“Every year, the National Park Service tells millions of visitors to Grand Canyon National Park that Mary Colter (1869-1958) designed landmark structures there. Two movies, two plays, two biographies, and countless magazine and newspaper articles have lauded her architectural legend. If only it was true.”
So begins the book description for False Architect: The Mary Colter Hoax which is available on Amazon.com as an eBook. I recently finished the book which is by necessity lengthy due to both the monumental audacity of Colter and the exhaustive research which went into documenting her fraud.
Ironically, author Fred Shaw never intended to write about Mary Colter; he started out writing a book about the mysterious Kansas City architect Louis Curtiss whose story has not yet been fully told. However, a funny thing happened to Shaw while researching Curtiss; he kept running into Colter, whose actual career as an interior decorator for the Fred Harvey Company overlapped the period when Louis Curtiss was designing buildings for both Harvey and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. His research veered when mention of buildings attributed to Colter piqued his interest; he began to research Colter with the same intensity he was giving to the background of Curtiss.
Digital archives on the Internet – which were not available when previous research about Colter had been published – made it possible for Shaw to prove the Colter legend does not stand up under scrutiny. So, in order to pave the way for his book about Curtiss, it was necessary for him first to address Colter’s fraudulent claims in order to pry buildings designed by Curtiss and other architects from her highly fictionalized legend.
The book is filled with delicious archival images that flesh out the research; photographs, documents and blueprints all play a role. I was fascinated with Shaw’s examination of the architectural lettering styles of the various architects (Curtiss wasn’t the only one!) whose work was usurped by Colter. When compared with Colter’s own less refined printing, it is clear that she added her initials to work done by others in order to steal their credit. That’s just one example of the numerous methods Colter used to exaggerate her role. It’s a fascinating story that is at times sad; I felt a range of emotions when reading the book including anger, disgust, loathing and a slight bit of pity for someone so discontent with her own respectable and admirable skills as an accomplished interior decorator that she had to steal glory from others.
Despite Shaw’s voluminous proof, Colter’s most rabid devotees still cling to the decades-old fabrications; to this day many refuse to accept that they have been duped. Her falsehoods are today promoted as truth ad nauseam. A glance at Colter’s Wikipedia page still leaves one with the impression that she was an architect and that she designed numerous Grand Canyon National Park landmarks, in addition to other buildings. Here are just a few of them:
At this point it’s a matter of justice; the true creators of various works usurped by Colter deserve recognition for their talents. Colter pulled off a huge hoax for a long time, but those duped shouldn’t be embarrassed; they should now work to give credit where credit is due. I urge everyone interested in history, architecture and truth to read this book (yes, it’s long, but a good chunk is comprised of citations). Read it, get angry, and insist that history be told correctly! What good is history if it isn’t told correctly? Why glorify dishonesty? We have enough of that these days anyway… let’s not let that mindset permeate our architectural heritage as well! The author even offers a refund if you don’t find his research factual and compelling… I won’t be asking for my money back!
9/20/18 UPDATE: The author is now offering a $10,000.00 reward to “the first person who can document authentic independent contemporaneous primary sources proving that Mary Colter designed all seven of these buildings.” The reward is posted on his Facebook page which will no doubt be getting more traffic! A copy of his reward offer follows: