Noted Southwestern author Frank Waters once referred to Mary Colter as having “a tender heart and a caustic tongue.” She could write the sweetest notes to the child of her onetime mentee, and scathing ones to architect John Gaw Meem, with whom she worked on La Fonda. (In one of the notes, she asked him precisely where he thought he might end up when he died.)
Those were among the tidbits of a grand life shared this morning by Arnold Berke, the biographer of Mary Colter (Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest) at this morning’s continuation of A Mary Colter Weekend. During his research, he found few blueprints, which aren’t built for survival to begin with; few original documents revealing anything of her love life (if any); and, as the years pass, fewer and fewer examples of her iconic architecture and designer’s eye.
Those were signs, he said, of a woman who was not appreciated in her own time, nor after her own time. That’s all the more sad when you consider she was alive at the same time as Frank Lloyd Wright and Julia Morgan, William Randolph Heart’s architect. (And no, Berke said, he found no evidence that Colter ever met either of them. And yes, he’s asked that question every time he speaks.)
Only in recent years, Berke said, has interest in Colter risen, particularly among Grand Canyon aficionados. Colter’s buildings along the South Rim and Phantom Ranch at the canyon’s bottom pioneered a style of architecture now used by most national and state parks. It’s called National Park Service Rustic, and Colter was, Berke said, “truly a pioneer of this idiom.”
A master builder as well designer, Colter married rock, tile, timber, glass, and wrought iron, employed a keen eye for talent in hiring artists like a young Fred Kabotie, and brewed up buildings that grew out of rock ledges, or simply appeared on a forest floor, complete and natural, as if they had always been there. Take a gander at two strikingly different models. The Pueblo-meets-Spanish style of La Fonda on the Plaza’s softly stuccoed and stacked curves (Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir once called La Fonda”The most beautiful hotel in America, perhaps the most beautiful hotel I’ve seen in my life.”):
And the seemingly haphazard collection of rocks that make up the very stable Hermit’s Rest at the Grand Canyon: