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Vision Quest

<div>Mary Jane Colter's architecture was—and still is—part of the fabric of the Southwest. Unique among her peers, she planned it that way.</div>
TL0205DRI01Dave Lauridsen / Travel + Leisure
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Mary Jane Colter's architecture was—and still is—part of the fabric of the Southwest. Unique among her peers, she planned it that way.

One evening last spring, on a long drive from Santa Barbara through the rugged western reaches of the great Southwestern desert to my home in Taos, I stopped at La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona. It's an unusual oasis of romance on a decayed stretch of Route 66, a relic from the days of railroad travel and touring cars. Designed in 1929 as a hacienda for a rich (and imaginary) Spanish family—the kind that might have lived there in the early 20th century—it's part hotel and part museum, a large villa full of bright colors, arched entryways, and handsome antique furniture, with vintage black-and-white photos on the walls and a restaurant that looks out over the old railway station. I went to bed listening to the rumble of trains, and when I left the next morning, I knew I would someday return to this haunting place.

La Posada was the brainchild of architect and designer Mary Jane Colter. Something of a cult figure, she was employed during the first half of the 20th century by the Fred Harvey Co., which catered to tourists in the Southwest during the railroad age. ("Neatness, cleanliness, and carefully prepared dishes await the traveler who dines at the Santa Fe feeding houses," reads one turn-of-the-century advertisement. "Mr. Harvey knows what the traveling public wants, and he provides it.") At the time Colter began her career, architectural styles in the United States were heavily informed by European ideas. She was one of the first architects in America to turn more toward indigenous influences.

Colter filled sprawling railroad hotels with the pastel colors of the desert and an often idiosyncratic mix of locally made furniture, native craftwork, and the religious imagery of the region's Native American and Hispanic traditions—vibrant interiors that complemented the subtlety and spaciousness of the external landscape. But she also designed lodges and shops in the Grand Canyon that were spare and simple, made of earth and stone. They offered enough to make travelers comfortable, not enough to distract from the larger Canyon experience. Most of the grand hotels she worked on have been torn down, but there is growing interest in preserving what is left.

Colter has been described as a curmudgeon and is reputed to have worn a Stetson, been a heavy drinker, smoked three packs a day, and cursed freely. That image, however romantic, may be apocryphal; little is known about her personal life. I have seen photos of her—in matronly dresses and large hats—that reminded me of my wise and caring grandmother. Colter lived almost 90 years, from her birth in Pennsylvania in 1869 until her death at her home in Santa Fe in 1958, but because she spent her entire career as a Harvey employee, she never had the kind of exposure she would likely have enjoyed had she run her own firm.

Several months after my trip through Winslow, I set off one sunny Friday afternoon and followed Highway 68 as it meanders from the Taos mesa southwest through the Rio Grande gorge, where the river is a glistening ribbon of white water surrounded by rocky hills. After passing through the shopping-mall sprawl of Espanola and the pueblo communities to the south, I dropped off the highway into the old part of Santa Fe and checked into La Fonda Hotel, on the southeastern corner of the plaza. It was one of the first great buildings in the city, a structure both massive and nuanced that occupies an entire block and has been a social institution for artists and travelers since Colter and architect John Gaw Meem expanded it in the mid twenties.

Colter's touches at La Fonda are still present, but the hotel has changed so muchthat it's almost impossible to find her creations on one's own. Jim Bradbury, the manager, gave me a tour and pointed out some of her efforts. Colter designed the sand-colored frieze above the fireplace on the south side of the dining room and employed a similar pattern around the tops of the doors and two fireplaces in the nearby Santa Fe Room, which is used for meetings and banquets. She also designed the chandeliers and tinwork on the light fixtures in what is now the French Pastry Shop. But I was particularly taken by the little paintings on the windows surrounding the dining room, initially an open-air patio but now an enclosed restaurant that forms the core of the hotel's ground floor. Colter and her artist friend Olive Rush came up with the idea when she was working on the hotel. Ernest Martinez, an artisan who has filled a number of jobs at the hotel, has over the past several decades turned out desert sunsets, howling coyotes, solitary cacti, sleeping cowboys, trees and flowers, and faux mosaics on more than 450 panes, giving La Fonda one of the most colorful dining areas in Santa Fe, and one that reflects some of Colter's own whimsy. There were moments at La Fonda when I felt as though I were traipsing through a relic that had seen better days. But the place lives on, drawing the curious and loyal, safe in its status as a historic hotel.

I left Santa Fe and drove southwest on Interstate 25. By the time I was about 30 miles west of Albuquerque, and now on Interstate 40, my eye was constantly being drawn to distant geological formations that seemed permanent in their pastel shades of coral, pink, earth red, brown, and mustard, yet are part of a process of change that has been taking place over millennia. In the foreground I could see sparse settlements on the Acoma and Navajo reservations, juniper trees that speckled the rocky landscape, and long freight trains snaking their way along the same rails that carried tourists to Mary Colter's creations more than half a century ago.

The drive past the old railroad and mining towns of Grants and Gallup in western New Mexico was an ongoing encounter with startling features—chiseled portions of cliff that resembled human faces, huge boulders poised on the sides of hills like landslides in suspended animation, distant spires of rock that I imagined as giant gnarled fingers poking out of the earth. When I drove through in late September, the air was particularly clear and the colors were sharp.

After Gallup, I crossed into Arizona and entered Navajo Nation, and the landscape flattened out, with distant mountains that appeared faded in the haze of the desert heat. I noticed a billboard advertising La Posada Hotel about 20 miles before I got to Winslow, some 50 miles east of Flagstaff. Winslow was the southwesternhub for the Santa Fe Railroad during the 1930's. Trains dropped passengers off on one side of the hotel; Route 66 passed by on the other. The hotel went into decline with the rest of the town after World War II and was later converted into offices for the Santa Fe Railroad. In 1997 it was bought by Allan Affeldt, who is undertaking a major restoration that goes a long way toward honoring Colter's original creation.

As part of her effort to create a homelike atmosphere for her imaginary Spanish family, Colter imported furnishings from Russia, China, the Middle East, and Europe in addition to the Southwest, just as such a family might have. She designed wonderful public spaces—a ballroom, wide corridors, alcoves where one can sit and read—and put in a sunken garden sheltered from the wind by the main building. The bland drywall that was used by the Santa Fe Railroad to cover up Colter's walls has been removed to reveal original colors and design touches. The owners consulted an extensive photo collection when planning the restoration of arches and doorways, and they have tracked down hotel artifacts that had collected in people's houses, offices, and garages. Local artisans have produced new tinwork and furniture faithful to Colter's aesthetic.

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.