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Mary Jane Colter's Architecture

Each guest room is decorated with its own wall colors, floor tiles, antique furniture, and artwork, and each has a different layout. The rooms are named for the celebrities and dignitaries who stayed at La Posada in its prime—from Clark Gable and Mary Pickford to Harry Truman and Albert Einstein—when it was one of the famous hotels of the Southwest and a rest stop on the way to the Grand Canyon or Arizona's Painted Desert. La Posada felt like a bargain to me after so many evenings in the sterile anonymity of roadside chain hotels that hadn't been much cheaper.

Less than three hours from Winslow is the Grand Canyon. The bulk of Colter's surviving work consists of seven structures along the South Rim built between 1905 and 1937, including Bright Angel Lodge, with its simple stone-and-wood cabins and rooms, and a handful of unusual rest spots and lookout points. When Colter started out, the Grand Canyon was a destination for the elite who had the time and money to make what was a rather daring and lengthy journey. By 1935, when she was commissioned to design Bright Angel, the motorcar was the prevailing means of transport, and such travel had become available to the middle class. Now, close to 5 million people visit the canyon each year.

Colter's Lookout Studio, a stone building that seems to grow naturally over the edge of the rim a few steps from Bright Angel Lodge, has surrendered some of its rustic charm to the increased demands of tourism. I had read great things about it—enough to be disappointed when I encountered a glut of trinkets on sale that competed with the view from the terrace and the windows that swing open over the canyon. Eight miles to the west is Hermits Rest, another piece of fantasy architecture, built in 1914 for stagecoach travelers and designed like the sooty dwelling of a real hermit. Colter apparently went to great lengths to achieve the charcoal-smudged look of the large, stone fireplace, which today provides a folksy backdrop for countless tourist snapshots of friends and family.

The most mythical of Colter's Grand Canyon works is Phantom Ranch, an unassuming cluster of cabins and a main lodge, nestled along Bright Angel Creek at the bottom of the canyon, 5,000 feet below the rim. Hiking down, I was initially intimidated by the magnitude of what I had gotten myself into, but the grandeur of the canyon, with its layers of towering cliffs and stone walls, made it a sublime adventure. Phantom Ranch can accommodate 90 visitors a day; perhaps more important for those who arrive tired, sweaty, and hungry, it provides electricity, running water, and wholesome meals. The daytime heat at the bottom is oppressive—it can reach 120 at its most extreme during the peak of summer. (Early spring or late fall is the best time to go—much cooler.) When I wasn't huddled in the air-conditioned lodge with a cold beer talking to fellow hikers, I spent long periods cooling myself in Bright Angel Creek, a tributary of the Colorado. In the early evening, a large dinner of steak, vegetables, and wine was served at communal tables to those of us spending the night. The dining room at the lodge is simple and rectangular, with wooden tables and benches and walls covered with old photos—including one of President Theodore Roosevelt in a coat and tie descending into the canyon by mule. I left on the South Kaibab Trail before sunrise the next morning—tieless and on foot—and four hours and seven miles of ascent later arrived at the rim.

The morning after my climb I drove a leisurely 30 miles east on the park road past the turnoffs for Mather Point, Yaki Point, and Grandview Point, to Desert View,on the border of Navajo Nation, to see the Watchtower, which Colter designed in 1932. To my mind it is her masterpiece, a lighthouse-shaped mosaic tower of stone perched on the canyon rim, with four levels of Hopi mythological wall paintings inside, and what may be the greatest view in the world. Far below me was the mighty Colorado River. I sat for a long time away from the tourists and their cameras, listening to the ravens and trying to take in all of the brilliant orange, red, and sandstone shades of the canyon.

JOHN RICHARDSON lives in Taos. He has spent 20 years traveling for UNICEF and has written for the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, and Newsday.


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