Sunday, November 07, 2021

The Watchtower at Desert view

The Watchtower at Desert View

As I began to research the antecedents of Mary Colter’s iconic buildings at the Grand Canyon, I referred to her recently republished 1932 book Watchtower at Desert View. It became my roadmap for a Four Corners photo safari and, potentially, an article about Colter for Shadow and Light magazine.

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde. See Round Tower on the far right.

Round Tower at Cliff Palace

In her book subtitled Manual for Drivers and Guides, Colter gave special credit to Round Tower at Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park for being the inspiration for her Desert View Watchtower and to Hovenweep for being the most complete repository of Pueblo Indian architecture and construction in the Southwest. In her words, “There is no area in the United States with more archeological interest.“

Her plainly worded and highly detailed manual set me on a path to Mesa Verde near Cortez, Colorado and on to Hovenweep which straddles the Colorado-Utah border some 70 miles northwest of Cortez.

Mesa Verde sits on two mesas rising 8,500 feet above the Montezuma County valley floor. It was impressive in scope but lacked access to the major sites, Cliff Palace, and Long House. I had intended to photograph Round Tower at Cliff Palace to show its influence on Colter’s design of Watchtower. That, in fact, was my primary objective for visiting Mesa Verde. The closest I could get either site was 400 yards, so I was unable to capture the extraordinary stone and mortar work of the Ancient Puebloans a thousand years ago. And while I was able to get record shots of Cliff Palace and Long House, they fell far short of “art” and didn’t do justice to the craftsmanship on display.

Twin Towers, Hovenweep National Monument

Detail, Twin Towers at Hovenweep

Detail, Desert View Watchtower

Fortunately, Hovenweep made up for it. Tucked into the Colorado-Utah border, the compact monument afforded access to all the important sites via the Little Ruin Trail. From the trail which dropped into the shallow canyon and back up the other side I could get within a body length of every ruin. The only thing between me and the elaborate rock walls was an unobtrusive cable strung between permanent stanchions. Now I can show examples of Ancient Puebloan stonework and contrast it with the rock walls of the Watchtower. Notably, Colter employed local Hopi craftsman to apply the rock and mortar cladding of her Watchtower which was in actuality a steel and concrete structure.

The Desert View Watchtower is 70 feet tall making it, according to Colter, the tallest of the many towers that populate Navajo and Hopi country. That contention is disputed by some.

The lines and proportions of the Round Tower at Cliff Palace informed the design of the Watchtower at Desert View though the raw materials were very different than those at Mesa Verde. The rocks at Mesa Verde were carefully hewn. However, the stone available to Colter was very similar to that of Hovenweep as was the exposed position of the Watchtower akin to the towers at Hovenweep. And so, mortar less permeable than the mud used on Mesa Verde’s sheltered towers had to be used on the Watchtower. Photographs of the details of Hovenweep’s towers became the models for Colter’s masons. And the rocks for the Desert View Watchtower were used as found, another departure from Mesa Verde. The inspiration for the shape and taper of the Watchtower may have been Round Tower but the construction materials and application were all Hovenweep.

Connecting the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde and Hovenweep among others are two-lane roads that traverse Navajo and Hopi country. For the second time in three months, I’ve driven those roads. Next time I'll share my thoughts on the big empty that draws me so. 


y tuned, explorers.


Blacks Crossing said...

Your photographs and words took me back to the late 1960s when my sister and I toured the ruins of the southwest, including Mesa Verde, but not Hovenweep. So it was doubly exciting to see your images of the ruins. The Desert View Watchtower is a stunner, and Cliff Palace is reminiscent of Ansel Adams, and certainly Mary Coulter would be pleased. As for us, we look forward to your continued postings on the subject and the article for Shadow and Light. Thanks, Esteban!

Anonymous said...

OK, now another Utah/Colorado trip is a must. I haven’t seen Hovenweep and it’s been eons since I visited Mesa Verde. Discovering a bit about the inspiration for Coulter’s Watchtower through your article makes me appreciate its visual and spiritual beauty even more. So, thanks! I’m looking forward to hearing more about your Utah Colorado rambles.

Steve Immel said...

Thanks you two. Hey, anonymous. Maybe we can connect somewhere in the Four Corners.