1800's Grand Canyon Architect, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter

Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter was a woman who knew what she wanted. And anyone who’s had the pleasure of gazing out over the Grand Canyon from Lookout Studio or taken a load off their feet at Hermits Rest should thank her for it.

Back at the turn of the 20th century, women didn’t design buildings. But nobody told Mary Colter that—and the park, not to mention the architecture world at large, is very lucky they didn’t.

Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter arrived in Arizona in 1902 for her first architecture job, heading interior design for a Native American-themed building in Albuquerque. Over the next 46 years, she would go on to design most of the South Rim’s significant buildings, cementing her legacy in the park and much farther afield. Colter’s distinctively rustic style, which sought to give buildings a sense of place and to blend them seamlessly into their surroundings, influenced the design of iconic structures in parks all over the country.

Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter going over blueprints for one of her buildings in the Grand Canyon
Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter going over blueprints for one of her buildings in the Grand CanyonPublic Domain

After she impressed the Fred Harvey Company on the Albuquerque job, they tapped her in 1904 to design a gift shop next to the new El Tovar Hotel. The result was Hopi House. By 1910, Colter had a full-time job designing and styling structures. Over the next few decades, Colter became a familiar sight at projects along the South Rim. Known for perfectionism, a bold vision in a time when female architects were practically unheard of, and the signature silver rings she wore, Colter steadily developed the look of Grand Canyon National Park.

Make sure to visit these examples of Colter’s vision on the South Rim.

Hopi House, 1904

Hopi House on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Photo by NPS Michail Quinn
Hopi House on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. NPS Michail Quinn

Colter took inspiration for her first Grand Canyon building from the Hopi village of Old Orabai.

Lookout Studio, 1914

Lookout Studio at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Photo by Whit Richardson
Lookout Studio at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Whit Richardson

Visitor’s to the Grand Canyon today may stop in the Lookout Studio just west of the Bright Angel Lodge to buy gifts, books, professional photos or other creative items, but don’t overlook the building as itself a work of art. Like many of Colter’s buildings, the Studio draws inspiration from its natural surroundings. Its native stone exterior and multi-level design blend well with the layers and edge of the canyon, as if an extension of its deep, stone walls. Similarly, the asymmetrical roofline mimics the canyon’s natural shape, and the stone chimney purposely built of odd-shaped rocks allows dirt and debris to gather and native bushes to grow in the racks.

Hermits Rest, 1914

The arch welcoming you to Hermits Rest. Photo by Whit Richardson
The arch welcoming you to Hermits Rest. Whit Richardson
Inside Hermits Rest hearth room. Photo by Whit Richardson
Inside Hermits Rest hearth room. Whit Richardson

This simple log-and-stone building was designed to look like a rustic getaway that trail guide Louis Boucher, the “hermit” who once lived in the area, might have built. Today the Rest, which resembles a rustic, stone home, houses a gift shop and quick-service food stop.

Take a minute to relax on the large front porch and absorb stunning views of the canyon. Or, in the winter months, warm yourself by the fire, but don’t be fooled by what appears to be layers of soot on the hearth. Colter added the aesthetic even before the building opened to the public in 1914, to make it look as if the fictional hermit had stoked many a fire in the fireplace’s gaping mouth.

Watchtower at Desert View, 1932

Desert View Watchtower in the Grand Canyon
Desert View Watchtower in the Grand CanyonShutterstock
Desert View Watchtower Interior. Photo by Whit Richardson
Desert View Watchtower Interior. Whit Richardson

Colter traveled the Southwest by car and plane scouting ancient Native American sites before building this 70-foot-tall watchtower.

Bright Angel Lodge, 1935

Bright Angel Lodge in the Grand Canyon. NPS photo by Micheal Quinn.
Bright Angel Lodge in the Grand Canyon.NPS Micheal Quinn

The main lodge features a striking “geological fireplace,” made of layers of stone that echo the layers found in the canyon from river to rim.

Phantom Ranch, 1922

Deep in the Canyon, visitors find a Colter respite.

Phantom Ranch Cabins. Photo by Whit Richardson
Phantom Ranch Cabins. Whit Richardson

Mary Colter’s rustic cabins and main lodge down in the canyon beside Bright Angel Creek are built of wood and native stone blending with the natural beauty of the setting. In response Fred Harvey’s name of Roosevelt’s Chalets, Colter refused to release her building plans unless her chosen name of Phantom Ranch was adopted.