The south rim of the Grand Canyon is home to several structural masterpieces designed by visionary architect Mary Colter in the early 1900's. In his latest Grand Canyon Commentary, Scott Thybony brings us the story of a forgotten staircase leading to one of Colter's favorite spots along the canyon's rim.
An old postcard of Hermit's Rest shows a flight of massive stone stairs, curving below the rim of Grand Canyon. No longer in use, they once led to a hidden overlook built by Mary Colter. It had been a refuge for the pioneer woman architect, a place to escape from crowds and the press of work. On my next trip, I decided to take a closer look.
Colter created the rest house at the western end of the rim drive in 1914, before the national park was established. During a career with the Fred Harvey Company spanning 46 years, she designed many of the finest buildings on the South Rim. She also build Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon, and I've long recognized the skill she brought to her work, having lived in one of her stone cabins there. To begin a project she would conduct extensive research, enabling her to create a story using the cultural traditions of the region. And then she would construct the physical building around it. Colter became a master at narrative architecture.
Energetic and resourceful, she could show a mason how to make adobe bricks, if needed, or instruct a carpenter on how to fit a viga. She knew what she wanted and went after it with enthusiasm. The writer Frank Waters remembered her as having "a tender heart and a caustic tongue."
At first sight, Hermit's Rest can be hard to distinguish from the rimrock itself. It has a geologic presence, the appearance of having been carved by the elements rather than constructed by hand. Colter chose walls of rough-cut boulders set in irregular courses to blend with the natural outcrops of Kaibab limestone. As you approach it, a rubblestone chimney rises a bit crookedly, creating a setting Tolkien might have imagined.
Inside, a fire burns in the vaulted stone fireplace during winter. Colter purposely stained it to suggest years of accumulated soot, and the heavy, hand-hewn furniture next to it has an aged patina. Overhead, great ponderosa beams have been left unfinished, and natural light pours through the clerestory windows. Colter meant to convey the sense of having entered the hideaway of a canyon hermit who might return at any moment. On opening day, a guest teased her about how the place needed a good cleaning. "You can't imagine," she said, "what it cost to make it look this old."
Outside, a low wall now stands where the original stairway began. Crossing it, I angled down the slope and soon found traces of a path overgrown with trees. And then I noticed a few immense steps and recognized Colter's style. What remained of the stairway descended to a hidden lookout with a stone bench. Taking a seat, I imagined her coming here to absorb the quiet beauty of Hermit Canyon as light angled down the red cliffs. And to sneak a smoke, as she was known to do.
Her unique style of architecture continues to influence national park buildings throughout the country. "There was only one Mary Colter," recalled a park ranger. "She was a woman among men."
Scott Thybony is a Flagstaff-based writer. His Grand Canyon Commentaries are Funded by the Grand Canyon Association, supporting education and scientific research for Grand Canyon National Park since 1932.