Tourist Overlook, Grand Canyon

Arizona Capitol Reports Staff//September 30, 2016

Tourist Overlook, Grand Canyon

Arizona Capitol Reports Staff//September 30, 2016

TP 093016-WEB

Mary Colter was an employee of Santa Fe railway concessionaire Fred Harvey, whose Fred Harvey cars took visitors on driving tours along the canyon rim. She had previously designed Hermit’s Rest, the lookout and Hopi House on the canyon south rim, and was responsible for the La Posada station hotel, designed for the Santa Fe Railroad in Williams.

For the watchtower, she developed a style that combined elements of prehistoric Indian ruins – organized rubble walls, like those seen at Chaco Canyon – with elements of the arts and crafts movement she had studied when first at design school in California.

She was in her 60s when she supervised the construction project. The circular structure in the foreground—the Hopi room—was modeled on the ruins of kivas found in the area. Windows overlooked the Colorado River below. Connected to it was the five-story watchtower, built of structural steel with an interior stairway to the top.

The steel shell visible in this photograph was built by the bridge division of the Santa Fe Railroad and was covered in local stone. Rocks that would fit the curved walls either had to be located and transported to the site or chipped off larger blocks of sandstone—a time-consuming task, but one essential to achieving Mary Colter’s vision of an abandoned ruin blended into the landscape. A final Colter touch was a selection of rocks that suggested animal forms decorating the roof line and the stairway to the tower.

The windows of the observation room were covered with shutters, called reflectoscopes, made of a special darkened glass that shut out the brighter rays of the sun to enhance details of the canyon walls.

A young Hopi artist, Fed Kabotie, painted the walls in the Hopi Room with images of the Snake and other Hope legends.

His work was directed throughout by Mary Colter, who was not above choosing paint hues and design placement for the artists she employed. While she looked like someone’s grandmother, she had a will of iron—no doubt from her years of living on the road and working in a field dominated by men.

After completing the watchtower, Colter went on to design Bright Angel Lodge and two dormitories at the Grand Canyon. She was the principal decorator of the train stations at Kansas City, St. Louis and Los Angeles. She decorated the Painted Desert Inn near Holbrook and the La Cantinita room in the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, where she lived in retirement. She died at the age of 88.

   Photo courtesy of Cline Library, Special Collections, Northern Arizona University. Research by Joan Brundige-Baker.