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.
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.
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…