There’s More than the Canyon that’s Grand in Arizona’s National Park: The Story of Mary Colter, Woman Architect

When my husband and I visited Grand Canyon National Park last month, our first stop inside the park grounds, late on our day of arrival, was the Desert View Lookout. It offers first-time visitors, such as us, their first expansive views of the Grand Canyon. I cannot come up with any adjectives that adequately describe this experience. If you’ve been there, you know what I mean. Mouth-dropping, awe-inspiring, unbelievable, and unspeakable beauty are only a few ways in which I’d describe my initial view of the canyon.

But, there’s more to this park than the gorge carved out by the Colorado River over the millennia.

One of our first views of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2021

There’s history. If the Desert View Lookout is your first stop in the park, you are introduced to some of the history contained within the park immediately! Architect, Mary Colter’s Desert View Watch Tower cannot be missed. It is a massive stone structure perched on the edge of the rim at the Eastern end of the park. It was built in 1932 and meant to resemble an ancient Puebloan watchtower.

Mary Colter’s Watchtower at Desert View Lookout. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2021

Colter’s name seemed familiar to me. I immediately associated her with Western expansion and the development of the park system, due to my required course readings in environmental history. Initially, I thought she was a conservationist. It was only this morning that I learned she was actually an architect! Coulter lived between 1869 and 1958, moving westward from Pennsylvania to Colorado for her education, with stops in Texas and Minnesota during her formative young years. She was 88 when she died. Imagine being a woman architect during that period of American history!

The Desert View Watch Tower is not the only building Colter designed long the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Others include Hopi House near the El Tovar Hotel, Hermit’s Rest at the far Western end of the Rim Trail, and Lookout Studio – a stone building perched precariously on the end of an outcropping on the rim. You can read about these buildings, why they were placed where they stand, and Colter’s exceptional life as an architect in this National Park post. If you like American History, it is worth a few minutes of your time to read.

The El Tovar Hotel sits on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, across from the Hopi House (not in photo). © Carol Labuzzetta, 2021

As I alluded to, we were not aware of Colter’s influence on park buildings. We did view the Watch Tower at Devil’s Garden but did not go in it. On our last day, we visited the Hopi House as which is now a gift shop and museum but were unaware of the connection to Colter. I think it’s interesting we both started and finished our Grand Canyon stay with visits to Coltern’s buildings, even though we did not know of her influence. It speaks to her permeating talent that these historical buildings still exist and allow us to consider the lives of the ancient Pueblo and Hopi peoples.

When (not if) we go back to Grand Canyon National Park, I know we will be spending more time visiting these iconic buildings by Mary Colter, as I am now fascinated by her, conservationist or not!


Six Iconic Grand Canyon Buildings Designed by Mary Colter by Ria Borja

Mary Colter and Her Buildings at Grand Canyon

Hopi House

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