Few landmarks in the area around Grand Canyon National Park are the result of human toil. In a place where nature is the irrefutable main attraction, special attention and considerations must be given before any unnatural additions can be affixed, even temporarily, upon the landscape. Mary Colter is responsible for many structures of note on the South Rim – Hopi House, Bright Angel Lodge and the Phantom Ranch on the Canyon floor, among others. The Desert View Watchtower is probably her most unique work since it was not universally accepted and lauded on arrival.
Constructed in 1932 on the east end of the Canyon’s South Rim, almost four miles from the Park’s eastern gateway. Colter’s other designs at the Canyon deliberately bowed to the natural aesthetic, using rocks appearing worn in texture to construct the buildings outer shells enabling a blend and absorption into the naturally beautiful surroundings. To some extent the Tower was similar; it is built from indigenous materials which allow the Tower to appear emerged, growing out of the terrain. Her choice of materials allowed the buildings to assimilate into the landscape. Yet the tower itself, because of its prominent structure, would always cause it to standout. Critics said it obstructed the horizon, imposing on, rather than enhancing the view; a sore thumb, sticking out.
Colter was a perpetual student who immersed herself in local culture. She came to the Grand Canyon to build Hopi House for the Fred Harvey Company after completing a hotel in New Mexico – the Alvarado – ripe with ideas of an aesthetic that emulates natural surroundings. As she investigated Hopi Culture in preparation for building Hopi House, she ventured upon Chaco Canyon, and ancient ruins which included a type of lookout post, or watchtower, directed and positioned to keep a vigilant eye on prospective arrivals. From these ruins came the seminal moments of The Desert Watchtower’s existence.
The Tower is 70 feet high, with four different levels connected by a series of spiraling, steep, narrow staircases. Each of the floors have different facing windows for new perspectives on the Canyon, and insights into the Hopi and local cultures which inspired the Tower’s inception. The ground floor has a Hopi snake altar, while the walls and ceiling are covered with local tribes’ symbols and pictographs, including a mural by Fred Kabotie, a noted Hopi artist. Inside the structure there is a certain type of old-world cathedral feeling, perhaps induced by the ceiling art, or raw stone bones of the Tower. It is different; the critics were right.