Photographer: Maynard L. Parker, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California
Like the mythological firebird, the Arrowhead Springs Hotel located in California’s San Bernardino Mountains rose many times from its own ashes. While the Phoenix’s life might last for a thousand years, the series of hotels on the arrowhead-shaped formation (image 2) were built in rapid succession. This area was known for natural resources such as lumber and gold, but it was the abundance of hot mineral water that attracted Native Americans and later the Mormans. Native Americans believed the rock formation of quartz and granite was created when an arrow fell from heaven showing the location of medicinal springs. The Mormans believed that the 7.5-acre landmark marked the location of the Garden of Eden.
In the mid-1860s, the first infirmary/hotel was built by "doctor" David Noble Smith to take advantage of the hot springs. His hotel included bathing rooms, a health sanitarium and a small lake for the "cure" of arthritis and other ailments. This building and a second hotel built in 1886 were destroyed by fire. The third hotel built in 1905 promoted its springs as the hottest in the world with a temperature of 196 degrees. In 1938 Jay Paley, his partner Joseph M. Schenck along with Hollywood friends Constance Bennett, Claudette Colbert, Darryl Zanuck and Al Jolson, bought the resort for $800,000 with plans to develop the property combining the appeal of Sun Valley and elite European health spas. Shortly after their purchase, another fire destroyed this building. Architects Gordon B. Kaufmann and Paul R. Williams were hired to design the $1.5 million replacement, a 69-room hotel described in a 1940 Time magazine article as “late Californian with a Southern Georgian trace.” Half of the rooms opened onto private balconies, and through careful architectural design occupants on one deck could not see occupants on the adjoining deck. (image 17) Paley and Schenck wanted the architects to preserve the traditions of the original spa but add a more modern twist. Their version of the perfect California healthy get-away included facilities for mud baths, ski slides, steam caves, and scores of deck chairs as well as bars, all for the minimum rate of $13 a day (American plan).
New York interior designer Dorothy Draper, who referred to herself as a real estate stylist and not a decorator, was hired to create the complete look for the resort from the drapes of chintz and tweed to the uniforms of the staff as well as small items such as toothpicks and swizzle sticks. (Business Week. September 5, 1936) Her "talent wasn't in creating pretty rooms; she was an expert at merchandishing." (Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts. The American Hotel. vol 25, 2005) Her message to clients was always, "You can't just let buildings sit, staring the public in the face, and expect that they will rent themselves." Her job was to work with Williams and Kaufmann to reinvent the Arrowhead as a camera-ready fantasy where American chic society vacationed to see and be seen.
Draper was the grandame of American interior design, having established the first interior design company in the U.S. (1923), when she was commissioned to redo the new Arrowhead. Credited with the "Modern Baroque" decorative concept, she believed that large public spaces such as a lobby were the perfect setting to linger and appreciate a "refined" quality of life. Draper believed in banishing undecided color. The Arrowhead provided the perfect canvas for her palate of cabbage rose chintz, chartreuse, "dull" white, and "shiny" black. Her signature two-toned, paneled and laquered doors (images 5 and 6) opened to a lounge decorated with marbleized wallpaper and kelly green carpet. Never afraid to experiment with new materials or shapes, Draper's use of pine Flexwood, a malleable pine veneer (image 8), created an undulating organic feel to the hotel's public rooms.
Arrowhead Springs Hotel opened on December 16, 1939 with a gala attended by Hollywood royality. (see Los Angeles Times. December, 1939 for series of articles describing opening festivities.) While many celebrities vacationed at the Kaufmann / Williams designed hotel complex, the resort was a financial flop for Paley and his investors. Popular during the war years when foreign travel was limited, modern transportation modes, especially air travel after W.W. II, provided vacationers with a greater variety of choices for leisure. The resort was closed and vacant from 1959 through 1962 when Campus Crusade for Christ purchased it for $2 million as their headquarters. Fires in 2002 once again damaged the property. Five outbuildings were accidentally burned during a fire-training exercise and two more were destroyed in 2003. In 2009 the hotel property is again up for sale.