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Meet Mary Colter, the Architect Who Conjured the Romance of the American West

They rise along the south rim of the Grand Canyon, rough-hewn structures built mostly of stone and timber, so elemental, so rooted in their surroundings, that many visitors have mistaken them for remnants of pioneer days or prehistory. This was the intent of their creator, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (1869-1958), one of America's earliest women architects and one of the first architects to give American buildings a site-specific sense of place. Yet few of the nearly five million people who visit Grand Canyon National Park every year are aware of Colter. No wonder she's been called "the best-known unknown architect in the national parks."

She graduated from the California School of Design in San Francisco (having also apprenticed with a local architect) in 1890—when the U.S. census counted only 22 female architects in the entire country. For several years she taught drawing at a high school in her hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. Her first design commission came about by chance: after she met the daughter of the founder of the Fred Harvey Company, Harvey hired her to decorate the new Indian Building at the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque.

It was the start of a 46-year collaboration >>