Hidden in plain sight in a back stairwell of La Fonda is a fascinating artifact of the 1920s: tiles modeled after ancient Maya hieroglyphs that were made in Los Angeles by the Ernest Batchelder Tile Company. 

The Maya were an essential component of the research program Edgar L. Hewett envisioned as the founding director of the Museum of New Mexico and the School of American Archaeology, the predecessor of the School for Advanced Research. Hewett’s team — including Sylvanus G. Morley, A.V. Kidder, and Jesse Nusbaum — conducted archaeological investigations in the Southwest and south of the border. Documents in the Fray Angelico Chávez Library at the New Mexico History Museum show that Hewett considered excavating at the Maya ruins at both Palenque and Chichén Itzá, but he settled on Quiriguá, Guatemala, because the United Fruit Co. — which owned the banana plantation where the ruins lay — offered financial and material support. The Quiriguá project supplied exhibits — reproductions of four stelae and two monoliths found at the ruins — for the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego in 1915 and 1916. Casts of the sculptures of Quiriguá are still on display in the San Diego Museum of Man.

The Maya also interested Carlos Vierra, who painted large-scale views of six ruined Maya cities for the expo. Vierra’s 1917 painting of the conversion of the Mayas and Aztecs, in the St. Francis Auditorium of the New Mexico Museum of Art, was also related to the state’s participation in the San Diego exposition.

Santa Fe’s Maya madness continued in the 1920s in the form of a Maya-inspired parade float in the 1926 Santa Fe Fiesta and, earlier that summer, a Maya pageant and mock virgin sacrifice at the dedication of socialite and Native arts patron Amelia White’s swimming pool. While White — who bequeathed her sprawling property to SAR in 1972 — and her guests frolicked by the pool, the team responsible for today’s La Fonda (including the Batchelder tiles) met for the first time to discuss the hotel’s expansion under its new owners. As recounted in Bainbridge Buntings’ John Gaw Meem: Southwestern Architect (School of American Research/University of New Mexico Press, 1983), the group included Meem, Mary Colter, and R. Hunter Clarkson and his wife, Louise, daughter of the Santa Fe Railway president.

Clarkson directed the Santa Fe Transportation Company, a division of the Fred Harvey Company that provided transportation services from Santa Fe Railway depots to Harvey properties, including the Grand Canyon’s El Tovar Hotel. He was the genius behind the Indian Detours. As Arnold Berke notes in Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002), the Indian Detours offered transcontinental train passengers a three-day luxury car tour of New Mexico beginning or ending at the Santa Fe Railway depots at Las Vegas, New Mexico, and Albuquerque. The “Detourists” or “dudes” were driven through the landscape and to Indian pueblos by men dressed as cowboys and guided by young women decked out in Navajo silver necklaces and concho belts. The detours were one of the main reasons the Harvey Company bought La Fonda in 1926 — and also the justification for its expansion. When they began, also in 1926, it was immediately apparent that La Fonda’s 46 rooms were inadequate to meet demand.

Meem had come to Santa Fe in 1920 as a tuberculosis patient at Sunmount Sanatorium. After two years, he left to work in an architectural firm in Denver, returning to Santa Fe in 1924. If Isaac Rapp was the first professional architect to promote the Pueblo-Spanish Revival style, Meem was its greatest and most prolific exponent. La Fonda was his first large-scale nonresidential commission.

Colter was the Fred Harvey Company’s architect and designer, trained as an arts educator and architect at the California School of Design in San Francisco. After graduating in 1890, she returned to St. Paul, Minnesota, and taught art and design at the Mechanic Arts High School. According to an article published in 1997 by Karen Bartlett in Craftsman Home Owner, Colter was hired by the Harvey Company through the intervention of Minnie Harvey Huckel, a daughter of the company founder. Colter’s first contribution to Harvey’s enterprise was to arrange the interior of the Indian Building at Harvey’s new Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque. The Indian Building housed a museum, demonstration space, and sales outlet. It was a place where Santa Fe Railway passengers could have lunch, admire the Native American arts and crafts in the museum, see Navajo and Pueblo artists at work, and purchase some of their wares.

The Alvarado project led to several other Harvey Company commissions for Colter, beginning with the Hopi House at the Grand Canyon (1905), which she designed after Old Oraibi — a Hopi village on Third Mesa in northeastern Arizona. Hopi House was constructed by Hopi builders and featured displays of Native art, a demonstration room, and a store. In New Mexico, Colter designed the interiors of El Ortiz Hotel in Lamy (1910) and El Navajo Hotel in Gallup (1923). In 1922, she returned to the Alvarado to rework the lobby and lunchroom. All three of these projects were later demolished; they survive only in plans, photographs, and, in the case of El Navajo, as a small portion of the building that is the Gallup Cultural Center.

While an inn had occupied the corner of what is now East San Francisco Street and Old Santa Fe Trail as far back as the Spanish colonial period, the building where Meem, Colter, and the Clarksons met in 1926 was finished only in 1922 and designed by the architectural firm of Rapp, Rapp, and Hendrickson in the Pueblo-Spanish Revival style. The Rapp firm had designed several buildings for Santa Fe clients, including the New Mexico Building at the Panama-California Exposition and the related Museum of Fine Arts (1917) — now the New Mexico Museum of Art — across the Plaza from La Fonda. But the company that owned the hotel failed in 1924, thus presenting an opportunity to the Fred Harvey Company to expand into the Northern New Mexico tourism market.

Colter was involved in every aspect of the interior design of La Fonda, and Berke notes that manuscripts in the Meem Papers at the University of New Mexico’s Center for Southwest Research show she also contributed to the building’s design. She was behind the Moorish-Spanish-style tile fountain in the placita, many of the tin light fixtures, the dark Mexican- and Spanish-style furniture, paintings by Olive Rush, and fireplaces with terra-cotta relief panels by Arnold Ronnebeck.

The Maya tiles Colter selected can be found by walking past the concierge desk in the lobby, past La Plazuela Restaurant and the Things Finer shop, and stopping at the stairwell on the right. They decorate the treads and risers, as well as the landing of the first two flights of stairs that lead to the hotel’s second floor. These tiles were made by the Batchelder Tile Company, which, by the 1920s, was the most prolific tile manufacturer in Southern California. As Robert Winter notes in Batchelder, Tile Maker (Balcony Press, 1999), tile mantels, walls, counters, furniture, and fountains were essential decorative elements in the Arts and Craft style, which sought the marriage of “the hand, the head, and the heart.” Arts and Crafts designers like William Morris promoted a return to artisanal homes, furnishings, and even books as an answer to the menace of the Industrial Revolution’s machine-made objects. Batchelder made his first tiles in his backyard in Pasadena in 1910. While business boomed in the 1920s, the company did not survive the Depression and closed in 1931.

The tiles at La Fonda include eight designs derived from Maya hieroglyphs. Batchelder made the tiles in two sizes, and the smaller size, measuring about 2 inches square, was used in La Fonda. Most of the patterns are adapted after the glyphs for days and months in the 260- and 365-day Maya calendars. There is a bat, for the Maya month Zotz’; an owl for the month Muwan; a rodent for the month Xul; and the Day 4 Ahaw in the 260-day calendar. Other tiles are more fanciful confections of more than one hieroglyph or seem to be based on a misreading of the actual glyphs. The tiles were installed in La Fonda’s staircase with little attention to their orientation, with some upside down and others on their side. Indeed, Colter seems to have selected them for their exotic feel and because they were a popular Batchelder pattern. She had used the same tiles in the fixtures in her 1922 renovation of the Alvarado Hotel lunchroom. The Albuquerque Museum has a pie case Colter designed that is decorated with the same Maya-style tiles.

Berke speculated that Colter met Ernest Batchelder before he began his tile business, when she was living in St. Paul and he was directing the Handicraft Guild of Minneapolis’ summer school from 1905 to 1909. Batchelder’s sources can be partly identified, and they include books and articles on Maya hieroglyphs written by Morley, including his Introduction to the Study of Maya Hieroglyphs (1915) and an article on Maya glyphs he published in National Geographic Magazine in February 1922 with the hyperbolic title “The Foremost Intellectual Achievement in Ancient America.”

Colter’s choice was probably also related to the rise of the Maya Revival style of architecture and design and perhaps to the country’s fascination with Mexican art and culture in the 1920s and 1930s. Probably no buildings better express the Maya Revival than Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House (1919-1921) and Ennis House (1924), both constructed of concrete blocks with many features lifted from Maya architecture, especially from the ruins of Palenque and Uxmal. Many hotels and theaters were also built in the Maya or Aztec Revival style, including the Aztec Hotel in Monrovia, California (1924-1925); the Aztec Theater in San Antonio, Texas (1926); the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles (1927); and the Mayan Theatre in Denver (1930). Albuquerque’s KiMo Theatre, built in 1927, is in the related Pueblo Deco style and features tiles with Southwestern Native American themes, as well as others based on Maya glyphs and Aztec motifs, all manufactured by Claycraft Potteries in Los Angeles.

In addition to Claycraft and Batchelder, other California companies made tiles with Maya and Aztec themes, including Muresque Tiles, Malibu Potteries, American Encaustic Tiling Company, Western Art Tile Company, Calco Tile, and the Handcraft Tile Company. The first building in the U.S. to use pre-Columbian-themed tiles for an interior decoration program was Paul Philippe Cret’s Pan American Union Building in Washington, D.C. (1910). The building’s annex, originally the director’s home and now the Art Museum of the Americas, has a porch decorated with remarkable Maya-theme tiles made by Enfield Pottery and Tile Works in Enfield, Pennsylvania.

Ultimately, Colter’s choice of the Batchelder Maya tiles for La Fonda was probably connected to her investment in the Arts and Crafts aesthetic they emerged from, the prominence of the Batchelder firm in 1920s U.S. tile decoration, and perhaps even to her personal exposure to ancient Maya art and artifacts. Colter made the model for the Painted Desert Exhibit for the Panama-California Exposition. This large collection of pseudo-Pueblo, Navajo, and pre-Columbian Southwestern buildings was commissioned by the Santa Fe Railway and closely connected to the Harvey Company. Hewett was in charge of the arts and culture exhibits at the fair, and Nusbaum oversaw construction of the Painted Desert. When it was complete, the structures, which partly resembled a huge version of Colter’s Hopi House, were populated with actual Navajo and Pueblo Indians, including potter Maria Martinez and her family. These living-exhibit demonstators made pottery, danced the Eagle Dance, and wove rugs for the tourists, many of whom probably saw the same displays on their way to San Diego at Harvey’s Alvarado Hotel. In San Diego, we can also be nearly certain that Colter saw Hewett’s Maya archaeology display, with its casts of Quiriguá sculptures. ◀