquerque, with Native American craftspeople selling their wares by the track, before the Southwest Chief turns north for Lamy and Santa Fe.

Lamy lost its Colter-decorated Harvey House, El Ortiz, in 1943. The Posada closed its doors in 1957, the same year Gallup's El Navajo was razed to make space for a parking lot. Colter retired to Santa Fe after working for the Fred Harvey Co. for 40 years. She died in 1958 at 89.

When I finally reached Santa Fe--by Amtrak shuttle from Lamy--I stopped by La Fonda hotel on the plaza, which Colter decorated in 1925 and redecorated in 1949. Her beautiful fireplaces and Spanish Colonial light fixtures are intact, as are a few of the murals she commissioned for the hotel.

There and in the galleries on Canyon Road that showcase "Santa Fe style" arts and crafts, I saw the shadow of Colter's hand as a collector. Fortunately, her architecture is more visible. To see it, all you have to do is follow the trail she blazed across the Southwest.


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