When you think about famous architects, Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry come to mind. However, a lessor known and equally innovative contemporary of these famous architects, Mary Colter designed path breaking structures in the early 20th Century. While she designed hundreds of buildings for the Fred Harvey Company, her signature buildings are located in the Grand Canyon National Park. To help attract tourists, Colter was retained to build several lodges, restaurants and rest stops. Colter molded her buildings into the canyon rim surroundings using native stone and wood materials. Included with her buildings were unique features that demonstrated a keen eye for attractive, interesting and high utility design.
One of her most unusual building features is a fireplace at the Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. While at first glance, this fireplace might not look distinctive. However, closer examination reveals a cleaver way of integrating the story of the canyon into the building. Coulter shaped the fireplace to mirror the canyon walls and used rock from each of four major geological periods represented in the Canyon to construct the fireplace. This special attention to detail is a signature of Colter’s work.
A second fireplace designed by Colter for the Hermit’s Rest road house at the western edge of the Park also is unique. Before the coming of tourists to the Grand Canyon, a hermit was thought to have lived at this location. As it was a beautiful vista, Colter designed a rest house inspired by the image of its former resident. The large walk in, grotto like fireplace evokes the image of living like a hermit in a cave. It is over 30 feet across and dominates the entire structure. Even the lights, andirons and floor evoke images of living in a cave.
While other contemporary architects are better known, serious attention and acclaim should be given to Mary Colter for her ground breaking and fascinating designs, all of which have withstood the test of time and are enjoyed by millions of visitors each year.