Mary Coulter, the Architect who Defined Grand Canyon Tourism

As many visitors that have seen the Grand Canyon themselves can attest, one of the most attention-grabbing features of the area is the canyon itself. That might not come as a surprise to much of our readership, but when people look away from the breathtaking vistas on offer at the edge of the South Rim, many are captivated by the timeless and historic buildings that make up one of America’s most popular tourism destinations.

The architect of these buildings is held in the highest regard, memorialized on plaques and informative signs placed upon many of the buildings she designed. Mary Coulter, a pillar of architecture in the male-dominated 1900s, was a true visionary, and one who shaped the Grand Canyon experience in one of the most enduring and meaningful ways possible: by giving visitors a comfortable and pleasing place to stay. Much of the Grand Canyon lodging visitors enjoy today was designed by the esteemed and fondly remembered Mary Coulter.

Mary Coulter wanted to be an artist as a young girl growing up in St. Paul, and carried that passion to an art school in San Francisco with the end goal of teaching. While attending art school, she was taken under the wing of an architect and learned to apply her talent as an artist to designing buildings. For 15 years after graduating from art school, Coulter taught countless classes at Mechanic Arts High School in St. Paul after a brief stint teaching art in Menomonie.

After those 15 years, she took on a couple of short-term design jobs decorating for the Fred Harvey Company, moving closer to the canyon as her interest shifted to design. After each short-term decoration job, she moved right back to St. Paul, but in 1910, she had earned a permanent position with the Fred Harvey Company designing and decorating Grand Canyon hotels, restaurants, and other amenities.

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Some of the buildings Coulter designed include…
– The Lookout Studio
– Hermit’s Rest
– Phantom Ranch
– The Watchtower
– Bright Angel Lodge

As you can see, Coulter’s vision formed the Grand Canyon tourism experience, and many of the hotels she designed in the early to mid-1900s are still celebrated for their cozy, inviting atmosphere and rustic design. Her influence lives on today, and many tours and educational programs held within the park make reference to her and her work during the beginning of Grand Canyon tourism. You can even purchase one of two books about her and her work wherever Grand Canyon memorabilia is sold, but her work wasn’t confined to the Grand Canyon area alone.

Over her 30-year career as chief architect and designer for the Fred Harvey Company, Coulter oversaw 21 major projects along the railroad lines, and as rare as female architects were during the early 1900s, Coulter was one of the best architects of her time, dwarfing the achievements of many acclaimed men in her field. Drawing inspiration from the rocks and trees that made up the landscapes that were her canvas, her work was influenced by Native American culture and will forever be a part of why the Grand Canyon is one of America’s greatest treasures.

What’s your favorite building near the Grand Canyon? What other Grand Canyon attractions may be taken for granted or overlooked when compared to the canyon itself? Let us know in the comments section below!