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Colter and Colton: The architect and the artist

Mary Colter designed Hopi House, across from El Tovar Hotel at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, to blend in with the stunning vistas while paying homage to the native people of the area.

In addition to sharing very similar names, Mary Colter and Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton both used their artistic talents to leave lasting impressions on northern Arizona.

Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (1869-1958) apprenticed in an architecture office while attending art school at the California School of Design in San Francisco. Although architectural lessons were considered unusual for a woman at the time, Colter knew it was what she wanted to do, and her ambitious demeanor drove her success. During that time, architectural study was evolving from Victorian-inspired styles to styles better suited to their locales. Colter used this training in her future work.

After finishing school and then teaching mechanical drawing for nine years at a boys’ school in Minnesota, she took a vacation that would direct the rest of her life. She traveled to San Francisco to visit a friend who worked in a gift shop of the Fred Harvey Company. Colter casually mentioned that she’d like to work for the company, and the remark reached company officials who subsequently offered her a job redesigning the Albuquerque Indian Building museum and sales space to make it more attractive for tourists during the summer of 1902.

After that assignment, she returned to teaching in Minnesota. Then in 1904, the Fred Harvey Company broke ground for the Charles F. Whittlesey-designed El Tovar Hotel on the edge of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The company hired Colter to design a building across from El Tovar as a sales venue. Colter envisioned a structure that blended in with the stunning canyon vistas while also paying homage to the native people of the area. She named it Hopi House because it resembles historic dwellings on the Hopi mesas.

Upon finishing the project, she again returned to teaching until 1910, when she was offered a permanent job with the Fred Harvey Company as architect and designer. She moved to company headquarters in Kansas City, Kan., and planned buildings at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon for the next three decades. Hermit’s Rest, Bright Angel Hotel, the Watchtower, the Lookout Studio, and Phantom Ranch are all works by her. She also fashioned the La Posada Hotel in Winslow and other hotels from Albuquerque to Kingman.

Among those still standing are the La Posada and Painted Desert Inn. She would later claim that La Posada was her favorite building. She retired in 1948 at age 79 to Santa Fe, N.M., only to have the Fred Harvey Company call on her one more time to refit the cocktail lounge at the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe.

Kentucky-born Mary-Russell Ferrell (1889-1971) studied oil painting and water color at the prestigious Philadelphia School of Design. She graduated at age 20 in 1909, and opened a studio in Philadelphia that restored oil paintings. She got her first taste of the West during a 1908 backpacking adventure to the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia. The trip awakened her senses to the magnificence of the open spaces of the West.

She returned to Canada the following summer with a group that included her future husband, Dr. Harold S. Colton of Philadelphia. On their trip home, they traveled through Arizona, which presented her first glimpse of the state and its native people. The two married in 1912, and honeymooned in the Southwest where their appreciation of the region grew. His job as a zoology professor gave them summers off to travel and they spent every other summer in Arizona. In 1926, they permanently moved to Flagstaff and became involved in the local museum that led to the creation of today’s Museum of Northern Arizona.

Dr. Colton was director, and she became curator of art. She continued painting and entered her paintings of Arizona landscapes and native people in art shows in Pennsylvania and along the East Coast. Her depictions of unusual, vivid colors that Southwesterners are accustomed to caused an Eastern art critic to describe her work as surreal and dream-like. After years of a debilitating illness, Mary-Russell died in 1971, six months after her husband.

Although historical records don’t indicate if these two celebrated women ever met, they likely crossed paths at some point. They are both in the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame for their lasting monuments to the northern Arizona landscapes and people through their unique talents: Colter with her architecture and Colton with her paintings.

— S.D. Olberding. Photos courtesy of Wikimeida Commons.

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