PART TWO — Onward to Grand Canyon!
I was enjoying Flagstaff and especially the local brewpubs. I wasn’t thinking about architecture or Mary Colter. As a home brewer I’m always interested in what the local craft brewing scene has to offer….but that’s a different blog altogether…now, back on topic.
I left Flagstaff for a two-day excursion up to Grand Canyon National Park. I’ve been there a few times but never in the winter. I decided to follow a route my dad drove some 50+ years ago the first time I was there. My dad always thought that if you couldn’t see something from the car window it wasn’t worth seeing. He liked the comfort and control of sitting in the driver’s seat and he was the only driver. I’m not joking when I say we did a driving tour of Williamsburg…where cars are not allowed. There were all sorts of colonial-clad folks running for cover as we rattled up the cobblestone street in the Pontiac. This little drive to the Grand Canyon is where I put my little nine-year-old foot down and raised such a stink in the back seat that he finally agreed to stop the car. We were at Wupatki National Monument full of Indian pueblo ruins and he fully intended to drive through. I had no intention of riding in the back seat for 1,500 miles and not see some pueblo ruins if they were close by. I finally got him to stop at one place marked as a multi-room ruin. I was the only one who got out of the car. I took my time walking up to the first set of ruins with my little Brownie camera. He lit a cigarette. My mom sat quietly in the front seat. My brother read a comic book. It was about 100 degrees. I looked at the ruins…pretty dismal as ruins go. There were a few more up the paved trail. As long as I had come this far I might as well keep going. I went up to the next set of broken stone walls and then climbed up a hill to the last set. I took my pictures and went back to the car. Silence. Nobody asked what I saw. I got him to stop one more time at the Little Colorado River canyon…it was too hot to argue with me. So, my little rebellion showed that he knew where the brake pedal was all the time.
On my current trip my thoughts took me back to that first trip. I revisited the same place. It didn’t look quite as dismal as I remembered. Instead of 100 degrees it was 25 degrees in a stiff wind. I took my time and rambled around five or six ruins and then got back on the road. I made the same stop at the Little Colorado River canyon and then headed up the long climb to the national park’s eastern entrance.
Desert View Watchtower
Coming from the east on highway 64, the first place to actually see the Grand Canyon is the desert view overlook by the tall stone watchtower. Guess what…the Desert View Watchtower is yet another creation of Mary Colter. She was still with me. This impressive tower was a tourist stop and concession stand run, of course, by the Fred Harvey Company. Colter used native Indian building styles as the inspiration. She explored the Hopi pueblos and went to see tower ruins at the Hovenweep site in Utah to see how the towers were constructed. There are photographs of her at Hovenweep back when it was much more difficult to get there. She was sixty-two by this time and was not afraid to get dirty. I am impressed with her commitment to authenticity in this regard.
The ground floor of the tower has a large circular room that resembles a ceremonial kiva. In this building and the other rough stone buildings she designed she was very careful in selecting the individual stones. She did not want any visible quarrying marks on the surface of the stone. There was great attention to detail and the stone tower looks as though it has been there for centuries. It was built in 1932 and was one of the last of Mary’s additions to Grand Canyon National Park.
The interior has a viewing room and a small gift shop. The ceiling of the viewing room resembles the ceiling of an old Pueblo kiva. The stone tower, with all of it’s roughhewn stone and native Indian style has a strong inner steel frame like a modern skyscraper….but of course, you can’t see it. She did a very good job…the place looks like it has been there for centuries. Colter was an expert at using organic, geologic or historic native Indian motifs in her buildings. Even though it may be only an illusion, you think you see and understand how the place was built and how it stays together. If she was actually there in the back seat I would have told her that she did a good job. I suspect she knew that.
I intended this trip to be largely concerned with photography — of the canyon. Architecture was not high on my list of things to see or photograph. I was travelling on my own schedule so I could make it up as I went along. I continued going deeper into the park along the south rim road. It was a lot snowier here because of the higher elevation and the road was snow-packed in some places. It came pretty close to the rim of the canyon in a few spots. There were no other cars and it occurred to me that I could do a “Thelma and Louise” right over the edge by hitting one of these snowy patches the wrong way. No one would see me go over….I slowed down a bit. I made another half dozen stops at overlooks and took dozens of pictures. It was a remarkable day with broken clouds and snow squalls working their way across the canyon. Some of the distant points and mesas within the canyon passed in and out of shadow and mist. I mostly had all of this to myself.
Bright Angel Lodge
I had previously booked a cabin with a partial canyon view at Bright Angel Lodge. The Lodge is in Grand Canyon Village, the hub of park activity even in the slower winter season. A passenger train brings visitors north out of Williams, Arizona, and there are various tour companies bringing in busloads of people. There was quite a crowd milling around when I arrived at the lodge around 4 PM. During my stay the majority of tour groups were Chinese but there were a few others including a few winter backpackers getting ready to head down into the canyon. Not me…I was content to stay up on the rim. I guess Americans come mostly in summer when they have kids out of school. The bartender in the little bar in the Lodge said he enjoyed the quiet months and even the summer wasn’t bad. He suggested that Spring Break was the time to avoid the canyon because college students converged on the place on their way to or from the beaches and were in a crazed mood. March, or the weeks before Spring Break, was a nice time to visit.
My little cabin and the entire Bright Angel Lodge was designed and built by….Mary Colter, of course. Here she was again.
The Lodge has a long history going back into the 1890s but when it was acquired by the Santa Fe Railway they wanted something better as a middle-class tourist lodging. The stately El Tovar Hotel was built in 1905 but the spot now occupied by the Bright Angel Lodge was a rustic camp with tents and a few log cabins rented to tourists. Since Fred Harvey’s company was going to run the place, Mary Colter got the job to design a new tourist hotel.
I’m not sure Mary had many false starts in her career but she had one here. Her first design for a rough-hewn stone hotel rising up along the canyon rim bombed. Tourists would be seeing lots of rocks already. The railroad and the hotel chain wanted something else. Mary came back with a log and stone design for something that resembled a rustic hunting lodge. It would be spacious with interior guest rooms and a number of canyon-rim cabins. That design was a winner. The new Bright Angel Lodge opened in 1935. The travelling middle-class, such as it was in the Great Depression, had a decent place to stay at Grand Canyon.
The place is impressive and rambles around with a bar and coffee shop and a couple restaurants. There is a “History Room” and the huge lodge entrance lobby. This hotel was Harvey Girl territory and you can learn all about them and the Harvey House experience in the History Room.
Upon entering the lodge you are greeted with the vaulted log and stone lobby. The “Bright Angel” is the Thunderbird image over the fireplace. I was there just before Christmas so it was all nicely decorated.
Take a look at that fireplace. Where have we seen something like that before? The Alvarado Hotel, right?
Mary had a “thing’ for the recessed Inglenook style of fireplaces. These were popular in large homes and hotels in the 1800s and into the Craftsman era and they worked well with her use of rustic stone and timbers. We will see more of this.
The Bright Angel Lodge has a couple restaurants. Again we see the rustic timbers and some use of stone. Back in the day, the timbers and all of the restaurant woodwork would have been stained a dark color or left natural. Over the years they have been painted to brighten up the place. The style of windows is also a little reminiscent of the Alvarado.
In warmer weather it would have been nice to take advantage of the broad sitting porch under the vaulted front entry of the lodge…although the El Tovar Hotel (shown on the right) has a nicer porch for the higher class of guest.
My “partial view” cabin had a great view out of the window that faced the canyon. I was maybe sixty feet from the rim. The cabin was constructed of logs and was part of a larger building with maybe eight or ten cabins. Each one was a little different.
Mine was on the end and had the best view but no fireplace. Next-door they had a fireplace but trees obstructed the view. It looked old from the outside but it was quite modern inside within the 1930s log-cabin style.
I had a nice stay in my cabin but it was a little noisy at times with other guests galumphing up and down the wooden porch/walkway going to the other cabins. It had one of those Keurig coffee makers, which I despise, but it was better than nothing. It almost had all the comforts of home including Wi-Fi.
I had trout for dinner in the lodge restaurant and it was very good. Breakfast was some sort of “All American” sausage and eggs with real coffee. Me and some Chinese guests visited the bar and it was smallish but adequate. The lodge hot chocolate machine died that day so I could have made a killing selling hot chocolate to Chinese tourists if I had only known.
I spent part of the next morning walking around the Grand Canyon Village. The El Tovar Hotel is something to see. It dates back to 1905 and, of course, was a Harvey Company hotel. The concession that operates the hotel today, as well as the Bright Angel Lodge and other places nearby is Xanterra Parks and Resorts. Xanterra is the heir, so to speak, of the Harvey Company since it is the product of mergers and take-overs that included the original Harvey Company hotels. If Xanterra had a family tree the Harvey Company would be up in the branches somewhere.
Tucked behind the El Tovar, closer to the canyon rim, is Hopi House, a rambling park concession gift shop. Hopi House was Mary Colter’s first building at Grand Canyon, dating to 1905. It actually opened a few weeks before the El Tovar Hotel and is a Pueblo style structure with a high degree of detail and authenticity. Colter spent a great amount of time and effort to make a building appear to be centuries old. She is quoted as saying that it took a lot of money to make a place look old. Hopi House is a gift shop with all sorts of crafts and native artwork on display.
To see Mary Colter’s attention to detail you have to look beyond the marketing displays to the details and bones of the building. An architect today would not get away with some of the things Mary accomplished in 1905 because building codes and ADA compliance would get in the way. Doorways are low – you have to stoop a little to go through. The floor is intentionally somewhat uneven and there are step-ups in a few places. The ceilings are rustic log beams with dried brush and sage stuffed into the small gaps. The fireplace, ladders, windows and stonework all look like the place was build hundreds of years ago. Hopi House is a good place just to learn about traditional and contemporary Native American art even if you don’t purchase anything. The building is perfectly suited for displaying this material.
Situated behind Bright Angel Lodge is another structure called “The Lookout”. It was another Mary Colter creation built in 1914. Its purpose has changed over the years from an early photography studio to a men’s club to its current use as a concession gift shop. Colter again used rough stone to imitate the early Pueblo construction style. This building almost appears to rise out of the ground and is literally perched on the canyon rim. Like Hopi House, it has a rustic interior of stone and wooden beams. There are some rear porches that allow visitors to peer into the canyon or use the telescopes to watch the river or maybe a mule train carrying visitors down into the canyon.
This is a smaller building but its placement on the canyon rim is an awesome and inspiring feat. This is one of my favorite buildings here and I suspect it was one of Colter’s as well. There are stories that a ghostly spirit resides in the Lookout and that sometimes it will rearrange the way gifts and other items are displayed. One published account attributes the spirit to Mary Colter. The Lookout would certainly be a scenic spot for a poltergeist to hang out but I doubt Mary spends her afterlife there.
The day was getting on and I needed to see the rest of the Canyon and then head back to Flagstaff. I reminded myself that this was supposed to be a photography tour and here I was hanging around buildings. I managed to take a few shots very early as the sun was coming up but now it was mid-morning with a sunny and cloudless sky. The Canyon is so expansive that a few clouds and shadows actually help give it depth and some perspective. On a pure sunny day it can appear flat and a little shallow. See what I mean?
I started off along the rim road heading west from the Canyon Village. There was a little road construction and a detour so there were even fewer cars and visitors on this stretch. Other than peering over the edge of the canyon and walking along the rim in a few spots, I didn’t do much canyon photography.
There was a couple of inches of snow on the ground and along the trails and it was a little slippery in places. I could see foot prints of people who were here before me, maybe a day earlier, and they obviously were going places that were intended to be off limits. People were climbing over railings and walking out to the extreme edge of a 1000 foot drop-off. I saw some of that behavior on my previous day. Almost all of the Chinese tourists were equipped with selfie-sticks and they would climb out on the rim to take their selfies. No one in their group seemed alarmed…it was as if they thought this was a movie backdrop and not the real thing. Today I noticed that some of the footprints go out to the rim but didn’t seem to come back. On a day like today, with maybe only a dozen or so visitors, who would know if someone actually disappeared over the edge? I was already in something of a creepy mood thanks to Mary Colter’s contributions to the trip and this creeped me out even more. I drove on and came to the end of the road at Hermit’s Rest.
Here we go again. Mary Colter designed Hermit’s Rest as a stagecoach rest stop for visitors to the Grand Canyon. These visitors were taking Fred Harvey Company tours after staying in Fred Harvey company hotels and eating Fred Harvey Company meals in the restaurants and the concession sites. Hermit’s Rest was designed and built in 1914 and Mary Colter used her talents to create a structure that, from a distance, seems to be a geological feature. As one approaches it takes on the more familiar (by this time) rustic stone and timber style.
The hermit…there actually was a hermit/prospector…was a man named Louis Boucher who lived nearby in the canyon at Dripping Springs in the 1890s. Boucher is responsible for the hiking trail that leads from near Hermit’s Rest down into the canyon toward the Colorado River.
This building predates the Bright Angel Lodge but came after Hopi House. It was built about the same time as the Lookout. Sometimes the chronology is confusing. Colter’s design here, using roughhewn stone and timber, might be closer to what she was originally proposing for Bright Angel Lodge. The interior at Hermit’s Rest features a huge fireplace set in an alcove. We have seen that before in her designs but this one is most impressive.
The building opens up into a high ceiling display area where Indian crafts were sold and a concession counter…where I got a cup of hot chocolate. Most of the fixtures in the building were selected by Mary Colter. These buildings at the Grand Canyon are incorporated into the “Mary Jane Colter Buildings National Historic Landmark”
It was a cold day and I enjoyed my hot chocolate and looked out over the canyon at a view that well-fed stagecoach passengers would have seen back in 1914.
It was well into the afternoon and I had to be on my way. I left Mary Colter at Hermit’s Rest and started back toward Flagstaff. That seemed fitting – we both needed a rest.
Mary Colter had one other building project at Grand Canyon that I was not going to see and had no intention of making the effort. She is also the designer of Phantom Ranch, situated on the floor of the canyon next to the Colorado River. The place has a long history going back to the local Indians who built a ceremonial kiva there. John Wesley Powell’s expedition camped there in 1869 and Teddy Roosevelt camped there as well. A trail was constructed leading down from Bright Angel Point and people began hiking or taking mule trips down into the canyon. Mary Colter was tasked with constructing a permanent set of lodging cabins and concessions by the Harvey Company in 1922. She is the one who named it Phantom Ranch.
I have never been there but know folks who have made the hike down into the canyon and visited the place. They encouraged me to take the trail down. They said it was a whole different environment down close to the river. I could take my time and hike down. I could ride a mule or a burro. Sure I could….maybe someday. Yes, I’m a whimp sometimes.
So, not knowing much about Mary Colter at the beginning of the trip, I think I have something of a grasp of her style and accomplishments. She was given an amazing opportunity at a time when women were not well represented in professions of any kind and she made her mark. The Fred Harvey Company, famous for the use of the hordes of young Harvey Girls in the various hotels and restaurants, selected Mary Colter as the primary architect and designer of their facilities. That seems a little ironic and remarkable given the somewhat custodial, protective and even promotional way that they seemed to view the Harvey Girls.
Mary Colter went on to design and build a number of other hotels and Harvey concessions. She redesigned parts of the interior of the iconic La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, once a Harvey Hotel. Some of that was in collaboration with John Gaw Meem, another prominent southwestern style architect of the day. Colter lived in Santa Fe and died there in 1958 at the age of 88. She survived long enough to see some of her early projects closed down and even demolished. I suspect that that is one of the saddest professional hazards of being an architect.
The Santa Fe Railway and the Harvey Company were not the only ones trying to entice the travelling public into their facilities. The Great Northern Railway followed a similar path and constructed lodges and tourist facilities in and around Glacier National Park. Their buildings, built around the same time as the development at Grand Canyon hotels, feature a rustic Swiss chalet sort of style.
Together, these railroad hotel and concession styles influenced much of what we see in the national parks and in some state parks. The CCC park structures built in the 1930s followed some of these patterns. Mary Colter’s architectural and design style strongly influenced what visitors see and expect to see in our national parks.
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