Mary Colter's Desert View Watchtower

A historic image of Desert View Watchtower on the left and a modern image of Desert View Watchtower on the right.

From Desert View, aptly named because of the views to the east of the Painted Desert, you can see the Colorado River make a big bend and continue to the west, the North Rim more than 10 miles away, and a panoramic view for well over 100 miles on a clear day.

The Watchtower dominates the near view. This structure was designed by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter who is often referred to as the architect of the southwest. She traveled throughout the southwest to find inspiration and authenticity for her buildings. The architecture of the ancestral Puebloan people of the Colorado Plateau served as her model. This particular tower was patterned after those found at Hovenweep and the Round Tower of Mesa Verde. Ms. Colter indicated that it was not a copy of any that she had seen, but rather modeled from several.

As you get closer to the building you might see how well it blends into the environment. It is difficult to tell where the rock of the canyon walls end, and the tower begins. She said:

“First and most important, was to design a building that would become part of its surroundings; one that would create no discordant note against the time eroded walls of this promontory.”

To obtain this result she insisted that the rocks not be cut or worked, so they would not lose the:

“weathered surfaces so essential to blend it with the canyon walls”.

Note, too, some of the intricate designs she had built into the tower. For example, look for the white decorative stones near the top, which fade out as the eye goes around the tower. She had seen this pattern at Chaco Canyon and thought it would break the monotony of this Watchtower. The built in cracks which are patterned from some of the ancient towers she had seen are deliberately designed. There are petroglyphs on some of the stones which were brought here from near Ash Fork.

70 foot tall stone tower with small windows starts from a larger rough-hewn base of large boulders, then tapers as it reaches the top.
Mary Colter hand-picked many of the individual stones that make up this 70 foot tall tower.

The internal steel framework of the Watchtower was designed and supervised by the bridge builders of the Santa Fe Railway company. Upon this framework, each exterior stone was selected and carefully placed to ensure exactly the look Mary Colter was hoping to obtain for she was a stickler for detail. At one point she had to leave for a day and the workmen continued to put on stone, completing two layers. When she returned, she was not satisfied with one stone on the newly laid layers, and the men had to take the whole thing down and re-do it to her exacting specifications. Her attention to accuracy of detail was amazing.

The Kiva Room, which for years was used as retail space, in 2015 was returned to the open area that Mary Colter had intended, since the room was originally designed to be a rest area. It was here that visitors to the canyon in the 1930’s could sit in comfort and have outstanding views of the canyon. The fireplace is unique in that it does not block the view for visitors. Gaze into one of the reflectoscopes and see a different perspective of the canyon.

As you climb the stairs of the tower there are many stories imbedded in the paintings and artwork which decorate the walls. The first gallery, on the first landing, was done by Fred Kabotie, a Hopi from second Mesa. These represent the physical and spiritual origins of Hopi life. The ceiling images, painted by Fred Geary, are recreations of images from Abo Rockshelter, now part of Salinas National Monument in New Mexico.

The top floor of the tower is without decoration which might detract from the beautiful panoramic views of the Grand Canyon. Again, this design reflects Mary Colter’s respect for the landscape in which she was building.

The Watchtower stands today, partly as a monument to Ms. Colter’s careful attention to detail, her enchantment with the southwest, and her commitment to the cultural preservation.

Learn more about Visiting Desert View and Tusayan Ruin including current hours of operation.

A wide open circular room with a flagstone floor. Large picture windows take up about 2/3 of the circumference of the circle. Windows are separated by stone pillars. The ceiling is made up of inter-woven logs that surround, then arch over the round room.
Interior of Desert View Watchtower Kiva Room after the gift shop was removed in January, 2015
Photo of Desert View Watchtower.

Desert View Watchtower (1932)

Continue to Desert View Watchtower photo gallery

An image of Mary Colter showing construction plans to Supt. Tillotson and Mrs. Ikes, circa 1935.

Mary Colter's Buildings at Grand Canyon

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10 minutes, 48 seconds

Perched on the edge of Grand Canyon, a surprising stone tower celebrates ancient mysteries of the Southwest. The Desert View Watchtower is a monument to a time, a place and a people. Discover what inspired architect Mary Colter to build the Watchtower in 1932.

Last updated: December 7, 2018

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