In 1901, at a time when there were only four female owned and operated architectural firms in the country, 32 year old Mary Colter succeeded in securing a long term position with railroad hotel mogul, Fred Harvey, and the Santa Fe Railroad. Fifteen years after she had earned a degree in architecture from the California School of Design, she was hired to design the interior of the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico. However, Harvey was a man of independent thought and vision. Not only did he hire one of the few female architects licensed at the time, but he quickly came to appreciate the full scope of her potential and set her loose on the plains of Victorian America.

Over the course of thirty years, the un-corseted Colter completed 21 landmark hotels and lodges providing luxury accommodations for the upper middle class and wealthy across the country, five of which are preserved as a National Historic Landmark and operated by the Grand Canyon National Park. Although the architectural designer for the Hopi House, Hermit's Rest, Lookout Studio, Desert View Watchtower, and the Bright Angel Lodge that was to later define the rustic architecture for future National Park lodges, Colter served as the interior designer for the El Tovar Hotel that was designed by architect Charles Whittlesey with whom she had previously worked on the Alvarado.


The recently renovated elegant 78 room El Tovar situated at the end of a railroad line is a massive stone, log and shingle structure teetering a mere 25 feet from the canyon’s precipice. Victorian influences can be seen amidst the rustic sophistication of this grand wilderness lodge. For instance, the exposed dark log walls and beams, mounted elk heads, and southwestern art and rugs found throughout the lobby, gift shop, gourmet dining room and lounge located on the main level are juxtaposed with crisp white linen, fine china, turrets and a wide wrap around veranda equipped with peeled log railings and rows of welcoming Adirondack chairs overlooking the canyon. Originally planned as luxury accommodations, with room prices as high as $425 a night, it remains one the country’s premier hotels.

In an economic climate where Colter’s male counterparts earned up to ten times more for their efforts, her career was undoubtedly a smashing success, comparatively speaking. Because Harvey was above all an innovative tourism entrepreneur, having also tapped into the postcard publishing business with which to market his 84 hospitality facilities or “Harvey Houses” as they were called, Colter’s career as a female architect operating in a male dominated industry was both unparalleled and profitable. Many of her female contemporaries, including those who apprenticed with the infamous and equality minded Frank Lloyd Wright, were not so fortunate.

She worked with a supportive team of men to blaze—quite literally—the trail for what would become the country’s first chain of hotels and restaurants. Unlike her urbanite sisters with a social conscience who designed affordable housing for the working class, many of whom were women, the cigarette addicted Colter often worked in very extreme remote environments for years on end, merging legends with the landscape and structure with aesthetic practicality. As indicative in the El Navajo Hotel in Gallup and her prized project, La Posada in Winslow, Colter was unhindered creatively, an artist blending modern design concepts with those of the Pueblo, Spanish Colonial, and Mission Revival architectural styles. Her Casa del Desierto in Barstow, (pictured above) has recently been restores.


The uncharacteristic professional freedom and respect given Colter by her employer and team, as well as the financial success she experienced for much of her career, might only be paralleled by that which Julia Morgan, the first woman to be admitted into and receive a degree from the prestigious Parisian School of Fine Arts, experienced in the long-time employ of philandering William Randolph Hearst. After the destruction brought forth by the earthquake and subsequent fires of 1916, the newly graduated and very fortune Morgan acquired lucrative commissions for numerous rebuild projects in the San Francisco vicinity, notably the Fairmont Hotel. Throughout her 45 year career, Morgan completed more than 700 design projects that included the Hearst Hacienda at the Valley of the Oaks and the 167 room Castle at San Simeon that consumed 28 years of dedicated craftsmanship in an isolated, undeveloped location where she supervised hundreds of male, often foreign, contractors.

In a country where the median income of the female workforce is 80 percent that of the male’s, it is encouraging that women today represent more than half the employees in the higher paying management and professional sector. Equity in the design industry, however, still seems to be lagging behind other sectors. Labor statistics indicate female architects comprise less than 20 percent of all licensed practitioners, principals and firm proprietors. As with many of those who pushed the doors of opportunity open more than a hundred years ago, women in architecture today appear to still be breaking through barriers.

Case in point, at the turn of the last century Sophie Hayden, the first woman to graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a degree in architecture, was selected at 21 by an all female jury to design the Women’s Pavilion at the 1993 World’s Colombian Exposition held in Chicago. Her three story arched and terraced Italian Renaissance style building was described by male critics as being “too feminine,” mirroring the delicacy and timidity of her sex. She never designed again.

Times have changed little in the century that has pasted. Chicago’s Jeanne Gang has recently achieved international recognition for her high-rise named “Aqua” for no other reason that the building is the tallest yet designed by a woman. As with Hayden, critics site Gang’s sex as a contributing factor to the overall ‘feminine’ nature of the wave inspired façade that appears “soft” and pliable beside the bluntly geometric neighboring towers previously designed by men. The technical ingenuity of Gang’s utilizing the undulating balconies that comprise the façade of her 83 story building to effectively deflect the tremendous wind load skyscrapers, let alone those in The Windy City, must contend with largely went unnoted.

It’s been a tough climb for pioneering female design professionals. MIT graduate Lois Lilley Howe, who dared to launch her own firm back in 1900 and whose career focused on addressing the Depression era’s urban housing crisis for the Boston Housing Association, Department of the Interior and the Lynn Slum Clearance Project, was in 1931 the first woman to be voted into the American Institute of Architecture (AIA) Fellowship. Almost 30 years later, Norma Sklarek, the first African American woman to graduate from Columbia with an architecture degree, became the third woman to become a Member of the AIA. Although she became the first African American woman to receive licensure in the U.S. in 1954, there are several states that have yet to license an African American female architect. Sklarek went on to help establish Siegel, Sklarek, Diamond, which is one of the largest women owned firms in the U.S. today. Her achievements include large-scale commercial projects that include the Minneapolis Mall of American--the nation’s largest shopping center, San Francisco’s Fox Plaza, LAX’s Terminal One and Tokyo’s American Embassy.

Although women and people of color are enrolling in designs programs at equal rates as white men, they are not choosing to enter the industry upon graduation. Barrier busters like these two women serve as some of the very few role models and mentors available to upcoming female students of design. The lack of mentors within their chosen field along with the race and gender discrimination still visibly ingrained in this male dominated profession are factors that continue to discourage young women from pursuing careers within the field in which they obtained degrees.

On the wake of its 150th anniversary, the AIA is beginning to acknowledge the problem. The toolkit it produced intended to assist firms in embracing and encouraging diversification has, however, received criticism as being patronizing and missing the mark. It is little wonder then that architecture programs at the top design schools are beginning to address gender and diversity within the industry through school policy, implementation plans and finally, course requirements.

Although the sixties gave birth to social activism in design as a tool for community change, social responsible designers and educators today aim to address present inequalities and injustices not only in the communities within which they serve, but also within their profession ranks. Courses with titles such as “Gender and Race in Contemporary Architecture”, “Inequalities in America,” and “Gender and Communications” are beginning to be offered, if not as required, as electives. Texas Technical University offers 44 such classes that fulfill an undergraduate requirement within their Architecture Program.

The problem is such that even teachers are going out on a limb, (professionally speaking), in order to more actively contribute to the change they wish to realize. Kathryn Anthony, tenured professor at the University of Illinois and author of Designing for Diversity: Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the Architectural Profession published in 2002, addresses the current marginalization rampant in Architecture. Her book proposes strategies that may serve to reform the industry.

As I’ve come to notice, change is inevitable, the only constant in this life. So, I have little doubt that Anthony and the others working towards transformation will effectively mange to, “lead the Architectural profession into a new era,” as she hopes. I imagine Colter sitting alongside me in one of her chairs at the El Tovar, sucking hard on a filter-less, self-rolled cigarette then using it to point across the canyon shadowed by the setting sun, asking me through a cloud of smoke whether I thought it was created in a day. I’d look back at her knowing that there are several ways to move a mountain. Wind and water and dynamite aside, Elbert Hubbard, her contemporary, might have added, “Know what you want to do, hold the thought firmly, and do every day what should be done, and every sunset will see you that much nearer the goal.” I’d have nodded stoically in agreement to them both, knowing that this is often the case.


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