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First-Wave Feminist

I have become obsessed with Mary Colter.

Before my trip to Arizona, I'd never heard of Mary Colter. Now she's become a personal hero.

Mary Colter was an architect and interior designer around the turn of the century. (Not this last one...the one before that.) Around the 1880s she was living in St. Paul, Minn., a town with a rather large Sioux population. A childhood friend gave her some Sioux art drawings and her fascination with Native American art began. At one point, there was a smallpox outbreak among the Sioux and Mary's mother burned every Native American item in their house, but Mary hid her drawings in order to hold on to them. She kept those drawings for the rest of her life.

Mary attended the California School of Design, where she learned the new style of architecture based on California missions and apprenticed with a local architectural firm. In 1901, she met Minnie Harvey Huckel, daughter of Fred Harvey. We can't really learn about Mary Colter without understanding who Fred Harvey was. He founded the Harvey House chain of restaurants and hotels alongside western US railroads in 1876 in order to cater to the growing number of train passengers in the southwest. Growing up on the east coast, I knew Hot Shoppes and HoJos but not Harvey Houses.

In 1883, Harvey implemented a policy of employing a female, white-only serving staff. He sought single, well-mannered, and educated American ladies, and placed ads in newspapers throughout the East Coast and Midwest. The official, starched black and white uniform consisted of a skirt that hung no more than eight inches off the floor, "Elsie" collars, opaque black stockings, and black shoes. The hair was tied with a regulation ribbon. The opportunity for Harvey Girls, as they soon came to be known, to leave their homes, enjoy travel, have new experiences, and work outside the home was very liberating for thousands of young women. The Harvey Girls are said to have helped to "civilize the American Southwest."

All right, so Mary meets Fred Harvey's daughter and, based on her extensive knowledge of Native American design, she lands a summer job with the Fred Harvey Company decorating a building at the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque. In 1910, Mary begins working full time for the company, starting as an interior designer to eventually becoming an architect.

At this point, Mary is one of only 22 women in America working as an architect, doctor or lawyer. Most educated women at that time worked as teachers or nurses.

In 1905, Mary got her first job as lead architect on a Grand Canyon building - the Hopi House. When she showed up the first day at the job site, the men refused to work for a woman. So she fired them all and told them to come back when they knew who the hell she was. Eventually, they all come back and found that she was a fair boss who knew her business and paid a fair wage.

Are we loving her yet?

Mary Colter designed several buildings at the Grand Canyon, including the Bright Angel Lodge, the Phantom Ranch buildings at the bottom of the canyon and Hermit's Rest. She also decorated, but did not design, the El Tovar Hotel. She worked in often rugged conditions to complete 21 landmark hotels, commercial lodges and public spaces for the Fred Harvey Company.

Mary combined Pueblo, Spanish Colonial and Mission Revival to create the Pueblo Deco style that we all recognize today as the classic American Southwestern style.

Hermit's Rest stands a few feet from the rim of the Grand Canyon. A Canadian prospector named Louis Boucher lived here alone around 1891 and carved the Hermit's Trail down into the canyon. The Fred Harvey Company purchased the spot in 1914 and had Mary Colter design this building as a rest area for his tourist coaches.

Hermit's Rest interior

The El Tovar Lodge dining room uses the Mimbreno china selected by Mary Colter for the interior design of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe's "Super Chief" streamliner in 1936. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway is celebrated in print, song and film as the railroad that opened up the Great Southwest.

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