The Grand Canyon’s South Rim is peppered with unique and visionary structures designed by pioneering architect Mary Colter.
Mary Colter was part of a small handful of female architects working in the early 20th century. In fact, census data indicates that there were only 22 female architects in the United States when Mary Colter graduated from the California School of Design (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and began her apprenticeship at a local architectural firm!
During her 38 years as the chief architect for the Fred Harvey Company, Mary Colter designed 21 landmark hotels, lodges, and public spaces, many of which are now located within the boundaries of the Grand Canyon National Park at the South Rim.
Known for her perfectionism and bold vision, Mary Colter was one of the first American architects to give her buildings a site-specific sense of place. In this style, Colter’s well-loved Grand Canyon structures blend a number of architectural themes, such as Spanish Colonial Revival and Mission Revival styles, with Native American motifs and other rustic elements like using native stone. Her buildings are perfectly at home on the edge of the Grand Canyon, reflecting the unique history and geography of their location. Make sure you check out these classic Grand Canyon spots when you visit the South Rim:
1. Hopi House (1904)
When the Fred Harvey Company noticed that native American craftspeople were doing a booming trade selling their arts and crafts at railroad stops, they began planning Hopi House, a dedicated marketplace for native American wares on the South Rim.
Located next to El Tovar Hotel, Hopi House is a prime example of Colter’s unique site-specific style. The building was built by Hopi craftsmen and constructed using local materials and salvaged items, such as Civil War-era Western Union telegraph poles and rails.
For many Grand Canyon visitors, Hopi House was their first introduction to Hopi and Native American culture, and to this day, Hopi House still operates as a native American gift shop.
2. Hermit's Rest (1914)
Hermit’s Rest was built in 1914 as a rest area for tourists travelling on coaches operated by (you guessed it!) the Fred Harvey Company on their way to what was once Hermit Camp.
This simple log-and-stone building was designed to look like a rustic getaway that Louis Boucher, a trail guide and infamous “hermit” who once lived in the area, would have built. With this in mind, Mary Colter actually ordered the fireplace to be intentionally streaked with soot to add an aged effect.
Hermit’s Rest is located at the western end of Hermit Road and is the western terminus of the Rim Trail.
3. Lookout Studio (1914)
Situated just west of Bright Angel Lodge, Lookout Studio is one of the most prominent examples of Mary Colter’s unique style.
Colter’s design for Lookout Studio draws heavily from its natural surroundings: the native stone exterior and multi-level design blend in seamlessly with the layers and edge of the Grand Canyon, while it’s asymmetrical roofline mimics the Canyon’s natural shape to create the illusion that the Studio is an extension of the Canyon’s steadfast stone walls.
Today, Lookout Studio offers multiple viewing platforms and a gift shop where Grand Canyon visitors can pick up a memento of their adventure.
Visit Lookout Studio on one of these tours:
4. Phantom Ranch (1922)
Mary Colter’s use of on-site fieldstone and rough-hewn wood was largely a product of necessity based on the Ranch’s remote location, but the use of native materials to construct National Park Service Structures soon became the default for NPS and Civilian Conservation Corps buildings. In fact, Mary Colter’s design for Phantom Ranch influenced an entire genre of “parkitecture”, often referred to as “National Park Service Rustic”.
5. Desert View Watchtower (1932)
Considered by many to be Mary Colter’s Grand Canyon masterpiece, this 70 foot tall tower is located near the east entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park, about 20 miles outside of the Grand Canyon Village.
Modeled after ancient Puebloan watchtowers found throughout the Four Corners region, Desert View Watchtower’s concrete foundation and steel structure is covered in intentionally-aged native stone. The Watchtower’s interior is adorned with Native American motifs, including murals and paintings by Hopi artist Frank Kabotie, as well as petroglyphs from the Hopi reservation approximately 100 more miles east.
6. Bright Angel Lodge (1935)
Bright Angel Lodge was built to provide tourists with affordable accommodation on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Like Mary Colter’s other buildings, the design for Bright Angel Lodge was inspired by local native architecture—in this case, the influence of early pioneer buildings can be seen in the welcoming porch and pitched roof.
Mary Colter also designed the many cabins that surround the lodge. Her eclectic approach to sourcing materials for these cabins mimics the effect and appearance of a diverse settlement built over time.
The cornerstone of Bright Angel Lodge is its fireplace. Colter’s design features native stone (hauled out of the Canyon by mule) arranged from floor to ceiling in the same order as the geologic strata you’ll see as you descend into the Canyon on the Bright Angel Trail.
A Lasting Legacy
In 1987, Hermit’s Rest, Desert View Watchtower, Hopi House, and Lookout Studio, which are collectively known as the Mary Jane Colter Buildings, were listed as a National Historic Landmark, solidifying Mary Colter’s unique and lasting contribution to Grand Canyon history.