My friend Christy used to live in Monrovia, a quaint foothill community about twenty traffic-free or sixty traffic-full minutes east of Los Angeles (yes, in my land we measure distance in time, not miles). The reason I bring this up is that every year on Mother’s Day, the Monrovia Historic Preservation Group hosts a home tour. During her first year in town, Christy suggested that we fork over a Jackson each for the privilege of slipping on surgical booties and scuffling across rich people’s “original-to-the-home!” floorboards. A sucker for a) history and b) seeing how the other half lives, I accepted and our Craftsman- and Victorian-filled pilgrimage became an annual tradition.
This year, the MOHPG upped the ante with the inclusion of a strange building dubbed the Aztec Hotel. Not one to miss an opportunity to gawk at something weird while learning stuff, I did a bit of research, asked a few questions, and came away with a pretty solid understanding of how this architectural anomaly came to be in sleepy Monrovia. I hereby present to you my findings, which should satisfy the Explorer badge requirement below:
#11. With your group, make a trip to a nearby historic site, discovering some of the folklore and colorful history associated with it and the surrounding locality. Make a record of it for your troop log.
Right off the bat, let me tell you that this place is completely mis-named. Aztec-schmaztec – those are Mayan influences you’re seeing on that gaudy facade and it’s all thanks to the short-lived Mayan Revival style that emerged in the ’20s. Actually, this strange building in the tiny former orange grove colony of Monrovia kicked off the whole Mayan Revival style in the States, thanks to one curious British architect named Robert Stacy-Judd who was fascinated with the Mayan imagery documented by artist Frederick Catherwood in the late 19th century.
You’ll notice that the facade only features chunks of Mayan designs rather than a complete plastering – this is because Stacy-Judd was working on a tight budget and had to keep his ornamentation to a minimum. The hope was that this hotel would bring some much-needed cashola into the city considering it was located on the original Route 66, and indeed, this strange building did attract curiosity-seekers when it opened on September 1, 1925 – in fact, the reason it’s named the Aztec Hotel and not the Mayan Hotel is because Stacy-Judd & co. assumed most people would be more familiar with Aztecs than the Mayans, and they wanted to appeal to the lowest common denominator to get the masses through the door.
Once opened, the hotel also attracted the attention of other architects and what followed was a mini boom of similar pre-Colombian influences, from the Mayan Theater in downtown Los Angeles to several Frank Lloyd Wright showpieces scattered around the city and elsewhere.
However, not only did the Mayan fad fizzle out by the end of the decade, but so did interest in the hotel itself when Route 66 was unceremoniously re-routed a bit south to Huntington Drive. Thus a scant decade after it opened, the Aztec Hotel went bankrupt and chained its exotically ornate doors.
But of course, this thing’s still standing and it’s been a loooong time since 1935. The hotel was bought and sold several times in the intervening years, with portions of the interior remaining much as they were nearly ninety years ago, including the mural above. However, that’s the only original mural – the majority of the rest were painted more recently by a guy who exchanged his talents for reduced rent on the attached coffee shop.
As easy as it would have been to let this gem slip into a state of neo-Mayan ruin, the people of Monrovia love their history and take care of their own; the Aztec Hotel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, and it was restored more recently under the National Park Service’s Route 66 Corridor Preservation program. Current plans call for a boutique hotel complete with restaurant and coffee shop; a docent mentioned that it would be “upscale,” but I hope they keep the kitsch factor alive – in a city where history is routinely bulldozed into oblivion, places like the Aztec Hotel are reminders that Los Angeles has a weird and wacky past all its own.