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THE LADY IS AN ARCHITECT GRAND CANYON BEARS STAMP OF MARY COLTER.

Byline: Eric Noland Travel Editor

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. - In an era when women were expected to do little more than ``chat, gossip, sew, read'' and engage in other ``inconsequent nothings'' - the exact wording of a Santa Fe Railway brochure in 1909 - Mary Colter aimed much higher.

In the 1880s she gravitated first to art, then to architecture, and at the turn of the 20th century fused the two and set about putting an unmistakable stamp on the Southwest.

Some of Colter's most important buildings string out like a necklace along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. This was a woman who wasn't content to muscle a particular design into a setting. Instead, she delved deeply into the history and culture of the region and drew heavily from these influences.

For the Desert View Watchtower on the eastern reaches of the rim, she sifted through Anasazi ruins, intrigued by makeshift rock towers that had been used both for food storage and to fend off adversaries. For Hopi House, adjacent to El Tovar Hotel, she carefully studied a Hopi village at Oraibi, Ariz., and even employed Hopi craftsmen in its construction.

Architecture was a profession dominated by men at the time. (Julia Morgan, designer of Hearst Castle, was another notable exception to the rule). But Colter caught the attention of the Fred Harvey Co., which was entrusted with hospitality along the Santa Fe rails. Travelers of the era had acquired a ravenous interest in the art, crafts, customs and dwellings of the Southwest. It was a perfect fit.

There are a half-dozen important Colter buildings at the Grand Canyon, including the unpretentious Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor, which provides overnight rest to mule riders and hikers. The remainder perch along the South Rim.

Hopi House (1905): Whereas El Tovar Hotel doesn't have much symbiosis with its surroundings - it is equal parts European chalet and Old West hunting lodge - Colter's Hopi House, which opened with the hotel as a kind of detached gift shop, provides a Southwest immersion.

It was constructed as a replica of existing Hopi buildings, with thick walls of adobe and stone, rounded support timbers, and low ceilings that are crisscrossed with twigs. There are small fireplaces in the corners.

It is to Hopi House that you come for the finest Indian crafts in the region. Navajo rugs include a photo of the artisan who made them to vouch for authenticity.

Be advised that the best stuff can be found in an upstairs gallery - Hopi pottery, gleaming turquoise-and-silver Navajo bracelets - most of it locked up in glass cases.

Lookout Studio (1914): Colter was offended by the many wooden structures that protruded like blemishes from the canyon rim in the early 1900s. For this building, she opted for the same material that is found at this top geologic stripe of the canyon - cream-colored Kaibab limestone - and then employed flat rooflines and haphazard masonry construction in the walls so that the studio blended easily with its surroundings.

Inside, windows frame one stunning canyon view after another, while two outdoor observation decks will make you feel as if you're suspended over the lip.

The studio was built to accommodate visitors who wanted to peer through telescopes but not get dusty on the trail. It also sought to compete with the nearby Kolb Studio, a Harvey competitor. The Lookout Studio still sells vintage postcards, as well as crafts, music and a lot of touristy souvenirs.

The Kolb Studio is not a Colter building, but it is more worthy of your dollars. Operated by the nonprofit Grand Canyon Association, it has much to recommend it: an impressive selection of books, phenomenal views out a five-sided bay window, historic photos as part of an interactive CD-ROM program, and an art gallery.

Desert View Watchtower (1932): Climb the circular staircase to the top floor of this 70-foot tower (it's the highest point on the South Rim) and you'll be rewarded with a 360-degree view through 11 trapezoidal windows. The sights include the Colorado River as it gushes into the canyon, the Little Colorado Gorge to the east, the San Francisco Peaks to the south and, of course, a vast expanse of canyon.

In the cool months, you'll breathe in the pungent scent of juniper wood smoldering in the gift shop fireplace. And you'll encounter an unusual sight above the mantel: a picture window. The chimney was built to the side, the smoke angling up on its way out.

Bright Angel Lodge (1935): Here, Colter reconstructed an existing hotel, and it is not as distinctive architecturally as her other works along the South Rim. But it's worth a visit just for the fireplace. In a 10-foot-tall space, Colter constructed it to reflect all the colorful rock layers of the Grand Canyon - and in their precise order.

Hermits Rest (1909): This jumble of boulders at the western end of South Rim provides a Colter bookend to the Desert View Watchtower in the east. True to its name, it looks as if it's going to tumble down at any instant.

The most distinctive feature of Hermits Rest is its massive cavern of a fireplace, whose stone dome rises two stories. On chilly days, you walk under an arch to the fireplace's inner sanctum, then settle onto a bench or chair to warm yourself by the flickering blaze. Black soot stains the ceiling.

At Hermits Rest, however, it's evident that Fred Harvey's entrepreneurial legacy has spun out of control here on the South Rim. As at the Lookout Studio and the Watchtower, the gift shop here maintains an oppressive presence, obscuring the building's original purpose as a way station for weary travelers. It's daunting just weaving through the jungle of trinkets and T-shirts to find the fireside furniture.

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(1 -- 3) The Lookout Studio, top left, Hermit's Rest, above left, and the Desert View Watchtower, above, are among the structures built by Mary Colter at the Grand Canyon's South Rim.

Eric Noland/Travel Editor
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 13, 2004
Words:1001
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