Not Lost: Mary Colter in New Mexico



Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (1869-1958) is one of America’s most vital, brilliant designers and architects. A contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, she helped invent “Southwest Style,” our unique blend of buildings and interiors inspired by a blend of Mission Revival, Spanish Colonial and Native American design.

It is easy to find Colter in Arizona. Her buildings are National Historic Landmarks at the Grand Canyon: Hermit’s Rest, Hopi House, the Lookout, the Watchtower, Phantom Ranch. A foremother of contemporary “green building,” she used local and recycled materials, created architecture that harmonized with its surroundings, and employed local artists and craftspeople. Her buildings at the Grand Canyon appear to grow straight from the rock. The Watchtower has a winding staircase with 365 degree views, interspersed with great paintings by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie. In California, you can find her in Los Angeles’ Union Station—where she designed an art deco cocktail lounge and a dining space with a dazzling zigzag floor. When you step back and get the long view, you see the floor is a Navajo blanket made of linoleum tiles.

Colter loved to make up stories for her buildings. At Hermit’s Rest, you feel the “hermit” might come back at any moment to warm himself by the fire. Colter’s self described “masterpiece,” La Posada in nearby Winslow, (recently and fabulously remodeled by Allan Affeldt) is inspired by the story that you are visiting the grand hacienda of Spanish Don Alphonso de los Pajaros.

But what of New Mexico? Her stories are harder to find. One of her most famous projects, the interior design of Albuquerque’s magnificent Alvarado Hotel, was demolished in the 1970s. All that remains is a historic marker next to the train station. Colter witnessed some of the demolition of her projects before she died, despairing, “it’s possible to live too long.” Yet all is not lost.

You can find touches of Colter in the Albuquerque Museum in the exhibit, “Albuquerque: Along the Rio Grande” until August 2013. There is a photo of her Alvarado lunchroom next to the pie case she designed. The pie case is a beautiful example of the pale blue, yellow and brown tile Colter used throughout the lunchroom, ordered from the Batchelder Tile Company in Los Angeles. All handcrafted, the tile is interspersed with Mayan designs. One of the Museum’s greatest contributions to reviving Colter’s legacy is their book, Jewel of the Railroad Era: Albuquerque’s Alvarado Hotel by Deborah C. Slaney (2009), a companion to the museum’s exhibit about the Alvarado Hotel. The exhibit brought out great emotion from the community who loved the hotel as an irreplaceable social center. Slaney’s book is the definitive, go-to-guide on all things Alvarado, and you can find Colter throughout Slaney’s pages. Santa Fe’s New Mexico History Museum is also revitalizing Colter’s legacy with a small exhibit of photographs and other fabulous special events, such as their recent “Mary Jane Colter Weekend.”

The best place to find Colter in New Mexico is to go to the historic La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe. Learning to find Colter in the hotel is delightful on-your-feet visual archeology.

Stand at the front desk in La Fonda’s lobby and look through the courtyard housing La Plazuela restaurant, with its distinctive glass windows, inspired by Colter, who had glass panes painted by Olive Rush and her students to lighten the rooms. These glass windows were hand painted by Ernest Martinez in the 1970s and 1980s. A handcrafted fireplace welcomes you, celebrating Zuni ceremonial dances, commissioned by Colter from sculptor Arnold Rönnebeck (1885-1947), once a pupil of Auguste Rodin.

Fireplaces are a hallmark of Mary Colter’s work. In her job as architect and interior designer for the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe Railroad and the Fred Harvey Corporation, she got as many fireplaces as she could into her designs from Kansas City to Los Angeles. She collaborated on the interiors of La Fonda with John Gaw Meem (1894-1983), who later became the official architect of the University of New Mexico, designing the exquisite Zimmerman Library. Meem was hired to do La Fonda’s architectural remodel and expansion in the late 1920s. Meticulous about guests’ comfort, Colter writes to Meem, “I made a most distressing discovery…the only radiator in the new large bedroom of the Taos suite comes directly against one of the twin beds….it is very disagreeable for anyone occupying that bed as the heat collects in the corner….We can hardly depend upon the fireplace to heat up this room warm enough.” It is an understatement to say that Colter knew her job—one writer noted, “she could teach masons how to lay adobe bricks, plasterers how to mix washes, and carpenters how to fix viga joints.” 

When Meem and Colter collaborated on La Fonda, she was very much his senior, in age and experience. Meem’s naiveté came out in his estimates for completion, leading to some funny exchanges. “I’m not sure what planet you are on, Mr. Meem,” writes Colter, “but I hope to go there when I die.” She was blunt about his ideas that she did not like—such as the idea of making a room inspired by a Spanish Church. “I can assure you Mr. Meem, that people do not want to relax in a churchlike atmosphere,” she quipped, instead designing an inviting room in the style of a hacienda.

In the 1920s, the descendants of Fred Harvey (who founded a series of eateries along the railroads known as America’s first chain restaurant) developed La Fonda as a tourist destination, hiring women with college educations as “couriers,” or guides, to take tourists out in motorcars to New Mexico’s pueblos. These groups needed areas to hear lectures, plan trips—and Mary Colter designed them. For these rooms, she commissioned paintings by Gerald Cassidy (1879-1934), who was inspired by Native art and ceremonies “as a counterpoint to the materialism of white civilization.”

Mary Colter loved this counterpoint herself. She was a true pioneer, once described as “an incomprehensible woman in pants,” heading out in boots and a pith helmet to explore pueblos, Chaco Canyon, native architecture. As with all artists (Native and non) who use ancient, sacred forms in a modern context, her work was met with a range of reaction, from protest to praise. Cassidy’s work can be found throughout La Fonda, Colter commissioned him to make ten major paintings about life in the southwest.





Across the hall from the Santa Fe Room, look closely at the stairwell. You will see the same tile work you found in the Albuquerque pie case, including Batchelder “La Maya” tiles, and Spanish style iron metal railings with corn stalk motifs.

Continue on, back to the lobby, and visit the French Pastry Shop, formerly Colter’s “La Cantinita,” her last project, executed in 1949. It wasn’t easy to transform the room into a 19th century Mexican-Spanish environment. Using handmade bricks from the old New Mexican capital, Colter had to get the brick layers to rip out their work twice to get it to look old enough. The fireplace is nearly identical to the one at Hermit’s Rest, the ceiling and walls are covered with an unusual and lovely assembly of candelabra, altars, and tin work. Next, stop in the gift shop and pick up a copy of From Every Window, the new La Fonda History book, for more Colter lore and photographs. Upstairs, in the Lumpkins Ballroom, you can find more Colter: the walls were painted by Ernest Martinez with images of her dinner plate designs: “Mimbreño.” Still in use at the Grand Canyon, Colter designed “Mimbreño.” in the 1930s for the railroad, inspired by her friends’ archeological dig in Southwestern New Mexico. The Mimbre tribe disappeared about 1100, but Colter revived their beautiful images of animals and the natural elements. If you stay in the La Terraza section of the hotel, be sure to see the “bunny” staircase, the railing is inspired by Colter’s use of ashtrays—for her original La Fonda lounge--freestanding of long eared, wrought iron jackrabbits. The miniature tiles on the front of the stairs are an homage to her love of Batchelder. You can even choose to rent a room that reflects the feel of Colter’s interior design: 410, 510, or 511.

Colter’s approach inspired architect Barbara Felix, who recently did a beautiful, light filled remodel of the central interior restaurant, La Plazuela. Barbara Felix is known for her hotel, residential and commercial commissions in New Mexico, especially her work on the Sky City Cultural Center & Haakú Museum. She deeply researched Colter’s work and thoughtfully asked, “What would Mary do?” while contemplating each decision. In Colter, Felix found a treasured, and previously unknown predecessor. Felix found that Colter’s desire to collaborate, to create stories for buildings, makes “room for everybody.”

La Fonda has been remodeled over the years, and is a trove of art and artifacts from many eras. I became sad when I came to the end of finding Colter in the hotel. Then I realized: Colter’s ethos is everywhere. Over the years, various accomplished artists have stayed at La Fonda—in earlier days they traded paintings for accommodation, and their works grace the walls. This gives La Fonda the feeling of a total work of art, which is how Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter saw things: room for everybody.

Elaine Avila is a playwright, art critic and holds the Robert F. Hartung Endowed Chair of Dramatic Writing at the University of New Mexico.

Originally appeared in The Collector’s Guide - Volume 26


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