The Beauty of Rediscovering What We know

Lookout Studio, Grand Canyon Village


I camped in a small (trailered) sailboat on the south rim of the Grand Canyon for about ten days in the summer of 2005. Ever since, I have been thoughtful about buildings there in which I spent many hours. Many of those structures are routinely attributed to the design work of Mary Jane Colter. Among them, I remain most fond of Lookout Studio (featured above), as well as Hermits Rest.

In the course of my 2005 encounter with those buildings, I obtained two informative books about Mary Colter and her assumed architectural legacy, which I was pleased to have and read. These books are representative of a wide body of published material regarded as authoritative, which is laudatory of Mary Colter. Imagine my surprise and subsequent fascination when discovering a recent publication that appears to offer a diametrically opposite assessment, one which definitively debunks what are widely considered to be facts concerning Mary Colter’s achievements.

Given the harsh-looking cover of the book, and its tabloid-style title, I was initially cautious about reading Fred Shaw’s book, False Architect. But, as the old folk wisdom advises, “don’t judge a book by…” Once I engaged the content of this finely researched and well-argued book, I was both disappointed and persuaded. Disappointed in that my impression of Mary Colter and the work attributed to her talents was based on what I now consider to be a substantial amount of mythology. Persuaded because of Shaw’s powers of analysis and discernment, as well as his evident fortitude when it comes to research. Yet, I am also curiously heartened… which is perhaps a strange thing to feel after reading such a book.

This is because I am happy that we can now more properly focus our attention on the architects and designers who were actually responsible for many significant contributions to our experience of beauty in public architecture. With Shaw’s book, I am rediscovering my regard for a number of buildings throughout the former Santa Fe Railroad system, along with their associated Fred Harvey hotels and restaurants. In the process, I am learning more about these structures by being willing to set aside previously held opinions and conclusions as I encounter new facts and insights.

During the recent season of Lent, I had a similar experience of a spiritual kind. It happened as I ‘rediscovered’ and renewed my appreciation for subtle but profound aspects of John’s Gospel. The experience reminded me of the beauty of encountering once again things we know and love within each of the Gospels. This beauty lies in how we are able to gain further learning and deeper insight from already-familiar sacred texts.

The natural setting of Lookout Studio, which sits near the historic El Tovar Hotel on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, seems appropriate for us to consider in Eastertide. For the American Southwest is widely recognized as being a ‘thin place,’ or as what others refer to as an ’emergent place.’ In such places, divine grace seems more immediately present within our experience of the natural world. In a less dramatic, but equally rocky terrain, Jesus was buried in a cave-like rough-hewn tomb. Light is still found amidst darkness; spirit is found within matter – even that which is humanly shaped.


Notes: Books and guide materials consistently attribute these and other buildings to the design work of Mary Colter. Lookout Studio and Hermit’s Rest are more properly to be attributed to the architect, Louis S. Curtiss, while the El Tovar was designed by Charles F. Whittlesey. For documentation of these attributions, please see Fred Shaw’s 2018 book, False Architect: The Mary Colter HoaxThe lectionary readings for Eastertide (and beyond) can be found by clicking here.


    1. If you are interested in visiting the Grand Canyon, and have never before done so, I would encourage you to do everything you can to visit there. The National Park Service has information about various accomodations available on the ‘South Rim,’ which I am sure include provision for mobility-challenged visitors. If I remember correctly, the El Tovar is not the only hotel available. The Lookout Studio and Hermits Rest are visitor places, rather than residences. I hope this helps!

  1. Thanks for this information. FLW’s prairie house (often, unfortunately in places where the prairie had been eliminated in favour of suburban development) at their best also enhance, rather than diverge from the created surroundings. I wonder why the SW is considered thin? You should my garden, or pasture, or the esker, or . . . .

    1. Yes, I share your observation about FLW’s prairie houses. Regarding a “thin place” ~ A visit to the desert Southwest often provides an experiential basis for accepting this ascription to the region. Willa Cather’s novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, in its own way attests to the same.

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