Camouflaged in rock, the Lookout Studio has viewing platforms, books, jewelry, and gifts on several levels. Photo by Linda Koutsky

Historic Minnesota buildings 1,500 miles from here

Though I will not be turning 100 years old this Aug. 25, I do share my birthday with the National Park Service and I decided to take them up on their offer to celebrate.

In 1916, the National Park Service was created by an act of Congress and Yellowstone became the first park. Typically we think of the vast, mountainous National Parks, but they actually come in many shapes and sizes. Today there are more than 400 different sites in the park system that range from monuments, battlefields, lakeshores, historic places and trails. We have five right here in Minnesota: Grand Portage and Pipestone National Monuments, North Country National Scenic Trail, Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, the Mississippi River & Recreation Area, and Voyageurs National Park. I love Minnesota’s parks, but for this celebration I decided to go West.

It was 115 degrees outside of my compact rental car. On the seat next to me were three bottles of water, two granola bars, and a paper map flapping in front of the air-conditioning vent. The drive was in as remote a place as I’ve ever been, but the roads were so smooth it felt like flying. I filled up with gas several times along the way because it didn’t look like there would be many opportunities. But after driving four hours from Las Vegas I arrived at my destination: the Grand Canyon.

It takes your breath away. And it makes you feel really small. The layers of purple and brown and rust swirl in front of your eyes like they’re trying to hypnotize you. Even those without a fear of heights need time to get adjusted to the biggest dropoff they’ve ever seen in their lives. The sweeping vistas were overwhelming. After about an hour my hat didn’t provide enough shade and the water was gone, so I headed for El Tovar and checked in.

The South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village is a cluster of interpretive centers, gift shops, cabins, and lodges. Most are built of long dark logs with chunky beige rocks in a loose Southwestern architectural style. Many are more than 100 years old and together they make up a National Historic District. Designed by Charles Whittlesey and built by Fred Harvey in 1905, El Tovar provided the park’s first overnight accommodations. Opening that same year was Hopi House — Minnesotan Mary Colter’s first of six buildings at the Grand Canyon.

Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter was born in Pittsburgh in 1869 but lived in St. Paul from age 11 on and considered Minnesota her home. After high school she attended art school in San Francisco and apprenticed with an architectural firm. Colter returned to St. Paul after graduating and taught for 15 years. In 1902, through contact with a friend working for Fred Harvey Company, Colter was hired as an architect and designer for the expanding line of railroad hotels. Her first job was in Albuquerque. She was known for using materials found on site, paying homage to earlier residents, and designing buildings in harmony with the environment. She worked for the company for 40 years. She was a pioneer in hospitality design as well as for women in architecture.

I felt right at home in her buildings. All that stone kept the buildings really cool too. And that kept me in the shops longer. So I ended up buying more: a book about Mary Colter, a 100th birthday T-shirt, a couple pieces of jewelry. I guess that’s what Fred Harvey planned when he built majestic hotels in stunning locations with beautiful gift shops.

Bright Angel Lodge set the standard for National Park lodging with its rustic timber appearance. Photo by Linda Koutsky
Bright Angel Lodge set the standard for National Park lodging with its rustic timber appearance. Photo by Linda Koutsky


Mary Colter’s Grand Canyon buildings:

— Hopi House: A tiered pile of red sandstone rocks patterned after a nearby ancient Hopi Indian building. Opened in 1905 as a gift shop selling Native American arts and crafts and is still a gift shop today, more than 100 years later!

— Lookout Studio: Perched out on a narrow ledge, this 1914 building literally grows out of the canyon edge and imitates ancient stone dwellings.

— Hermits Rest: Built in 1914 for stagecoach tourists on the 8-mile-long Hermits Rest Trail, this small building and concession stand was designed to look like it was built by a mountain man. An enormous stone arch fireplace is the centerpiece.

— Phantom Ranch: On the canyon floor and accessible only by foot, mule, or raft, the 1922 cabins are made of timber and round Colorado River boulders.

— Desert View Watchtower: An Anasazi-style rock tower built in 1932.

— Bright Angel Lodge: Colter’s 1935 geologic fireplace in the Fred Harvey History Room shows the layers of different rocks that make up Grand Canyon’s walls.

LUNCH TIP: El Tovar’s dining room has served Teddy Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, Albert Einstein, Paul McCartney, and numerous others. It’s unlikely my salmon came from the Colorado River below, but surrounded by the rustic woodsy environment it tasted like a fresh catch.