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.

Women in Architecture: Amanda Levete

Born in Bridgend, South Wales in 1955, Amanda Levete is known for her innovative practices and making organic and conceptual designs a reality. Levete studied at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London and worked at firms Alsop & Lyall and Richard Rogers Partnership before forming her own London-based firm AL_A (formerly Amanda Levete Architecture) in 2009.

Among Levete’s notable works are the current transformation of Paris’s famous Galeries Lafayette department store, Wadham College at Oxford University, the Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology (the MAAT) in Lisbon for the EDP Foundation, and a new entrance, gallery, and courtyard for London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. 

An open grass courtyard sits in the forefront of the image while the buildings of Wadham College fill the area behind the grass.
Wadham College, Oxford, UK

Levete is known for her “intuitive and strategic approach to design” which captures the identity of the urban landscape in which a building is located rather than the identity of the building itself. This approach to architecture and design allows Levete’s creations to interact with the space around them and to become a part of a cityscape rather than existing in a vacuum. 

The rendering of the Monte St Angelo Subway Station shows a large burnt orange bean form that is the entrance to the station below.
Monte St Angelo Subway Station, Naples, Italy

An example of Levete’s intuitive and strategic approach to design, one that interacts with its surroundings, is her design of a SEPSA subway station in Naples, Italy. Levete’s station design simultaneously functions as a work of art and a subway station that allows commuters to travel with ease while interacting with a brilliant art piece every day. At the surface level, the station becomes a central element to Naples’ Traino district which has suffered from lack of infrastructure and neglect in past years. A large, smooth metal circle made in collaboration with renowned sculptor Anish Kapoor resides above the entrance, welcoming commuters in while reflecting and highlighting the surrounding architecture of the neighborhood to the viewer. Together Levete and Kapoor celebrate the already existing infrastructure of the district while bringing something new to it through the combination of beauty and functionality. 

A large white building (Galeries Lafayatte) sits on the corner of two streets. On the front of the building sits an image that seems to be a clothing at for what is inside.
Galeries Lafayette, Paris, France

Similarly, Levete’s work on the transformation of the ‘Cupola’ building of Paris’s Galeries Lafayettes celebrates traditional Haussmann-style architecture in order to create an innovative design in a landmark structure. Levete describes this design as a “metamorphosis,” one that acknowledges the importance Galeries Lafayette has to the daily life of Parisians and the architecture of the city of Paris. The Galeries Lafayette project is still in process and Levete plans to celebrate the original craftsmanship of the building while moving it forward into the lives of future generations of shoppers for years and years to come. 

In 2017, Levete was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to architecture. In 2018, Levete was awarded the Jane Dew Prize by the Architects Journal and Architectural Review. The Jane Dew Prize is seen as one of the biggest architecture prizes awarded to women and recognizes architects who “raised the profile for women in architecture.” Levete has also been awarded the RIBA Stirling Prize which is presented to “the architects of the building that has made the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture in the past year.”

Women in Architecture: Beverly Willis

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series at Optima, we’re taking a look at another pioneering female figure: Beverly Willis. Willis’ career set an unprecedented tone in the industry – to quote her own website, she “accepted commissions for which there were no built precedents, adopted practices that did not become mainstream until decades later, and sought research-driven solutions unique to each project.” Let’s dive in below:

The Life of Beverly Willis

Beverly Willis was born on February 17, 1928, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her mother was a nurse and her father was an oil industry entrepreneur and agriculturist. The couple split during the Great Depression, at which point Willis was only six years old, and she wouldn’t see her father again for another several years. Left alone, Willis’ mother struggled to provide for her two children and they were placed in an orphanage. There, they worked for their keep and often fought back against the establishment, learning the lifelong lesson that “pushing boundaries was a way to survive.” 

Willis saw her father again, for the last time over the summer when she was fifteen. She worked alongside him in his shop and earned a man’s wages, which she later used to pay for flying lessons. It was 1943, the middle of World War II, and with her ability to fly a single-engine propeller plane, Willis qualified for the Women’s Air Service.

After her time in the service, having learned many trades’ skills, Willis went off to study engineering at Oregon State University. Ultimately, however, she graduated with a Fine Arts degree from the University of Hawaii in 1954.

Beverly Willis at work on her fresco for the United Chinese Society, Honolulu, 1955. Beverly Willis Archive
Beverly Willis at work on her fresco for the United Chinese Society, Honolulu, 1955. Beverly Willis Archive

Career and Accolades

Willis learned much from her art studies and mentors – including Gustav Ecke, a scholar of Chinese furniture, who introduced her to Asian art and architecture, and Jean Charlot, who exposed her to the history of European art and fresco painting. Armed with this knowledge, she founded her own studio, the Willis Atelier, in Waikiki, Hawaii. There, she continued her murals, fresco paintings and multimedia installations. One of her most notable projects during this period was her fresco work on the Shell Bar at the Hilton Hawaiin Village hotel, which also used an innovative sand cast mural panel technique she herself had pioneered.

In 1958, Willis moved to San Francisco where she opened her own design office and deepened her architectural prowess. She was successful in retail design in particular, but transitioned to residential design with her special program at the Robertson Residence. There, she created notably disability-friendly design far before disability guidelines such as the ADA ever existed. 

Beverly Willis & Associates, preliminary section showing uses for San Francisco Ballet Building, San Francisco, 1979. Beverly Willis Archive
Beverly Willis & Associates, preliminary section showing uses for San Francisco Ballet Building, San Francisco, 1979. Beverly Willis Archive

Two other notable projects during this era included her renovation of the Union Street Stores from 1963 to 1965, which, according to The Architectural Forum, some historians describe as an initial contribution to the advancement of the Modern adaptive re-use of historical buildings movement.” She also designed the San Francisco Ballet Building in 1973. It was the first building in the US specifically designed for a ballet company and school, and paved the way for many others like it to follow.

Willis was also famously one of the first to use a computerized approach to design. Her firm invented CARLA (Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis) in 1970, a program which was quickly adapted and used nationally. In 1997, the National Building Museum published her book, “Invisible Images– The Silent Language of Architecture.” Understanding that women were often excluded from the historical narrative of architecture, Willis also founded the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF) in 2002 with the goal of changing architecture culture through research and education.

Her extensive portfolio and accolades speak for themself. And lucky for us, today, Willis is 93 and her humanistic approach to design and innovative approaches continue to shape the architectural world.

Women in Architecture Part I

While conversations about the architectural greats center around figures such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, there are countless powerful women whose names are left out. At Optima, we’ve celebrated the contributions of everyone from Charlotte Perriand to Ray Eames — and today, we’re spotlighting a few more women in architecture you should know.

Sophia Hayden

Sophia Hayden was born in Santiago, Chile in 1868 and moved to Boston at age six. Hayden discovered her interest in architecture during high school and went on to be the first female graduate of the four-year program in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She graduated in 1890 with honors. After college, Hayden initially struggled to find work in the male-dominated world of architecture and settled for a position as a mechanical drawing instructor at a local high school.

Only a year later, at just 21, Hayden jumped at the opportunity to enter her design in a competition for the Women’s Building at Daniel Burnham’s 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Her design won the competition and Hayden was awarded $1,000, a tenth of what male architects earned for similar buildings.

Women’s building, 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Women’s building, 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

During construction, Hayden was micromanaged incessantly and had to make many compromises on her design. The stress of the situation led Hayden to a breakdown and she was placed in a sanitarium for an “extended period of rest.” After the incident, Hayden retired from architecture permanently. Her treatment and diagnosis of hysteria have much to tell us about the challenges women in architecture faced during this time.

Marion Mahony Griffin
Marion Mahony Griffin, photo courtesy of Places Journal

Marion Mahony Griffin

Marion Mahony Griffin was born in 1871 in Chicago, and at nine her family migrated to the suburb of Winnetka after the Great Chicago Fire. Watching a landscape consumed by growing suburban sprawl developed Mahony’s interest in architecture. She went on to graduate from MIT in 1894, becoming the second woman to do so after Hayden.

Artist's Studio (Section). Watercolour and ink by Marion Griffin 1894.
Artist’s Studio (Section). Watercolour and ink by Marion Griffin 1894.

After college, Mahony moved back to Chicago and became the first woman licensed to practice architecture in Illinois. She found work at her cousin’s architecture firm downtown alongside Frank Lloyd Wright. There, she created beautiful watercolor renderings of buildings and landscapes — a signature style which would later be attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright. Mahony worked alongside Wright for fifteen years, contributing greatly to his reputation and success to little recognition. She was also an original member of the Prairie School of architecture.

Fair Lane, Henry Ford’s Dearborn mansion, 1913-1915
Fair Lane, Henry Ford’s Dearborn mansion, 1913-1915

When Wright eloped to Europe, he offered Mahony his studio’s remaining commissions, but she declined. Mahony is even rumored to have said Wright’s habit of taking credit for things, including the Prairie School movement, are what led to the movement’s early death. Later in life, Mahony collaborated with ex-Wright employee, Prairie School member and her husband, Walter Burley Griffin. Throughout her career, Mahony brought to fruition many notable projects, including Henry Ford’s Dearborn mansion and the Gerald Mahony Residence in Elkhart, Indiana.

Stay tuned for more features on women in architecture.

person name goes here

Maintenance Supervisor

Glencoe, IL

    Acceptable file types: *.pdf | *.txt | *.doc, max-size: 2Mb