September 26, 2019

Dr. Donald T. Matter Jr.

The Architecture of Mary Jane Colter

Jane Colter at work.

Imagine this.  You are 31 years old.  You recently graduated from the California School of Design in San Francisco where you completed your studies with honors. 

It is 1901 and you are a female in a profession dominated by men, but your application for a job at the Fred Harvey Company is received with a high degree of enthusiasm and you are hired the next day.

Your first assignment is to decorate the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  You win two awards for the work you do and over the next eight years, some rather substantial tasks are handed to you, one of which is a project called Hopi House, the first of your six designs to be constructed within the Grand Canyon National Park.

Hopi House

Your service to the company is noticed by none other than Mr. Harvey, himself.  In 1910 you are offered full-time work and for the next thirty-plus years you complete over twenty major projects for the company.  By the end of 1914, work crews using your designs completed both the Hermit’s Rest, a rest station for tourists who were visiting the western most end of the south rim and the observatory known as Lookout Studio.  Then, in 1932, you open the 70-foot tall Desert View Watchtowerto the public.

Hermit’s Rest
Lookout Studio

Throughout your career, Mr. Harvey has dozens of projects for you.  Hotels in Arizona and New Mexico.  Railway stations in Chicago, Kansas City and Los Angeles, and even a dining car that was part of the Super Chief Service – a weekly train service from Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City to Los Angeles.

The Watchtower at Desert View

Eventually, forty-six years after that one-day job interview in 1901, you retire from the Harvey Company at age 79.  Research suggests that you have designed or made contributions to more than 206 projects.  Eleven of your buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places and five have been designated National Historic Landmarks in “recognition of their exceptional value to the nation.”  Four of those five landmark buildings, so designated on May 28, 1987, are pictured on these postcards.

Yes, such an accomplished career is hard to imagine, but that is exactly what happened to Mary Jane Colter (1869-1958).

Mary Jane Colter was not part of the conceptualization that Fred Harvey put on early 20th century travel to the American southwest, however her work was easily recognized and as early as the 1920s critics were writing, “Colter’s work is a vigorous modern statement, far ahead of the times.”  She won awards by the dozen and received praise from many architectural magazines.Few photographs of Colter exist, but I once saw one showing her on her knees demonstrating to a work crew the design she wanted on the porch of an Arizona hotel.

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