Phantom Ranch

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Discover the Phantom Ranch with its innovative architecture brought about by the necessity of having mules transport building supplies to the lodge site.

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Phantom Ranch, a member of Historic Hotels of America since 2012, dates back to 1922.

Phantom Ranch was constructed during the “Roaring Twenties,” in which flappers, the radio, and the Art Deco movement defined the age.

While the Phantom Ranch itself dates to the early 20th century, the land upon which the lodge resides has been actively inhabited for close to a millennia. Archeological research conducted in the area uncovered many different types of Pueblo structures that were once used by Native Americans during the 11th century. The first European Americans arrived in the region several centuries later, when John Wesley Powell led a group of prospectors to Phantom Creek in the 1860s. Their arrival sparked a local mining boom that lasted for the next 30 years.

This development was slowly offset by the advent of the local tourism industry at the beginning of the 1900s. Spearheaded by President Theodore Roosevelt, both the Grand Canyon and its Colorado River Valley became immensely popular places to visit. The great national interest eventually inspired the federal government to designate the Grand Canyon a national park in 1919.

In order to facilitate travel to the new national park, Washington allowed for the Fred Harvey Company to construct a building that would provide permanent lodging. The company subsequently hired Mary Colter to design the structure. Colter’s work on the building later became part of a rich architectural style known as National Park Service Rustic. When construction finally concluded, Colter suggested that it be called “Phantom Ranch” after the nearby creek.

Today, Phantom Ranch is still one of the most popular holiday destinations in the entire Grand Canyon region. Many of its original features remain as they did back during the 1920s, including its beautifully iconic stonework. This amazing historic lodge is incredibly close to the famous Bright Angel Trail, as well as Grand Canyon Village.

Image of Historian Stanley Turkel, Historic Hotels of America Image of Stanley Turkel's Book Built To Last Historic Hotels of America.

Guest Historian Series

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Nobody Asked Me, But… No.206;

Hotel History: Mary Elizabeth Jane Coulter (1869 – 1958)

By Stanley Turkel, CMHS

A pioneering American woman architect and interior designer whose distinct architectural knowledge was steeped in the culture and landscape of the Southwest. As the architectural historian for the Fred Harvey Company, she designed hotels, restaurants, gift shops and rest areas along the major routes of the Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe Railway from 1902 until her retirement in 1948. Yet few of the nearly five million people who visit the Grand Canyon National Park every year are aware of Mary Colter and her accomplishments. No wonder she’s been called “the best-known unknown architect in the national parks.”

Born on April 4, 1869 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she was the daughter of Irish immigrants William Colter, a merchant, and Rebecca Crozier, a milliner. She experienced a transient childhood moving with her family from Pennsylvania to Texas and Colorado before finally settling down in Saint Paul, Minnesota at the age of eleven. In 1880, Saint Paul had a population of 40,000 people and a large minority of Sioux Indians, survivors of the Dakota War of 1862 which forced many to leave the newly-formed state.

Mary Colter graduated from high school at the age of 14 and after her father died she attended the California School of Design (now the San Francisco Art Institute) until 1891 where she studied art and design. Established by the San Francisco Art Association in 1874, the California School of Design, one of the first art schools in the West, provided its students with a comprehensive art education. For fifteen years Colter taught drawing at Mechanic Arts High School and lectured at the University of Minnesota Extension School. Her first design commission came when she met Minnie Harvey Huckel, daughter of the founder of the Fred Harvey Company.

In 1902, Colter started working for the Fred Harvey Company as an interior designer and practical architect. Her first assignment was to create an interior design for the Harvey Company’s newest project: the Indian Building adjacent to Harvey’s Hotel Alvarado in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Alvarado was designed by architect Charles Frederick Whittlesey (1867-1941) who trained in the Chicago office of Louis Sullivan. In 1900, at the age of thirty-three, Whittlesey was appointed Chief Architect for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. He designed the El Tovar Hotel at the south rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona and the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque with eighty-eight guestrooms, parlors, a barbershop, reading room and restaurant.

Mary Colter’s design for the adjacent Indian Building helped to launch the Harvey Company’s long-time sponsorship of Indian arts and crafts. The Albuquerque Journal Democrat reported on May 11, 1902 that the Alvarado Hotel “opened in a burst of rhetoric, a flow of red carpet and the glow of myriad brilliant electric lights with hopes that it would attract the wealthier classes to stop in Albuquerque on their travels to the West.”

Fred Harvey brought civilization, community and industry to the Wild West. His business eventually included restaurants, hotels, newsstands and dining cars on the Sante Fe Railroad. The partnership with the Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe introduced many new tourists to the American Southwest by making rail travel comfortable and adventurous. Employing many Native-American artists, the Fred Harvey Company also collected indigenous examples of basketry, beadwork, Kachina dolls and a lively collection of exotic artifacts, handicrafts and Mission-style furniture.

Mary Colter’s Indian Building contained work and exhibit rooms with Indian basketmakers, silversmiths, potters and weavers at work. It launched the Harvey Company’s long-standing sponsorship of Indian arts and crafts. Mary Colter designed a new cocktail lounge in 1940 in the Alvarado and named it La Cocina Cantina to capture the design of an early Spanish kitchen.

From 1902 through 1948, Mary Colter served as the primary designer for the Fred Harvey Company, completing designs for twenty-one hotels, restaurants, lounges, curio shops, lobbies and rest areas along the major routes of the Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe Railway. She captured the romance and mystery of the American Southwest and Native American artistic culture. Some characteristic features of her designs were tiny windows allowing shafts of light to accent red sandstone walls; a low ceiling of saplings and twigs resting on peeled log beams; a hacienda enclosing an intimate courtyard; a rough boulder structure, built into the earth as if part of a natural rock formation. These details shaped American visions of the Southwest for generations to come.

All twenty-one of Colter’s projects reveal her acute understanding of and commitment to both the natural and cultural landscape in which she worked. Through her interior designs, Colter demonstrated a spirited irreverence in her compositions, offering a clever demonstration of her own inventive Arts and Crafts sensibility.

Meanwhile, in the projects she termed “re-creations,” such as the Hopi House (1905) and Desert View Watchtower (1933) in Grand Canyon National Park, she almost always followed the architectural features of the original prototypes.

Employing indigenous Native American builders, demanding the use of local materials when possible, and attending to minute historical details obtained through research expeditions to various Indian historical ruins, Colter strove for stylistic verisimilitude without attempting to make, as she put it, a “copy,” or a “replica.”

In her smaller-scaled tourist architecture at the Grand Canyon, Colter introduced more innovative designs, including those for Hermit’s Rest and Lookout Studio (both 1914), places for Canyon visitors to stop that were intended to be “hidden under the rim,” according to Colter.

In Lookout Studio, she created a single-level, horizontal structure of rusticated Kaibab limestone that mimicked the stratification of the eroded rock below, ensuring unobstructed views from other promontories by means of architectural camouflage which allowed the innate drama of the Grand Canyon to enrich tourists’ experiences.

Other Harvey projects drew Colter away from the Grand Canyon, giving her the opportunity to design station-hotels along the Sante Fe Railway line, through which her architectural vision could manifest at a great scale. Of the El Navajo Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico (1923), she wrote, “I have always longed to carry out the true Indian idea, to plan a hotel strictly Indian with none of the conventional modern motifs,” probably referring to the ersatz Native Americana common to so many of the inferior hotels arising in the Southwest after World War I. Both the El Navajo in Gallup, New Mexico and La Posada in Winslow, Arizona, demonstrated Colter’s engagement with regional design issues and evoked the originality and wit of her earlier projects.

Colter retired to Santa Fe in 1948 and died there in 1958. Frank Waters, the great historian and expert on Native Americans of the Southwest, in his book Masked Gods: Navaho and Pueblo Ceremonialism (1950), recalled Mary Jane Colter:

“For years, an incomprehensible woman in pants, she rode horseback through the Four Corners making sketches of prehistoric ruins, studying details of construction, the composition of globes and washes. She could teach masons how to lay adobe bricks and plasters how to mix washes.”

Although her contemporaries often called her a “decorator,” her projects, of which four– Hopi House, Hermit’s Rest, Lookout Studio, and Desert View Watchtower – have been designated National Historic Landmarks, suggest that “architect” would be a more accurate and enduring description.

In early 2018, a book entitled False Architect: The Mary Colter Hoax by Fred Shaw stated that Colter was never trained or certified as an architect. It claimed that she falsely took credit for designs produced by others.

In response to this provocative thesis, Allan Affeldt, co-owner and operator of the La Posado Hotel, Winslow, Arizona wrote in September 2018: “All of us in the Harvey world are quite upset about the book. Shaw is clearly a misogynist.” Affeldt added:

“The attributions of Colter’s works to Curtis and others is preposterous, and obviously discounted by the many including Harvey family with direct knowledge of Colter and the buildings. We have collectively decided it best to ignore these self-published rantings and not give Shaw a podium for his hatred.”


About Stanley Turkel, CMHS

Stanley Turkel was designated as the 2014 and 2015 Historian of the Year by Historic Hotels of America, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This award is presented to an individual for making a unique contribution in the research and presentation of history and whose work has encouraged a wide discussion, greater understanding and enthusiasm for American History. Turkel is also the most widely-published hotel consultant in the United States. He operates his hotel consulting practice serving as an expert witness in hotel-related cases, provides asset management and hotel franchising consultation. He is certified as a Master Hotel Supplier Emeritus by the Educational Institute of the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

Stanley Turkel’s new book, Great American Hotel Architects is available. It is his eighth hotel history book, which features twelve architects who designed 94 hotels from 1878 to 1948: Warren & Wetmore, Henry J. Hardenbergh, Schultze & Weaver, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, Bruce Price, Mulliken & Moeller, McKim, Mead & White, Carrere & Hastings, Julia Morgan, Emery Roth, Trowbridge & Livingston, George B. Post and Sons.

Interested persons can order copies from the publisher AuthorHouse by posting “Great American Hotel Architects” by Stanley Turkel.

Other Published Hotel Books include:

All of these books can be ordered from AuthorHouse by visiting and clicking on the book’s title.

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