Standing at barely five feet tall with a crotchety temperament, Mary Colter was fixture on every construction site.
I can imagine her wearing a Stetson hat and multiple silver Indian rings on her fingers glittering in the sunlight as she chain-smoked and bellowed instructions to the construction workers.
Fred Harvey had the foresight to hire women who would become the famed Harvey Girls but in an equally bold move, he hired Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter in 1902. She was the chief architect hired to design his hotel interiors in a highly unusual move.
I learned about Coulter when I vacationed at the La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona. The art-laden adobe hallways were a signature feature in what came to be known as Mary Jane Colter’s “Santa Fe Style.” This was the last of the Harvey House Hotels built by the Fred Harvey Company. You can read about his iconic Harvey Girls in the accompanying article but what I discovered as I settled into this posh hotel, was that this extravagant business venture cost Harvey a whopping $2 million to build in 1929.
Coulter’s story as an architect speaks to her talent and Harvey’s willingness to treat women as equals. Coulter’s first assignment was designing interiors for the Indian Building next to Santa Fe’s newest hotel, the Alvarado in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her unique “rustic” style used natural materials that became a signature “Santa Fe Style.” Harvey appointed Coulter as his chief architect for projects along the Grand Canyon’s South Rim that became the most popular high-end destinations for visiting tourists, and showcased Native American arts and crafts .
Many of Coulter’s buildings in the Grand Canyon are still standing today such as the Hopi House, modeled after the Hopi village of Old Orabai. Although many of the original buildings were razed or repurposed later in Coulter’s career, eleven remain on the National Register of Historic Places and five are recognized landmarks. They are worth visiting and include the Watchtower, Hopi House, Lookout Studio and Bright Angel Lodge; all protected under the stewardship of the National Parks Service.
Colter, an independent and unmarried woman was singly-focused on achieving her vision. She earned a reputation for being eccentric that included frequently asking construction workers to tear down rock structures if she discovered a stone she didn’t like or something small that disturbed her artistic sensibilities. Female architects were a rarity in Colter’s day, so her perfectionism might have stemmed from knowing she needed to prove herself.
Knowing the state of Arizona required a man to sign off on any final design so who wouldn’t develop an attitude! Rumors suggesting Coulter was not the chief architect in Harvey’s final plans swirled after Coulter visionary buildings were wiped out but La Posada, which translates to “the resting place”, was her favorite project. She envisioned a grand Spanish hacienda, steps from the train depot on one side and the opposite side filled with gardens. Interior Mexican tiles, bright colors on archways and twenty-inch thick walls take the garden inside as visitors walk through hallways of interesting museum-like displays featuring Native American art, rugs and pottery.
Many rooms tucked off the first floor invite guests to lounge in front of cozy fireplaces on overstuffed sofas and Santa Fe style seating. Hand-painted art by Santa Fe artist Ernesto Martinez make it easy to kick back with a bottle of wine while also enjoying the quirky paintings of the current hotel owner’s wife and artist, Tina Mion.
The hotel was an easy train ride from Los Angeles for Hollywood movie stars in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Celebrities like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Clark Gable and Betty Grable visited the La Posada. They carried weighty, old school keys that modern guests still provided to guests at check-in. Charming, framed pictures of a celebrity who stayed in your room hangs on the wall with a brief bio outside your room door.
We stayed in the Gene Autry room and our friends had the Shirley Temple room. Howard Hughes was known to stay in the largest suite, which features a traditional beehive fireplace.
Every rooms is comfortable and understated with traditional Mexican tin and tile mirrors, Navajo rugs and jewel-tone painted walls. 1930’s era claw foot tubs and traditional black and white tile of the era have also been preserved.
Two portraits by Tina Mion of some of the original Harvey Girls in their later years hang outside the main restaurant and a small intimate bar, pays homage to “The Harvey Girls” history in an endlessly looping movie. The Turquoise Room is the formal dining room, with attentive wait staff guiding selections from the tantalizing Southwest menu. You can almost imagine the hotel in its heyday – weekenders coming from the train dressed in their finest apparel hoping to spot a movie star!
La Posada closed its doors in 1957, eight years after Mary retired from the Fred Harvey Company in 1948 at the age 79. The automobile overtook passenger train travel and the Santa Fe railroad could not sell the property. The east wing of the hotel was converted into offices for their regional headquarters and Coulter watched her “masterpiece” come apart.
“There’s such a thing as living too long,” she said when asked about the closure. But in 1998, Allan Affedlt reopened La Posada in its former glory. Coulter would be proud to see her dream alive and well in the enshrined art, nature and railroad history.