Family/CommunicationLeadershipPeopleOctober 23, 20152Impressive Nature, Impressive Human

When I visited Grand Canyon, I found an unexpected bonus...

My hus­band and I recent­ly took a lit­tle mini-vaca­tion to Grand Canyon Nation­al Park.  I’m not quite sure why it took me so long to get there — it’s not as though I’ve nev­er had an oppor­tu­ni­ty before now.  All that aside, though: it was aston­ish­ing.  If you’ve nev­er vis­it­ed, all I can say is that pic­tures absolute­ly do not do it jus­tice; it’s much more vast and beau­ti­ful and oth­er-world­ly than you can imag­ine. It made us feel small, but in a com­plete­ly pos­i­tive way; a tiny part of an awe-inspir­ing whole.

Courtesy of Wikipedia
Hopi House; Cour­tesy of Wikipedia

While we were there, I kept notic­ing build­ings that I real­ly loved.  There was Her­mit’s Rest, the Hopi House, and the Desert View Watch­tow­er. As it turns out, they were all designed by a woman named Mary Eliz­a­beth Jane Coul­ter, who worked for the San­ta Fe Rail­road in the first half of the 20th cen­tu­ry as an archi­tect and design­er.  In the words of Wikipedia:

She was one of the very few female Amer­i­can archi­tects in her day. She was the design­er of many land­mark build­ings and spaces for the Fred Har­vey Com­pa­ny and the San­ta Fe Rail­road, notably in Grand Canyon Nation­al Park. Her work had enor­mous influ­ence as she helped to cre­ate a style, blend­ing Span­ish Colo­nial Revival and Mis­sion Revival archi­tec­ture with Native Amer­i­can motifs and Rus­tic ele­ments, that became pop­u­lar through­out the Southwest.

MJC ca 1893 by California Artist Arthur Mathews from the Program for Art on Film Web site
MJC ca 1893 by Cal­i­for­nia Artist Arthur Math­ews
from the Pro­gram for Art on Film Web site

I was so charmed by her build­ings and intrigued by her sto­ry that I bought and read her biog­ra­phy. In 1902, Ms. Coul­ter began work­ing for the Fred Har­vey Com­pa­ny, which part­nered with the San­ta Fe Rail­road to open the Amer­i­can South­west to trav­el and tourism in the late 19th and ear­ly- to mid-20th cen­turies. Coul­ter was one of the only female employ­ees of the Har­vey Com­pa­ny at that time who was not a wait­ress — and the only woman with man­age­ment responsibilities.

As I read about her, and looked at the build­ings and inte­ri­ors she designed — and the con­struc­tion of which she over­saw and man­aged — I tried to imag­ine the com­bi­na­tion of vision, strength of char­ac­ter and diplo­ma­cy required to be suc­cess­ful as a woman leader work­ing with an all male group of col­leagues and staff to estab­lish a new kind of archi­tec­tur­al style in a bare­ly-civ­i­lized part of the US, at a time when any sort of woman pro­fes­sion­al was a rare crea­ture indeed.

Talk about a high bar.

I’m inspired and hum­bled to find that she was able to do all of that, to leave us a lega­cy of won­der­ful­ly evoca­tive build­ings, struc­tures that live at ease in the land­scape of the desert south­west. Her designs are unpre­ten­tious and yet in har­mo­ny with the grandeur around them, while mar­ry­ing indige­nous Native Amer­i­can and Mex­i­can styles with mod­ern applications.

I sus­pect I’ll think of Mary Jane Coul­ter’s life and work from now on when I’m in what I believe is a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion. I kind of feel as though my tough­est chal­lenges would seem like an easy day to her. It’s good to remind our­selves of those brave souls who have gone before us; it helps us find that pio­neer inside.  It sup­ports us to be bold in ask­ing “Why Not…?” and in find­ing ways to do things that haven’t been done before.

Thank you, Mary… 


  • Duncan from Vetter

    November 13, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    Great and moti­vat­ing sto­ry. This is a true exam­ple of what we must do in order to fol­low our dreams. It can be tough, we may face dif­fi­cul­ties, but it is nev­er impossible.


    • Erika Andersen

      November 23, 2015 at 8:06 am

      Com­plete­ly agree — and so impor­tant to be remind­ed of that!


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