Aesthetic Inspiration from a Grand Landscape

Discover Architect and Interior Designer Mary Colter’s Work at Grand Canyon National Park
Katherine RivardNPF Blog
West entrance to the stone Hermit's Rest building at Grand Canyon National Park
Hermit's Rest – NPS

“You can’t imagine what it cost to make it look this old.” A woman of impeccable taste and an incredible attention to detail, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter painstakingly created buildings, such as Grand Canyon National Park's “old” looking Hermit’s Rest, that blended in with their surroundings and played off the local traditions. Hermit’s Rest is still in use today as a gift shop with the look of a sooty home of a rugged bachelor.

In 1890, when Mary Colter began her career in architecture, there were only 22 female architects in the United States. Unfortunately, little is known about Mary’s personal life. The stories that remain of her character suggest that she was a surly woman who cursed with abandon, smoked like a chimney, and was not afraid of the bottle.

Stone arch with bell with a "Hermit's Rest" sign at Grand Canyon National Park
National Park Service

After graduating from the California School of Design, the Fred Harvey Company quickly scooped up the budding interior designer. She would go on to work for the company for 46 years, becoming the chief architect and designer. Despite leading many projects for the company, she still needed to have approval from senior employees for her work and her status as an employee for the company, rather than having her own firm, meant that she did not receive the same level of recognition as her contemporaries. After her death in 1958, her name was slowly forgotten.

Circular kiva room inside the desert watchtower at Grand Canyon National Park

The kiva room inside the Desert Watchtower

National Park Service

In more recent years, as appreciation for her work has resurged, efforts to preserve her buildings have begun. Sadly, many of her hotels have been renovated or torn down. However, on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, several remain, including the Indian Watchtower at Desert View, Lookout Studio, Hopi House, and Hermit’s Rest. In 1987, these four examples of Colter’s work were designated National Historic Landmarks.

Working beside some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, Mary Colter created buildings that could stand on their own, blending into the natural setting and adding to the story – a style of design often referred to as Parkitecture. She was responsible for both creating buildings and their interior design, and used the landscape, as well as Native American and Hispanic traditions, as inspiration. The idea of using indigenous influences in architecture and design was something new and revolutionary for her time.

Looking up inside the desert watchtower at grand canyon national park to a painted ceiling

Inside the Desert Watchtower

National Park Service

Using Hopi, Zuni, Navajo and Mexican motifs, Colter told the story of the area’s past and expanded a traveler’s experience of the area. She perfected her craft and was able to mimic nature in order to create what we now call “rustic” architecture. On your next visit to Grand Canyon National Park, make sure to stop by Hermit’s Rest to pick up a snack or a cup of coffee, then take a moment to appreciate the work of one of America’s great architects.

Stone cylindrical watchtower at Grand Canyon National Park

Desert Watchtower

National Park Service


Wow! I wish I had known to view these when I was in the area. Mary Colter was a talent! I love the feeling-even just from the photos!
We visited the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in May 2008 and did admire Mary Colter's works. We didn't know much about her then. I want to go back to the Grand Canyon and hike down to the bottom.
Thank you for that great story with beautiful photos! We visited the Desert Watchtower 13 years ago, and I was so impressed with the design, exterior and interior; using Indian icons made it feel historic and contemporary at the same time.
Walking into La Posada Hotel in Winslow, AZ feels like being in another era. We were there when the hotel was being restored room by room and stayed a couple of nights. The Sangria in the Turquoise Room Restaurant was wonderful. Close by is a ranch with Anasazi artifacts and petroglyphs on river rock walls.
Thanks for this article. These are true masterpieces. I can't wait to see them.
I worked at Lookout Studio in 1978 for the summer. It, and the other buildings Colter designed are very beautiful and worth the trip! I also hiked down Hermit's Trail and discovered remnants of the by-gone mining era. It's a place I will never forget.
Just amazing descriptions!

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