For decades, historians cited Mary Colter as the key architect and designer for early 20th-century buildings in the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railroad, including iconic structures at Grand Canyon National Park and La Posada in Winslow, Arizona.
A book published last month on Amazon Kindle by Fred Shaw with the title “False Architect: The Mary Colter Hoax” maintains Colter never was trained as an architect and that she falsely claimed designs by others. Shaw’s well-researched volume threatens to upend at least 60 years of the Colter mythos.
Shaw, a banking executive in the Chicago area, said he intended to write a book about Kansas City architect Louis Curtiss, whose work for the Santa Fe Railroad also dots the American Southwest. As Shaw began his research into Curtiss’ colleague Colter, he found discrepancies in her claimed history after perusing newspapers, magazines, U.S. Census data and other resources.
Shaw says many distortions in Colter’s record began with Colter herself. During the early 1950s, National Park Service officials requested information about her history with the Santa Fe Railroad and Fred Harvey Company for an archive. Colter’s eventual submissions became key source material for several books, including Virginia Grattan’s “Mary Colter: Builder Upon the Red Earth” in 1980.
Shaw acknowledges he couldn’t have written “False Architect” without access to online archives, including Newspapers.com and Google Books, that allowed him to double-check Colter’s claims. He also insists Colter’s history wasn’t thoroughly vetted by authors.
Footnotes, credits for hundreds of images and the bibliography take up about 25 percent of Shaw’s book, so no one can accuse him of not doing his homework.
A summary of a few findings in “False Architect: The Mary Colter Hoax”:
— Colter had no architectural training. She attended the California School of Design in San Francisco, but the college did not offer classes in architecture or mechanical drawing. It’s possible Colter could have been self-taught in architecture, much like Charles Eads did before designing his Eads Bridge in St. Louis. But no verified architectural drawings by Colter have emerged.
— Colter claimed she designed the Avarado Hotel and its Indian Building in Albuquerque. She did not. Shaw shows through newspaper and magazine articles in 1901 and early 1902 that Charles Whittlesey, an architect for the Santa Fe Railroad, designed the interior, exterior and furnishings of those buildings. The Avarado opened in May 1902. Colter wasn’t employed by Fred Harvey until at least June 1902. Before, she worked as an art teacher in St. Paul, Minnesota. (The Avarado was demolished in 1970, to the regret of many Albuquerque residents.)
— Colter falsely claimed architectural roles for the Grand Canyon’s El Tovar Hotel, Hopi House, Hermit’s Rest, Lookout Studio, Phantom Ranch, Desert View Watch Tower and Bright Angel Lodge. Whittlesey designed El Tovar in 1902, before Colter’s arrival, and he designed Hopi House. The architectural origins of other structures proved more difficult, as blueprints submitted to the railroad often were unsigned. But Shaw shows convincingly through comparisons of known architectural and lettering styles that many Grand Canyon structures were designed by Curtiss, Robert Raney or other Santa Fe Railroad architects.
— Colter taking credit for the designs of others happened repeatedly. Shaw found contemporary articles in which Colter took credit for a design, then the publication later issued a correction or clarification. In one notable case, western novelist Zane Grey wrote a letter to the editor excoriating Colter for “exploiting” Louisa Wade Wetherill’s idea for sand paintings inside the now-gone El Navajo Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico, during its dedication.
— The La Fonda Hotel addition was not designed by Colter, as claimed. The hotel in downtown Santa Fe, New Mexico, needed a face-lift during the 1920s. The Santa Fe Railroad hired local architects John Meem and Cassius McCormick for the job. Meem kept detailed notes — now archived at the University of New Mexico — about La Fonda construction meetings. None of those documents mentioned Colter as a designer. Shaw also says Raney helped Meem with the project’s technical challenges and furniture layouts.
— Colter’s 1930 “masterpiece,” La Posada, was not hers. A Winslow Daily Mail article in 1929 reported Santa Fe Railroad engineers supervised the design and construction of La Posada, including its landscaping. Shaw says Raney likely designed La Posada, along with his assistant architect, Emmett J. Corman. Shaw bolsters his case by interviewing Corman’s son, who often accompanied his father to jobs, who provided no evidence Colter designed La Posada.
Shaw cites other projects in which Colter claimed to be an architect — such as Chicago and Kansas City’s Union Stations and the Fray Marcos Hotel in Williams, Arizona — where evidence to support those notions doesn’t exist.
The book prompts a question — if Colter’s claims indeed were grandiose, how did she get away with it? One answer is many of the key figures in the Fred Harvey Company and Santa Fe Railroad died before World War II. The old-timers who could have refuted many of Colter’s claims during the early 1950s were long gone.
Concluding his book, Shaw theorizes Colter suffered from Narcissist Personality Disorder and lays out his evidence. Shaw is less convincing in this attempt. Colter made many of her spurious claims when she was in her 80s; senility could have been the cause. Shaw also uncovers the fact Colter’s father died in an insane asylum, which brings up the possibility she may have inherited his mental illness.
The book has produced mixed reactions. Those who have the most to benefit from the Colter-as-architect narrative have criticized Shaw’s book. Allan Affeldt, co-owner and savior of La Posada, wrote in an email last week “all of us in the Harvey world are quite upset about the book” and that Shaw “is clearly a misogynist.”
“The attributions of Colters works to Curtis and others is preposterous, and obviously discounted by the many including Harvey family with direct knowledge of Colter and the buildings. We have collectively decided it best to ignore these self published rantings and not give Shaw a podium for his hatred.”
Affeldt also forwarded a “disturbing” email purportedly from Shaw that compared Kathy Weir, who maintains the Fred Harvey / Mary Colter Fan Club page on Facebook, to dictators Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong with the message: “Are you really THAT afraid of the truth?”
Weir, in a separate email, declined to comment on Shaw’s book except to say: “It is a very interesting read.”
Arnold Berke, contributing editor of Preservation magazine and author of 2002’s “Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest,” wrote in an email “it would be premature for me to comment about it now.”
Stephen Fried, author of 2010’s “Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West — One Meal at a Time,” did not respond to an email about Shaw’s book.
But two historians who read at least part of Shaw’s book praised it.
Rick Hendricks, New Mexico’s official state historian, was cited in a brief blurb on Shaw’s Amazon page.
Hendricks elaborated in an email last week:
It is a very interesting work, exhaustively researched, and richly illustrated. A big part of my job is to encourage research on New Mexico, and I try to do so, irrespective of my views. My comments to Shaw do not mean, however, that I agree with or endorse the author’s conclusions. I am not an expert on Colter. Moreover, when I read the manuscript, it did not have the provocative title it now bears. I pointed out to the author that many of my colleagues in the historical preservation community would be interested in his work. It should provoke a lot of discussion, which is a good thing.
I know that reputable scholars argue that Colter did many of the designs that men took credit for, so I find it fascinating that someone is making an argument based on some really deep digging into the sources that something else entirely happened. What he says runs counter to everything I knew about Colter, which is, as you say, intriguing.
R. Brooks Jeffery, associate vice president for research of arts, culture and society at the University of Arizona, also was mentioned in a Shaw blurb. Jeffrey wrote in an email last week:
I did not read the entire book, but read enough to recognize the depth of primary scholarship that challenged the secondary sources that I had used in my writing on Colter. He challenged our work, but I have not had the time to corroborate/validate his work. It is certainly worth further attention.
Perhaps Shaw’s critics will produce evidence to refute Shaw’s findings. At the least, Shaw’s book demands that Colter’s role with the Fred Harvey Company and Santa Fe Railroad be more thoroughly researched so a more complete picture can emerge. “False Architect” brings up too many facts and issues that are impossible to ignore.
Until those issues are resolved, Colter probably should be regarded as a very good interior designer, but not as an architect.
UPDATE 9/18/2018: Shaw has offered a $10,000 reward to the first person who can prove Colter designed La Posada and the Grand Canyon’s buildings. Deadline is April 4, 2019, which would have been her 150th birthday.
(Image of Mary Colter at age 23 via Wikimedia Commons; image of Alvarado in Albuquerque by jasonwoodhead23; image of El Tovar Hotel by Grand Canyon National Park; image of La Fonda in Santa Fe by Brett VA; image of La Posada in Winslow, Arizona by Jayjay P)