Art History of The Ahwahnee in Yosemite

In addition to being situated in one of the most picturesque landscapes on earth and designated as a National Historic Landmark, The Ahwahnee also boasts an amazing art collection that complements the architecture of the hotel. Did you know that The Ahwahnee displays one of the greatest Persian rug collections in the world? Though the design motifs found throughout the hotel are inspired by Native American patterns, the geometric patterns found in kilims, soumaks, kalamkars and other Middle Eastern rugs blend in seamlessly. The hotel’s original decorators – Dr. Phyllis Ackerman and Dr. Arthur Upham Pope – were experts in Persian arts and selected a variety of Persian rugs for the hotel’s public spaces since there wasn’t enough time before the grand opening to have Navajo rugs created. The Ahwahnee required fifty-nine rugs in total at opening and they were purchased in New York in 1927, ranging in price from 48.75 to $93.75 for a total of $5659. Today, many of the original rugs are displayed in the hotel’s public spaces mounted on the walls. Some are fully framed and the remnants of others are framed that proved too fragile over time.

2014 Ahwahnee Rug Display Mural Room Michelle Hansen

Persian rug from the hotel’s original decor on display in the Mural Room.

2014 Ahwahnee rug sign Michelle HansenThe geometric patterns found in the rugs also inspired six art deco mosaic floor designs created by Henry Temple Howard with a special patent-pending process that combined linoleum, cork, clay, sawdust and linseed oil. Referred to as “rubber tile”, the mosaic designs were based on basket patterns from the Yurok, Hupa and Pomo tribes of California. Baskets and basket patterns are prominently displayed throughout the hotel to this day. U.C. Berkeley graduate Jeannette Dyer Spencer created the striking basket mural above the fireplace in the elevator lobby and the equally colorful stencil patterns found on the walls and ceilings throughout the hotel. Spencer made such a great impression with her work that she was hired permanently as the hotel’s interior decorator after the opening of the hotel on July 14, 1927. The baskets currently on display in the Great Lounge represent the basket artistry of California tribes such as Miwok, Pomo, Mono, Hupa and Yokuts, and another Native American tribe is also represented by the Pima of Arizona.

Floor mosaic at The Ahwahnee.

Floor mosaic at The Ahwahnee.

Basket mural by Jeannette Dyer Spencer.

Basket mural by Jeannette Dyer Spencer.

Native American baskets on display in the Great Lounge at The Ahwahnee.

Native American baskets on display in the Great Lounge at The Ahwahnee.

Though not placed in the hotel as part of the original decor, the watercolor paintings of Gunnar Widforss now line the hallway from the registration lobby to the Dining Room and Great Lounge. A Swedish artist who preferred painting landscapes such as the Grand Canyon was already famous by the time he arrived in Yosemite. Widforss was contracted by the Yosemite Park and Curry Company to create paintings of Yosemite suitable for the grand scale of The Ahwahnee architecture and the landscape that surrounds it.

Vernal Fall by Gunnar Widforss.

Vernal Fall by Gunnar Widforss.

The Mural Room, once known as the Writing Room, features a toile pente (painted linen) mural on the wall created by Robert Boardman Howard for the hotel’s opening in 1927. The fifteenth century style of the mural features the native flora and fauna of Yosemite National Park in a pattern of flowering plants with animals large and small, serving not only as historic decor, but also as a nature guide to Yosemite. The Mural Room also features a unique corner fireplace with a hammered-copper hood and the only oak floor in the hotel’s public spaces.

Detail of the mural by Robert Boardman Howard on the wall of the Mural Room.

Detail of the mural by Robert Boardman Howard on the wall of the Mural Room.

Though all of the decor delights park visitors in the public areas of the hotel, the most striking decorative element is the custom 5 x 6 foot stained glass panels that cap the ten floor-to-ceiling windows of the Great Lounge. Also designed by Jeannette Dyer Spencer, the stained glass panels were a last minute addition to hotel architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood’s original design. Though Spencer went on to contribute to the Ahwahnee decor in many areas, she was initially selected by Ackerman and Pope specifically for her background in stained glass design. Her selection and design experience provided The Ahwahnee with one of its most enduring artistic elements.

One of ten stained glass windows in the Great Lounge at The Ahwahnee.

One of ten stained glass windows in the Great Lounge at The Ahwahnee.

 

 

 

 

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6 comments on “Art History of The Ahwahnee in Yosemite

  1. That Persian rug has to be one of the most beautiful I have ever seen!!! Such beautiful colors. Where is it showcased in the Ahwahnee? I would have remembered had I seen it before. I don’t know why it was not included in ‘The Ahwahnee’ book by Keith S. Walklet. Thanks for the very interesting post.

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    • The pieces of the collection can move around the hotel over time and the book by Keith Walklet, “The Ahwahnee:Yosemite’s Grand Hotel” was published 10 years ago in 2004. The framed rug in the photo is currently hanging in the Mural Room.

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  2. Got reservations for the 2014 Bracebridge Dinner on Christmas and hope to see all this amazing art during my two day stay and this wonderful hotel!

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