Last month, my husband, Brian, and I embarked on a journey we had long intended to take and were, frankly, a bit embarrassed to admit we’d never done: visit the Grand Canyon. As life-long Westerners, one would think we had already visited this popular and awe inspiring destination. Along the way, however, we discovered another destination: following the path of famed architect Mary Jane Colter.
I had heard of Colter and had even written a New Mexico Mile Marker radio story or two about her. She was a pioneering woman architect in a day when women simply didn’t hold jobs like that. Colter worked for Fred Harvey, known as the man who civilized the West by operating luxury hotels along the Santa Fe Railway, staffed by the famous Harvey Girls.
As we drove from Las Cruces through Deming and then Silver City on our way to Williams, Arizona, our launching point, I read aloud a book Brian had picked up for our trip, Mary Colter, Builder Upon the Red Earth, by Virginia L. Grattan. We were impressed by Colter’s accomplishments in a man’s world. She was adamant in fulfilling her vision for Harvey’s buildings, some of which she decorated and others she also designed. We hadn’t planned to stop in Winslow, Arizona, en route to Williams, but as we read the book, we realized not only was a stop in order, but it was required. The jewel of this railroad town is La Posada, Colter’s crowning achievement. You wouldn’t know it by driving past any corner in Winslow, but a beautiful lodging and dining establishment is hidden there.
We pulled into the parking lot and walked along the cobblestones to the entrance of today’s Las Posada, which still bears the mark of its architect. La Posada was planned as the final resort linking Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Gallup, Williams and Grand Canyon. The location was ideal as Harvey not only provided meals and lodging, but Indian Detours, auto tours of nearby areas. La Posada is located near the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, as well as the Hopi Pueblo and Meteor Crater, providing plenty of opportunities for visitors to take side trips.
Colter created back-stories for her buildings to help develop the theme. La Posada, she envisioned, was the rancho of a well-to-do Spanish don and his family. That idea drove the design of the building and the furnishings. Workshops were set up in the building to create both elaborate “antiques” she imagined the family would have gathered while traveling, as well as rough ranch furniture that might have been built by the staff of the rancho. In fact, the furniture was mostly created by master carpenter E. V. Birt and his staff based on Colter’s exacting designs.
Despite her dedicated efforts in creating La Posada, the timing couldn’t have been worse. It opened with a lourish in May 1930, just after the stock market crash. Railway traffic had been declining since 1920 with the popularity of automobiles. The lovely La Posada was only operated by Fred Harvey Co. for 27 years. Owned by the Santa Fe Railway, which has its Arizona base in Winslow, it was used as offices for years and was in danger of being demolished, like the Harvey hotels in Albuquerque, Lamy, and Gallup. It was purchased in the 1990s and restored by Allan Affeldt, his wife Tina Moen, and later third partner, Dan Lutzick. The building is still undergoing some renovation, but is open for lodging, dining and shopping, as well as a casual stroll to look for Colter’s touches.
After our exploration, we got back on the road and arrived at Williams on a cold, snowy night. We stayed at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, adjacent to the railway station where the next morning we would board the train for the canyon. It was packed with people and resplendent in holiday decor. We had thought it might be a quiet time of year to visit, but didn’t count on the hundreds of families visiting to take a ride on the Polar Express! When we stopped in the restaurant for our evening meal, we were surrounded by people wearing their pajamas under their parkas, ready for a train ride during which they would sip hot chocolate, sing Christmas carols, hear the story which launched many a historic railroad on similar ventures, and meet Santa.
The next morning, after breakfast and watching a gunfight in the snow, we boarded our first class train car. Our trip was a package deal offered by AAA, which included lodging in Williams and at the Maswik Lodges at the South Rim of the canyon, the round-trip train ride, a bus tour upon arrival, and most of our meals. Our train trip lasted about 90 minutes and was a great opportunity to lean back, relax, enjoy the snacks and beverages provided, and watch the snow fall outside the train window.
Once at the canyon, we went straight to our tour bus, where our guide Benjamin (who said he loves to pronounce his name “Ben-JAMMIN’”) took us to three overlooks of the canyon and explained some of the history and geography of the area. At one stop, he suddenly announced, “Folks, those are California Condors!” We looked upward and saw two of the highly endangered birds floating on thermals in circles above our heads. Benjamin explained that they are rarely seen at the rim during the winter as they prefer to head for the canyon floor, where it is 20 to 30 degrees warmer. Bundled in my coat, scarf, hat and gloves, I had to agree with their usual plan! But these two had decided to ride a thermal high above the canyon floor that day and gave us a thrill.
After the tour, we were on our own to explore until the next afternoon at 3, when we would again board the train. Of course we wanted to explore the beauty of the canyon, but we also had a mission: to visit Colter’s buildings along the rim. The first building she had designed was Hopi House, created as a gift shop of Indian art. It was followed by El Tovar, the luxury hotel at the canyon designed to look like a Swiss chalet, then Lookout, Hermit’s Rest, Phantom Ranch, Watchtower, Bright Angel Lodge, and the men’s and women’s dormitories. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to take in all her buildings in the short time we had. El Tovar, Lookout, and Bright Angel Lodge are located close to Hopi House, but the rest of her signature buildings (other than the dormitories) require a vehicle — or a mule — to visit and the tour to the Lookout tower wasn’t running the day we were there.
After reading about the buildings, it was much more interesting to visit them than if we had just walked in. We found ourselves pointing and saying things like, “Hey! That’s Mary Colter’s thunderbird!” One particularly interesting piece of architecture is the geologic fireplace in Bright Angel Lodge. Colter had a vision of a fireplace made from stone from each layer of the canyon, laid in proper order, of course. She was working with park naturalist and geologist Edwin McKee on the project, but he left for several months, causing Colter to write a letter begging him to return to help finish the project. She was adamant the project would be completed as envisioned, and like her many other projects, she was a stickler for detail. The fireplace today has a sign noting it is made from stone from layers of the canyon, but her letter to the geologist, which opens with the accusation, “You deserted me last winter without even a good-bye…” gave us much more insight into how important it was for Colter to have every piece of her work done exactly right and how personal her work was to her.
For all her buildings, she traveled near and far to find the exact pieces and inspiration she wanted. Among the treasures she found to set the mood at Bright Angel Lodge was the hobby horse that once belonged to the first pioneer child born in Arizona and one of only five Jenny Lind wooden cigar-store figures, which was valued at the time at $5,000. They are now on display in a museum space at the Bright Angel Lodge, along with many other Harvey-related items.
So, we spent our time alternately outdoors trekking the icy trail along the rim, peering into the canyon, and warming up by exploring Colter’s buildings. One thing we know for sure: we need to return with more time to visit both the canyon and Colter’s work. We’re sure they’ll be there waiting for us.