An 1893 portrait of Mary Jane Colter by Arthur Mathews, one of her professors. Photo by Tom Alexander, courtesy of the Pioneer Museum, Flagstaff, and the Arizona Historical Society.
In 1910, a young architect named Mary Jane Colter was hired by the Fred Harvey Co. and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. Over the decades that followed, she created some of the most iconic buildings along the railway and at the Grand Canyon.
Today, 11 of her buildings are on the National Registry of Historic Places; five are designated National Historic Landmarks. A maverick and a visionary, she broke with European architectural tradition, blending Mission Revival, Spanish Colonial and Native American elements. She embraced the Arts & Crafts Movement’s simple but sophisticated designs and exquisite craftsmanship. She methodically researched indigenous art, architecture and building techniques. As one writer observed: “She could teach masons how to lay adobe bricks, plasterers how to mix washes, and carpenters how to fix viga joints.”
On April 1 and 2, the New Mexico History Museum joins with La Fonda on the Plaza — itself housed in a building she elevated with her interior designs — to explore Colter’s life and legacy. “A Mary Jane Colter Weekend: The Shaping of Southwest Style” is an exclusive event featuring lectures by noted experts and special dinners prepared by La Fonda’s Executive Chef Lane Warner.
Tickets start at $100 ($50 tax-deductible); $200 for the events plus an April 1 sponsor dinner ($100 tax-deductible). The Museum of New Mexico Foundation is co-hosting the event with La Fonda on the Plaza. Proceeds benefit the New Mexico History Museum. Call 505-988-1234 or log onto www.TicketsSantaFe.org for tickets. Act now: Space is limited.
Once called “the best-known unknown architect in the national parks,” Colter is nearly revered for her buildings at the Grand Canyon, including Phantom Ranch, the Watchtower, and Bright Angel Lodge, among others. In 2008, the magazine of the National Parks Conservation Association published a lovely biography of her. (Find it here.)
The Mary Jane Colter Weekend begins with a wine-and-appetizers reception at La Fonda on the Plaza, one of the most iconic buildings on the Santa Fe Plaza. Sponsor-level participants will then enjoy an exclusive dinner in La Fonda’s Santa Fe Room, an old-world setting that most distinctively captures Colter’s design aesthetic. Large terracotta tiles surround the entry door. A fireplace Colter commissioned by Arnold Ronnebeck promises to keep you warm. Elsewhere, you’ll see a beautiful latilla ceiling and paintings by Gerald Cassidy. You’ll have a chance to meet our weekend’s presenters—Arnold Berke, Stephen Fried and Barbara Felix, and hear Felix speak about what she learned of Colter during her own renovation of La Fonda. (We’ll also have a special bag of goodies for each of our sponsors, including a pair of New Mexico CulturePasses and a book of Harvey House recipes compiled by Stephen Fried.)
On April 2, all participants will take in a series of lectures, a La Fonda dinner and an Actors Studio-style discussion of Colter’s legacy led by Dr. Frances Levine, director of the museum.
“Mary Colter’s vision of the Southwest created a style that was simple and yet grand,” Levine said. “She left a magnificent legacy in regional architecture and interior design that we cherish today as much as in the past.”
South Portal of La Fonda Hotel (1925-45?), designed by Mary Jane Colter. Photo by T. Harmon Parkhurst. Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, No. 054316.
The weekend’s speakers:
Arnold Berke, award-winning author of Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest (Princeton Architectural Press), will bring his meticulously researched book to life, revealing Colter in the social and historical context of her time. “By steeping her buildings in the culture, history, and landscape of the Southwest,” Berke said, “Colter both charmed American travelers and taught them about the region she loved. Her pioneering works delighted the eye and engaged the mind.”
Stephen Fried, author of Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire that Civilized the Wild West, will present the colorful Harvey House history of La Fonda on the Plaza. “The opportunity to spend a weekend exploring Mary Colter’s contributions to life in the Southwest – as design guru for the Fred Harvey Company – will be a rare treat,” Fried said. “I’m also looking forward to discussing the Harvey family women of that era who were vital supporters of Colter’s pioneering work.”
Santa Fe architect Barbara Felix, who was instrumental in the 2009 renovation of La Plazuela, La Fonda’s dining room, on “Preserving the Architectural Fabric of a Santa Fe Icon.” “Colter’s work has inspired me to be passionate about craftsmanship, the use of natural light, regional materials and the transformation of the ordinary into the magical,” Felix said.
Friday, April 1
6 pm: La Fonda, Welcome reception with hosted wine and light hors d’oeuvres.
7 pm: Santa Fe Room, La Fonda, Sponsor dinner
Saturday, April 2
Breakfast on own
10:30 am: NM History Museum, lecture by author Arnold Berke
Lunch on your own
2 pm: La Fonda, lecture by architect Barbara Felix
4 pm: La Fonda, lecture by Stephen Fried, author
7 pm: La Fonda, dinner and Colter discussion with Frances Levine, Arnold Berke and Stephen Fried
“This will be a wonderful weekend for anyone who has visited any of Mary Jane Colter’s extraordinary buildings or been fascinated by this profoundly talented woman who was so ahead of her time,” says Jennifer Kimball, chairman of the board of La Fonda on the Plaza. “We are so proud to be part of the Mary Jane Colter legacy and to share in the sponsorship of this vibrant weekend with the New Mexico History Museum.”
A limited number of special room rate of $109 a night is available for out-of-town guests. Call (800) 523-5002, ext. 1, or (505) 954-3500.