Women in Architecture: Mary Colter

In the late 19th century when few women were to be found in the architecture field, Mary Colter disrupted the landscape with lasting impact. Her career was founded on lifelong passions that began with deep curiosity about Native American culture and a love of Arts and Crafts architecture that she was exposed to as a young girl. Learn more about her inspiring life and work below:

The Life of Mary Colter

Colter was born on April 4, 1869, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she was raised by her merchant father, William Colter, and milliner mother, Rebecca Colter. As a child, Colter moved across America with her family, living in towns from Colorado to Texas before calling St. Paul, Minnesota home for the rest of her youth. In St. Paul, she acquainted herself with the large Sioux community in the city, immersing herself in their art and culture while profoundly influencing her architectural practice. 

After graduating high school at just 14 years old, Colter moved with her mother and enrolled in Oakland’s California School of Design, where she studied art and design. In California, she not only advanced her drawing skills but discovered an appreciation for architecture, thanks to an apprenticeship at a local firm. In 1891, she returned to St. Paul, where she found herself teaching art, design and architecture at Mechanics Arts High School for more than 15 years. Students of Colter later found themselves winning awards at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair. 

Hopi House, Grand Canyon National Park, Mary Colter, 1905

Notable Works and Achievements 

In 1902, with her newfound recognition, Colter was appointed Chief Architect at the Fred Harvey Company in St. Paul, where she completed designs for 21 hotels, shops and rest areas along numerous railways across the Western United States. Many of Colter’s designs featured characteristics she quickly became known for, including narrow windows, low ceilings, courtyards and being built into the Earth. 

Throughout her career, Colter designed a series of buildings in the Grand Canyon National Park, including the most recognized of the series, Hopi House, in 1905. In the build, Colter employed various indigenous builders, artists and craftsmen in the area to help with her “re-creation.” The completed design exhibits a rectangular, Hopi pueblo structure, finished with stone masonry, mud-coated ceilings and other precise details that model the traditional dwelling type. Hopi House and three other buildings designed by Colter in Grand Canyon National Park were later named National Historic Landmarks in 1987.

The interior of La Posada Hotel, mixing Spanish Colonial Revival with Native American influences, Mary Colter, 1930, Courtesy of La Posada Hotel

Outside of Grand Canyon National Park, Colter left her mark on other famed designs, including what she stated was her masterpiece, La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona. Completed in 1930, the hacienda-style hotel features Spanish Colonial Revival characteristics in its design. Colter’s say in La Posada’s design stretched from the building’s facade and gardens to its interior and dishware. 

Although she grew up in the Midwest, Colter had an enormous influence across the western states, thanks to her curiosity and drive. Blending Spanish Colonial Revival style with Native American cultural elements, Colter helped shape much of the architecture that remains intact in the Southwest today and became a voice for many who didn’t have one at the time.

A Brief History of Pueblo Architecture

When Optima expanded to Arizona in 2000, with the new territory came a vast and storied architectural culture and history. While the Southwest is home to many distinguished styles, perhaps none is as unique as pueblo architecture. Our Modernist design is in stark contrast with the Pueblo style, yet we still honor the history and modern-day impact of pueblo architecture.

Pueblo architecture comes from the traditional dwellings of the Puebloans, or Pueblo peoples, a southwestern Native American tribe. In Spanish, pueblo translates to “village,” referring to the Puebloans’ iconic style of building. Puebloans first began building pueblo structures between 750-900 CE, but were inspired by the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings dating as far back as AD 1150.

Pueblo architecture is most commonly constructed from adobe, though stone was used when available. Building structures are flat-roofed, with the roof supported by wooden beams, vigas, and small perpendicular beams, latillas. Vigas typically protrude beyond the building structure. In larger communities, many pueblo homes are stacked in multistory terraces with setbacks. These communities also often include kivas, partially underground circular ceremonial rooms, as well as courtyards or plazas

When Spanish colonists arrived to the southwest in the 1500s, they adopted Pueblo architecture for their own buildings, such as haciendas and mission churches. From the colonists, Puebloans began incorporating more manufactured techniques, such as sun-baking adobe bricks, and more manufactured materials.

Optima Camelview Village in Scottsdale, Arizona
Optima Camelview Village in Scottsdale, Arizona

Pueblo architecture continues to permeate the voice and character of southwest design. Although our own Modernist style is vastly different, Pueblo influences still informed many design choices. Optima Camelview Village honors the tradition of terraced dwellings in its stepped, landscaped facade and centralized courtyard. The desert dwellings of Optima contain traits of the traditional Publeoan dwellings, too. At Sterling Ridge, the cantilever roof pays homage to vigas, while the site-sensitive, multilevel design of the structure allows the home to blend into the landscape.

But despite the notable influences, it is Optima’s departure from the dominant southwestern architectural style that attracts people to our work — employees and residents alike.

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