|In the Roaring Twenties before the beginning of the depression, throughout the United States there was a great building boom. The automobile and the railroad created opportunities for travel and recreation beyond the limited confines of a city or state. Some of the most magnificent structures in the first quarter of this century were hotels which were built in response to this new traveling phenomenon. Whether it was the Pierre in New York City, the Harvey Hotels along the Santa Fe Railroad or in the newly created national parks, hotels were one of the major structures through which architects expressed the vigor and vitality of the era.|
One of the most magnificent hotel structures of this period is found in Yosemite National Park. It is called the Ahwahnee, an Indian word meaning "deep, grassy valley" and is now a National Historic Landmark building. Completed in 1927, the Ahwahnee Hotel was created, built, and publicized by an exceptionally talented and famous group of individuals: Stephen T. Mather, first director of theNational Park Service; Donald B. Tresidder, later president of Stanford University; Gilbert Stanley Underwood, architect for the Union Pacific Railroad; Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., landscape architect of New York City's Central Park; Ansel Adams, one of America's most famous photographers; and Phyllis Ackerman and Arthur Upham Pope, the foremost authorities on Persian art.
I "discovered" the Ahwahnee in October when I accompanied my wife Helen on a business trip to Yosemite. Expecting to spend a few days enjoying the scenery, I instead was startled to find a public treasure of Middle Eastern flatwoven rugs.
Upon checking into the hotel, I saw kelims virtually everywhere: in the elevator lobby there was a fine example of an Aydinli ivory and blue kelim (Illustration 1); in the dining hall there were several Caucasian and Qashqa'i kelims (cover detail); the Great Lounge abounded with a great variety of Qashqa'i, Veramin, Kurdish, Moroccan and Yomud weavings (Illustration 2). A Resht embroidery was in theWriting Room and two wonderful Persian kalamkars in a connecting antechamber. A massive Bijar kelim adorned the wall opposite the elevator on the second floor where our room was located, and the room itself had a fragment of a well-worn kelim framed on the wall.
When we had settled in, Helen began reading some of the printed literature and said, "Some decorator named Ackerman was the interior decorator for this hotel." "Ackerman? Phyllis Ackerman?" I said, "the Ackerman of Ackerman and Pope, the famous Persian art scholars were the decorators for this place?" It was true. I felt this obviously would be of interest to our readers and set about learning the remarkable story of the Ahwahnee Hotel and how the kelims got there.
|The Ahwahnee is one of a few public institutions where a collection of oriental weavings is on permanent exhibition. They are close at hand, easy to view, and displayed in a variety of situations. Some are hung on walls, others are enclosed in frames behind glass, and fragments of others have been framed and placed on the walls of the guest rooms instead of the posters and "starving artist" art common in most hotels today.|
The ways in which these rugs are displayed contrasts sharply with the way in which they were originally used and shows how our perception of kelims and soumaks has changed in a half century. It also shows how oriental weavings and textiles can be used decoratively and that paintings, posters, and sculpture are not the only artistic creations which can satisfy an aesthetic and decorative need in living spaces.
Ill. 2. The Great Lounge with a Veramin kelim over the fireplace and a custom rug on the floor
|The Ahwahnee is a public trust hotel (Illustration 4). Located in the heart of the Yosemite National Park, it is managed by a private entity, the Yosemite Park and Curry Co. As such it represents an unusual blend of public and private interests. There are a variety of campground, motel and hotel accommodations at Yosemite, and the Ahwahnee is the finest of these.|
Stephen T. Mather, the first director of the U.S. Park Service, is generally credited as being the founder of the national park system as we know it. A strong conservationist he worked with many groups to expand the park system and make it accessible to the public. One of the ways to make the parks accessible and livable was to have hotels where people could stay. It was the dawn of the automobile era, and it was possible for people to drive in for short visits.
In 1925, Mather pressured the two camping concessionaires in Yosemite Park to merge and create the Yosemite Park and Curry Co., a master stroke in
Ill. 5. The Great Lounge in 1927 as pictured in
|On Chandler's recommendation Gilbert Stanley Underwood, a Harvard-trained architect, was selected to design the new hotel. In July, 1925, Underwood was hired and ordered to produce a design for "a hotel that fits the environment." Plans were quickly drawn up, revised, and ground-breaking occurred on April 13, 1926. The construction contract was awarded "for a maximum guaranteed cost of $525,000, including fee" with completion "on or before December 15, 1926." At the cornerstone laying ceremony on August 1, 1926, Sargent is quoted in a surviving program as stating:|
"The new Yosemite All-Year Hotel will be completed by December 25, 1926, in time for a grand opening party over the Christmas and New Year's holidays....With its furnishings the Yosemite All-Year Hotel will cost approximately $800,000...it will have 100 rooms, all with baths, and will have ample accommodations for 1,000 diners...."
Apparently even in those days people were gullible enough to believe the promises, timetables, and building cost estimates of architects and contractors. Yosemite is not exactly the suburbs of San Francisco and trucking 1,000 tons of structural steel and 5,000 tons of building stone took longer than expected even over the newly opened all-weather road. The contractor had been overly optimistic but was also hampered by the temperamental Underwood who was slow to produce revised drawings as changes occurred. When Ahwahnee finally opened on July 14, 1927, it was not only seven months behind schedule but had cost in excess of $1,000,000! However, when viewing it today, one marvels at the feat because, even with today's more modern and efficient machinery, it could not be built in the same amount of time and certainly not for the same amount of money.
"It is agreed that upon your return to New York you will consult Dr. Arthur Polk (sic) and wire us whether or not the two of you wish to be considered to act in the capacity of decorators for the Ahwahnee Hotel now building in Yosemite. In case you wish to be considered it is understood Dr. Polk and yourself will prepare tentative sketches showing how you would expect to treat the public rooms.
Dr. Polk and yourself will return to San Francisco for further conferences with Mr. Drum, Mr. Lansdale and myself. In the event an agreement is reached Yosemite Park and Curry Co. will pay a flat sum of $10,000 for the joint services of Dr. Polk and yourself. It is understood that whenever possible Yosemite Park and Curry Co. will use its own buyer to purchase such furniture, equipment, supplies as may be required by you."
Needless to say, Ackerman and Pope accepted the commission and began planning the interior decoration immediately. An assistant consultant, Dorothy Simpson, was hired to prepare budgets. Ackerman and Pope were not only responsible for design specifications -- colors, floors, fabrics, rugs, finishings -- but all manner of furnishings required by a hotel, e.g. beds, mattresses, linens, lighting fixtures, flatware. The magnitude of the job is easily comprehended when viewing the Great Lounge and the Main Dining Room with their 25-foot ceilings and 50 x 130 foot dimensions as well as various meeting rooms, lobbies, and the 100 plus guest rooms.
A variety of artisans were hired for the tile, wood, metal and plaster work required in the interiors. Jeannette Dyer Spencer, who had studied stained glass design at the Louvre, was hired as resident artist. She adapted patterns from Indian baskets and rugs which were incorporated into mosaics in the floor tiles, over the Elevator Lobby fireplace and on the beams in the Great Lounge. Quite clearly many of the most striking design features still visible throughout the Ahwahnee are the work of Spencer.
There are few letters or records remaining from Ackerman or Pope which show their direct contribution beyond overall concept and the use of oriental rugs and textiles. Pope was the subject of a New Yorker "Profile" in July, 1945, and the Ahwahnee appears to be the last project Pope and Ackerman undertook prior to launching the major contribution of their mature lives, the Iranian Institute in 1930.
By education Pope and Ackerman were respected and renowned professors of philosophy. Until the mid-1920s Pope had tried his hand at a variety of activities: photographer, author, acoustics expert, leader of liberal movements, and model ship builder. He had been professor of philosophy at Brown and the University of California. It was at California that he and Ackerman met while she was still a student. They were married in 1920 when they returned to New York. While in California, he had served as an acoustical expert to the San Francisco Opera House, so the selection of Ackerman and Pope as interior designers by the Ahwahnee builders was not as unknowns in California.
From the New Yorker article, appropriately titled "Under the Rug," it would appear that oriental rugs were what attracted Pope to Iran. He had two aunts in Boston who had a number of Persian rugs. He is quoted as saying, "I looked at those rugs, and it was like a call to the pulpit." After returning to New York and marriage to Ackerman, in the early 1920s he began advertising himself as an expert and adviser for the purchase of Persian and other Islamic art. The response was immediate and successful. In short order he was "acting for some of the wealthiest people in the country" for "rugs, tapestry, and pottery and he got fees ranging up to ten thousand dollars. Dr. Ackerman joined him in the counselor service:" Presumably the Ahwahnee was the source of the $10,000 fee.
Although rugs may have spurred Pope's interest generally Ackerman was acknowledged between themselves as the authority on rugs and textiles. She was a weaver herself and always signed her work. Both were possessed of outstanding intellect as well as prodigious energy, and the Ahwahnee project was one they could handle along with several others.
In a letter of March 16, 1927, Dr. Ackerman reviewed the work to that time. The total amount budgeted for furnishing was $135,000, lighting fixtures $12,000, and decorating, e.g. painting and detailing, still undetermined. The only reference to carpets is to carpet underlining.
One gets an impression of a very strong personality and verbally adept woman when reading her comments on the windows in the Great Lounge, an architectural detail which was a problem from the beginning:
"It is not necessary to say again how execrable the original windows were...it was agreed that, in spite of the fact the frames were made and probably delivered, we were to redesign them,...in order to comply with this Mr. Pope did them on the train and mailed them back from Omaha. Three weeks elapsed and then a letter was received from Mr. Underwood showing that no action
had yet been taken and submitting an alternative almost as bad as his original designs. We then had a careful rendering of the windows made with all sash detailed and sent this at once. On my arrival here I found that action on this was still delayed, frames had not only remained in place but construction had been allowed to go forward to such a point that, I was informed, it would require $10,000 and a month's delay to remedy the error. It is hardly necessary to point out that there has been seriously negligent architectural administration when two scale drawings of a disputed point were so disregarded. It has meant that great effort, considerable time and some expense have been wasted on the designing and, what is far more important, that the windows are now going to be seriously unsatisfactory.This means that the quality of the rooms is irreparably damaged. Fenestration is of course of signal importance in any architectural effect, both exterior and interior, and this is especially true in this building which is made of windows. The utmost ingenuity has been expended to put something in those frames that will take the curse off them, but the success is necessarily qualified."|
She then outlined a design solution of Pope's incorporating a series of stained glass panels for the window tops so they might "take the place they should in the ensemble and the effect will be superb. The publicity value of a really splendid room would certainly offset this additional cost while, on the other hand, the adverse publicity influence of the unsatisfactory windows would be a detriment that should not be undervalued." (Illustration 7)
Clearly Ackerman defended her ground and was not above, pointing out the deficiencies of Underwood. And she was well aware of the public relations sensitivity of Mather and Tresidder and used it to her advantage with the windows. Illustration 5 shows the Great Lounge as photographed by Shirley Sargent and Illustration 2 shows it as it is restored today.
Ill. 7. A Great Lounge window illustrating the stained glass solution to the "execrable fenestration." From The Ahwanee, Yosemite's Classic Hotel.
An invoice from May 28, 1927, exists in the records of the YP&CC for 59 rugs from B. Altman and Co., New York City. Many of the rugs on view are undoubtedly on this invoice although specific match-ups are not possible. Included on the list are druggetts, hooked rugs, Alpujarra rugs and kelims. No specific names are used but the sizes and prices are listed. One "kelim" that is 53'3"x 1' most likely is a Yomud flatweave tentband which still exists in several fragments which are hung in two different areas today (Illustration 6). It cost $48.75. Other kelim sizes listed are 10'x4'6", 10'10"x5'4", 12'x5' and 12'7"x6'. Typical of this size is the Qashqa'i kelim seen in Illustration 3, exhibited in the Fourth Floor Elevator area. Shirvan and Kuba kelims mounted at the entrances to the Solarium could be included here. The prices for kelims of this dimension ranged from a low of $48.75 to a high of $93.75. The Alpujarras have worn out, but one is hung in the Smoking Room. Although common at the time, they are almost unknown today, and it was not until this invoice was located that a proper provenance was determined.
The gala opening of the hotel occurred on July 14, 1927, and the rich and famous of the day were the invited guests. After the 50 or so overnight guests departed, the next morning a minor catastrophy was discovered. As Sargent describes it:
"...the beautiful people of the era, departed happily... laden with memories and "mementos" ranging from pewter ink stands and ash trays to hand-loomed blankets and bedspreads! Among the items included in the astounding theft were prized Indian baskets which had been displayed on the mezzanine near the elevator...."
Precautions were taken, especially with rugs and baskets, before the first paying guest registered, but they and future guests were far more respectful and left, on the whole, replete only with memories.
Thus some of the kelims may have vanished from the first day the Ahwahnee opened.
|Ackerman and Pope are relatively silent about this project. Fortunately, the way it looked when completed is well documented by photographs taken by Ansel Adams. He was hired to be the publicity photographer for Yosemite, and the interior spaces of the hotel are thoroughly recorded. They show guest rooms with woven coverlets on the beds and Persian kalamkars on the walls (Illustration 8); in the Solarium the Alpujarra rugs (Illustration 9), still extant but on a stairwell wall, appear on the floor and a Navajo rug on a writing table; Anatolian and South Persian kelims were used on the floor and draped on the walls of the Great Lounge (Illustration 5); and in pictures of the Elizabethan Bracebridge Dinner, a traditional Christmas event, the Yomud tentband and numerous other kelims are seen (Illustration 6).|
Ill. 6. Handsome kelims cushioned the steps of Bob Selby and Ansel Adams in this early Adams photo of the Bracebridge dinner. Photo from The Ahwanee, Yosemite's Classic Hotel.
As with any building of this size certain problems arise immediately or later as it is used. One of the early problems was automobile congestion and parking at the hotel entrance. To overcome this problem Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. was hired in April, 1930, to devise a landscape solution. The result was a shallow, oval reflecting pool opposite the entrance, and the car parking areas were moved to areas away from the entrance and screened by Sequoia trees.
Ill. 8. A typical guest room furnished with hand-woven rugs and spreads. From The Ahwanee, Yosemite's Classic Hotel.
|The Ackerman/Pope interiors remained virtually in their original state until World War II when the Ahwahnee was taken over as a military hospital and most of the furnishing were put in storage. After the war, there were various design changes and one sees evidence of "psychological green" and "earthtone" periods. Evidence of custom-made broadloom carpets from these redesigns still exist and many of the stenciled Indian patterns were painted over.|
In 1975 the YP&CC decided to do a major renovation. Marian Van Tress, a San Francisco designer, was hired to conduct the renovation. Her concept was to return the Ahwahnee to its original condition, in so far as possible. Starting at that time and continuing today, this restoration is going forward. The YP&CC is to be commended for supporting, financially and aesthetically, this concept. Ms. Van Tress remarked that many people when they see the hotel say that it is ready for redecorating. But that is precisely the look that is intended now and probably intended originally. She credits Ackerman and Pope with an extremely sophisticated taste for the times. Their combination of Indian motifs, English country furniture, oriental lamps, and iron lighting fixtures was a difficult combination of furnishings.
When considering Ackerman and Pope's selection of kelim rugs in 1927, one must be impressed at their sensitivity and knowledge. Kelims are barely mentioned in the rug literature of the day, and the dealer lore is that kelims were used to wrap pile carpets for shipment from the Middle East to the West. That is why there are so few old ones. But obviously Altman's had plenty for them to select from and select they did.
Synthetic dyes were certainly widely used by this time. Yet one must look closely and carefully to find pieces in this collection with telltale oranges, purples, and pinks. At least two factors may have influence this: Ackerman was keenly aware of such dyes and studiously avoided selecting pieces with them, or synthetic dyes were not as widely used by Turkish and Persian weavers early in the 2Oth century as we presently assume. The early photos show that when purchased, the kelims were in excellent or new condition. It may also be that considerable numbers of late l9th century kelims were still available in the market in the 1920's. One is impressed by the variety of flatweaves: Shirvan and Kuba from the Caucasus; large Shahsavan, Bakhtiari, Qashqa'i, Kurd, and Lori kelims from Iran; the Yomud Turkoman tentband and an Uzbek gajari kelim from Afghanistan; a broad variety of Anatolian kelims; and even a mixed technique weaving from Morocco. There were apparently few pile pieces and one, a Jafarbai Kurd bagface, is displayed in the lobby (Illustration 11). No Navajo rugs remain, most having worn out or been pilfered over the years.
|But the selection should not be surprising. When he was promoting his new advisory services, Pope wrote a series of articles for International Studio, a slick art and interior design magazine of the day. Published in late 1922 and early 1923, they were broadly titled "Oriental Rugs as Fine Art." Although concerning classical and l9th century rugs, his sensitivity to tribal and kelim rugs shows in the following statement:|
"The more modest rugs often maintained their original purity of design long after the carpets from the famous city looms had declined far below the point where they could be taken seriously as works of art. Indeed, in some quarters they maintained their old standards well past the middle of the nineteenth century. Unless, then, we are ready to say that only large, elaborate and costly creations may attain to aesthetic importance, we must include many of the Low school pieces in our claims that fine rugs, no matter what their origin, are entitled to rank as works of art."
Because the Ahwahnee rugs were selected with this kind of aesthetic value, those that do remain are well worth a vsit. Each displayed rug has a small plaque giving its provenance although not always correctly.
Ill. 10. A rare type of extra-weft float brocaded Caucasian flatweave in the second floor lobby
By strolling the hallways on the guest room floors we saw:
Fragments from rugs which were in too poor condition to frame or hang are found in each guest room used in the same manner as the original kalamkars. There are several kelims in storage at the present time, one of which is a large and beautiful Veramin kelim. We would urge that these be displayed as well. Certainly there is space.
|The Yosemite Park and Curry Company and Marion Van Tress are to be commended for returning the Ahwahnee to the original concept of Ackerman and Pope. It is a grand hotel and a trip to the Yosemite Valley should include it as well as the scenery which Ansel Adams made so famous. For rug aficionados, the kelims alone are worth the trip.|
Most importantly, it is an opportunity to study the concepts of two of the most significant rug authorities of this century. On one level with the funds available for floor covering, they were dealing with a "budget" job. The simple answer for the time would have been to select large, coarse, cheap Gorevans and Hamadans, both of which would have had compatible geometric designs. Instead they opted for kelims of "Low school pieces...which rank as works of art."
Ill. 11. Jaffarbai Kurd bagface in recessed bench in Main Lobby.
This range shows an uncanny knowledge and appreciation of Middle Eastern weaving far ahead of their time. The general run of American designers did not begin to use kelims until the 1970s which resulted in the wide use of dhurries today. In this respect they were 50 years ahead of their time.
The grand gesture that Ackerman and Pope made with kelims in the Ahwahnee is also the only collection which they created in the United States or Iran. It is true that the chapter on rugs in The Survey stands as a major contribution to rug scholarship, and the Chicago exhibition catalog and others which exist as evidence of assemblages of rugs brought together by Pope show his knowledge and command of the topic. But there is no Pope and Ackerman collection in any museum. The closest to this are the kelims at the Ahwahnee. Viewing this collection one has greater respect for the body of writing which Ackerman and Pope left as their legacy about oriental rugs. It shows that there was an understanding and appreciation for not only the classical but the Low school works of art as well.
The author (left) George W. O'Bannon with Jimmie Keshishian and Eileen Hampshire at the Philadelphia Armenian Rugs Symposium