Just steps away from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, Hopi House glows amber in the Arizona sun. Made of local stone, it’s built in the terrace style of Native American cliff dwellings. Visitors can be forgiven for thinking it dates from ancient times.

Hopi House actually was constructed early in the 20th century. Like most of the charming buildings you’ll find in Grand Canyon Village, it’s the handiwork of Mary Colter, daughter of Irish immigrants, and one of her era’s rare female architects.

In Hopi House and her five other structures in Grand Canyon National Park, Colter turned her back on the Beaux Arts styles revered in the cities of the East Coast, embracing a style that became known as “national park rustic.” Using local materials and historic styles, Colter created a new architecture rooted in the Western landscape.

An Art Teacher Turned Architect

Born in Pittsburgh in 1869, Colter grew up in the frontier city of St. Paul at the edge of Sioux Indian land. She trained at the California School of Design in San Francisco, apprenticing with a local architect and absorbing new ideas about regional architecture.

Colter returned to St. Paul, and, for 15 years, earned her living as an art teacher. At the same time, the Fred Harvey Company had begun to tame the West for leisure travelers, building hotels and restaurants along the Santa Fe Railway lines across the West.

In 1901, the company tapped the Midwestern schoolteacher to design the interior of an Indian arts gallery adjoining an Albuquerque hotel. In 1905, for Hopi House, her first Harvey building, Colter drew on her studies of Hopi houses at Oraibi, Arizona.

Impressed by her affinity for Indian and Hispanic design, Harvey House hired her full-time in 1910. She rose rapidly to become the company’s chief architect and designer.

Colter’s Additional Works at the Grand Canyon

From El Tovar Hotel, where Colter did the interior design, you can stroll to her more modest Bright Angel Lodge, a collection of log cabins and an inn from 1935. Check out the stone “geological fireplace” inside.

Lookout Studio, also in Grand Canyon Village, was built in 1914. Made of stone and timber, it clings to the edge of the precipice like a real-life rock outcropping. Inside, you can gaze through telescopes at the canyon’s beauties.

Hermit’s Rest, with its studied piles of rocks, is even more rustic, evoking the hideaway of a mountain man. Colter located the 1914 respite eight miles west of the village to provide solitude to the traveler.

You have to climb down 5,000 feet to the bottom of the canyon to see Colter’s Phantom Ranch. Built in 1922, the overnight lodge for hikers has sloping roofs and walls made from local stone. At age 53, the intrepid Colter rode a burro down to inspect her handiwork.

desert_watchtower.pngTo research the Watchtower, she hired a pilot to fly her over crumbling Indian towers in Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly and elsewhere. Her 1932 round, stone tower at the park’s east end is the highest structure in the South Rim. Walk 70 feet up to the top to take in the dramatic rooftop vistas and view the murals painted inside by famed Hopi artist Fred Kabotie.

La Posada Hotel & Gardens

Colter indulged a Hispanic fantasy in 1930’s La Posada Hotel & Gardens, the last of the great Harvey railroad hotels. Located in Winslow in Northern Arizona, it’s an exquisite Spanish-style hacienda with red-tiled roofs, porticoes and arches. The hotel fell into disuse for some years, but you can now stay in rooms restored to their original glory or dine in its acclaimed Turquoise Room.

Colter was forgotten for a time after her death in 1958, but today she’s celebrated as an architect ahead of her time, a woman who paid attention to history, to geography and to the land.