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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,132

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This is the grave of Mary Colter.

Born to a reasonably well-off family in Pittsburgh in 1869, Colter’s family moved around a bit when she was a child, first to Colorado and then to Minnesota, where they settled in St. Paul. Mary Colter became fascinated with Native cultures from the time she was a girl. This was the peak of the American genocidal campaign and the Twin Cities were central to it, with the 1864 mass execution of the Dakota and the rounding up of them into a concentration camp in contemporary St. Paul. Colter didn’t see any of this, but she saw the aftermath. Like a lot of whites, she was interested in the disappearance of these cultures and started collecting some of their material. Her mom was very nervous about this. A friend gave her some drawings of Dakota art and so she started collecting herself. But her mom thought this would lead to disease in the house. There was a smallpox epidemic going along and being racist, said mom believed those objects would spread the disease, you know, coming from those people and all. But Mary managed to hide the drawings.

Well, Colter continued to find artistic inspiration from Native cultures. She graduated from high school and then went to the California School of Design in San Francisco, starting in 1886. She graduated from there as well and then moved back to Minnesota where she became an art teacher for about a decade.

Such a life didn’t really interest Colter though. She wanted more. She still tinkered with Native design and wanted to implement them in the architecture of white America. This was the same time that tourism was rising due to the growing middle class and expansion of the railroads and the same time that massive waves of nostalgia swept the American public about Native Americans, with people flocking to see Sitting Bull repeat the Little Bighorn every night at Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, buying bad novels by Owen Wister and worse, and seeing early silent westerns as the theatre. So there was room for Colter’s ideas in American culture. There was an outlet for this too. She talked her way into a job with the Fred Harvey Company in 1901.

This influential company worked with the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad to provide tourist facilities at railroad stops. Harvey and his workers realized there was potential in exploiting the growing interest in seeing Indians As Indians Are, whatever that actually meant. So he built facilities at key stops not only to provide food and coffee and the like, but to get people off the trains and into a place to buy Navajo rugs, jewelry, photographs, and the like. The ATSF was thrilled and Harvey became the most influential tourist company of the early twentieth century, only declining with the decline of rail travel in the 1920s. Even as late as that decade though, it was offering driving tours of a few days around northern New Mexico that allowed travelers to spend time off the train and now be able to see Taos and other pueblos.

Colter became one of the most important people in the Harvey company. Her first job was designing the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, which was one of the key Harvey facilities. Built to look like a Spanish mission, it was one of the first important buildings in the Spanish Revival. Sadly, it was demolished in 1970, seriously hurting downtown Albuquerque. In any case, Colter provided the interior designs for the thing. Many of Colter’s buildings were threatened in these years, but luckily most of the other major ones survived.

By 1910, Colter had moved up in the company from providing interior design for facilities on contract to becoming its chief architect, a position she would retain for the next 38 years. As such, she might be the most revered female architect in the nation that you have never heard of before. That’s because her buildings became absolutely iconic, especially at Grand Canyon National Park and in Santa Fe. Her position allowed her to go all-in on her obsession with Native design, since that’s what the white tourists wanted to see when they went to the Southwest on their vacations. This was the same time that Southwestern boosters were redesigning their cities to look “old.” As Chris Wilson, the great historian and practitioner of landscape architecture wrote in his superb The Myth of Santa Fe, one of the best books ever written about New Mexico and one that caused a lot of anger at the time of publication from its gatekeepers, it was only with the Plan of 1912 that Santa Fe redesigned itself to look as it is now, something supposedly locked in the past and never-changing. In fact, even the Palace of the Governors underwent many architectural changes over the centuries and the current iteration of it that was supposed to be “real” is not in fact what it looked like back in the 18th century. But this has been gold for white tourists who have turned Santa Fe into a very wealthy and gentrified city where Upper East Side New Yorkers can go play cowboy with bolo ties or wear hoop skirts that look absolutely ridiculous while decked out in resplendent displays of turquoise. It’s all bullshit basically, and I say this as someone who lived in Santa Fe for two years.

Well, Colter was a key figure in all of this. Part of her job was to redo the La Fonda hotel, which is one of the key buildings in the recreation of Santa Fe. Again, this building already existed and was in a typical European-American style. But Colter redid it to look “Indian.” She hired Native artists, at low rates of course let’s not forget the need to make a profit, to make the furniture and used Pueblo motifs in the interior design, none of which existed before she took on this project in 1925. It was gold for the Harvey Company. It became the single most profitable Harvey hotel, as for whites this was truly “authentic.” Thus Colter is a critical practitioner in what has become known as the Santa Fe Style.

As for the Grand Canyon, most of the major buildings in the park are from her designs. This includes the Hopi House (1905), Hermit’s Rest (1914), Lookout Studio (1914), Phantom Ranch (1922), Desert View Watchtower (1932), and Bright Angel Lodge (1935). These buildings are intended to look “timeless” as you can see in some of the examples below. If no one told you, Hopi House would look like some pueblo repurposed for Harvey tourist goods, but in fact it is not. It’s just a white-created copy of one. That’s fine as far as it goes, but because the buildings were intended to represent authenticity, it was the lie that was sold to tourists, not anything like the truth, which made no profit. In addition, Colter led the decorative design of other Grand Canyon buildings, such as El Tovar Hotel. The creation of Phantom Ranch came after the government gave the Harvey Company the concession for the bottom of the Grand Canyon and so Colter got to design something she thought those who were intrepid enough to get to the bottom of the canyon would appreciate as appropriately pioneery, like them. So it looks like some 19th century western pioneer home from those crazy people who might decided that somewhere like the bottom of the Grand Canyon would be a great place to start a settlement.

By the time of the New Deal, Colter’s aesthetic was well-established as what Southwestern architecture “was supposed to look like.” So when the New Deal came and started direct employment agencies such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration, it copied many of Colter’s principles in the building of its projects, only expanding her massive influence in the region even further.

For Colter herself, she was most proud of the La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona, which was attracted to the train station there and which she also designed. Completed in 1930, combined both the Mission Revival and the Spanish Colonial Revival. Here, she got to engage in her full-fledged control tendencies. She designed not only the buildings, but the garden, the furniture, the fixtures, the maid’s uniforms. This was her peak ideal of what southwestern architecture needed to be. It was also right at the end of an era as Harvey and the ATSF saw its influence decline with the arrival of the mass-produced automobile. But she kept working as long as she could, designing the Harvey House restaurant at Union Station in Los Angeles in 1939 and then concluding her career with the 1947 renovation of the Painted Desert Inn in Petrified Forest National Park. She started designing the china for the Chicago to LA rail service, with patterns based on New Mexico archeological discoveries.

Colter finally retired in 1948. She lived in Santa Fe and had a huge collection of Puebloan art and pottery, which she eventually gave to Mesa Verde National Park. Given that she was a chain smoker, it’s amazing that she lived until 1958, when she finally died at the age of 88.

Let’s look at some of Colter’s work.

Desert View Watchtower, 1932
Hopi House, 1905
Phantom Ranch Canteen, 1922
La Posada Hotel, 1930

Mary Colter is buried in Oakland Cemetery, Saint Paul, Minnesota.

If you would like this series to visit other people associated with the Fred Harvey Company, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Fred Harvey is in Lansing, Kansas and Judy Garland, who starred in the 1946 film about the women who worked on the trains, The Harvey Girls, is in Hollywood. Astoundingly, Garland’s co-star, Angela Lansbury, lives. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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