Though no one asked, I humbly submit an ex post facto nomination for a distinguished Minnesota woman who would fit comfortably on the list of honorees named by the National Women’s History Project. As an architect she is surely to be numbered among the women who set a pace within the NWHP’s 2013 theme “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination.” Her work epitomizes innovation through imagination.
My introduction to Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (1870-19580 was through a lovely article written by Diane Trout-Oertel and appearing in the Winter 2011 issue of Ramsey County History. Title of that article was “We Can Do Better with a Chisel or a Hammer.” There I learned that Mary Colter spent much of her youth in St. Paul but that, during those same years, her family moved often and traveled widely. As a very young girl she experienced the adventure of the expanding West and the migration of settlers and tourists alike to the grandeur of the mountains.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Mary Colter left her teaching post at Mechanic Arts High School in St. Paul to travel west and to leave her mark throughout the vast land. A contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright she created a string of hotels for the Santa Fe Railroad and the Grand Canyon. She also decorated the exteriors of train stations in St Louis, Los Angeles and Chicago. One of her lasting hallmarks is her inclusion of Hopi, Zuni, Navajo and Mexican symbols in her work. Her biographer, Virginia Grattan, wrote that “Her buildings fit their setting because they grew out of the history of the land. They belonged.”
On Friday, March 8, Diane Trout-Oertel will present a Women’s History Month talk on “Mary Colter: Pioneering Minnesota Architect.” The free and open talk is at 1:30 p.m. at the Landmark Center, Room 430. Free and open to the public. If you’ve been to the Grand Canyon, to Winslow, AZ or scores of other Western sites, you may want to get out your slides to find the legacy of Mary Colter – though the quest may be difficult; because Mary Colter was a woman she often failed to receive the recognition accorded her male contemporaries and colleagues. You may also want to listen to a two-part series about the legacy of Mary Colter, produced by National Public Radio and featuring Susan Stamburg celebrating the life of this noted architect whose indelible mark has brought joy to millions of tourists. Her time is now.