On the way back down to the lobby, Hajduk explains that much of the hotel’s art was inherited from the owners of the Doubletree and the Omni. She explains further that with massive renovations in 1999, the look of the place will change. How, specifically, she does not know. She assures me, however, that “it will be better.”
Hajduk describes a woman who “…does not stay at the hotel, but she comes by almost every day just to tell me that the picture behind the front desk is horrible. It began to bother me because every day she would say, ‘You know what? That picture is ugly!’ ” Hajduk is speaking of the blob-o’-greens landscape with the little Monticello structure stuck in the right corner. “She was actually kind of aggressive. I said, ‘I’m sorry. Art is something to be admired. Some people like it and some people don’t. I think it’s amazing that you can be that bothered by a piece of art.’ She was really upset.”
Across Broadway from the Westin is the U.S. Grant Hotel, a dignified, masculine class act of a historical landmark. The lobby reminds one of those old university or gentleman’s clubs where Carruthers would obsequiously serve brandy in large snifters and Lord Gutlurch would reminisce about Crimea as he drew on a long Dunhill.
One painting in the lobby is typical: three horsemen, two of them dismounted, in a sylvan glade. A windmill in the background indicates the setting is Holland, and though throughout most of the hotel the theme is 19th-century, the style of this unmarked painting and the hats on the horsemen are more 17th-century, I’m thinking the Flanders school, but that would have been 200 years earlier. Anyway, I like it.
In the Grant Grill you may lunch or dine beneath portraits of hunting dogs: the game afoot between fox and hounds. All rather appetizing. Sets you up for chops, sausages, and a good claret.
A young nanny outside the gift shop is minding two young children, one in a stroller, the other fascinated by the grand piano near the Broadway entrance. The nanny, Stephanie from San Francisco, is on a business trip with the children and their parents. She makes a game for the kids of examining the artwork in the hotel room. “They are prints of still-life flowers. They are very typical ‘hotel.’ Some of the prints in the hallway are a little nicer. We kind of go through and name the stuff in the pictures, so we pay a little bit more attention to them than the average guest probably would.”
“Ah. And what,” I inquire, “were the flowers?”
“I have no idea. The names were at the bottom in Latin. We made up our own names for them, like the Rudy Buzzudee Flower and the Poison Peanut Plant and the Robosaurus Monster Vine or something.”
A woman and some friends are seated at a table in the lobby enjoying drinks, while around the wainscoted corner in the Grant Grill bar patrons watch the Padres kick Atlanta butt. The two men she is with recall no artwork whatsoever. “Art? What art? You should ask my wife, she would know. I noticed the beer menu.”
“I don’t think there was anything hanging in the room,” says the other man.
“Yeah, there was. There was art,” the first man says, presumably just to be contrary. The woman strikes a neutral note.
“I noticed the wallpaper,” she says.
“I wouldn’t notice if they had dead babies nailed to the walls.” The second man is into the garrulous phase of his martini drinking.
“The wallpaper and draperies are very nice,” says the woman. “They are kind of 1880s, 1890s circa. Victorian, but not in a standoffish way. It’s very comfortable. When you first look at it, you get an almost wood-grain type of feeling. It looks like they used wood paneling, but when you look at it you can see they used a kind of silk print. Also, the pottery around the hotel is remarkable.”
“I can’t believe people notice this stuff. I didn’t see any of this stuff.” The martini drinker then adds, “I’m from El Paso.” This is said with finality, as if the announcement implies an entire school of art invisible to those from El Paso.
The first man introduces himself as Bob, then introduces his wife, Denise, but does not introduce Martini Guy. “This is a cigar-smokin’, guys hotel,” Bob says.
“You can’t smoke in here,” Denise says.
“I’m not smoking.” He frowns into his drink.
This sparks a discussion about what to do with the Cuban cigars the men bought in Tijuana, and matters of aesthetics are forgotten.
Across from the registration desk is a painting of a covered bridge straddling a stream that is obscured by shrubbery in the foreground. It is well executed, quietly pleasing, and unobtrusive. It is signed by F.E. Penfold with no date. My guess is that it has not been painted recently.
“The hotel was built in 1910,” says my young, well-groomed guide. The desk clerk is handsome and sensitive-looking, almost delicate. His manner is quiet and deferential. He ushers me to the elevators and will guide me through a room on the fifth floor.
The room is dark, woody, womblike, and clean. On the walls are ink drawings and engravings. The one nearest to hand is credited to W. Faithhorn and J. P. Neil. It is one of a series of three renderings of various castles, Huntingshire, Connington, and Cherbourne castles. A watercolor wash provides an almost subliminal background to the fine, geometric pen strokes. They draw little attention to themselves; businesslike and pleasant, they are the decorative equivalent of a sensible, conservative necktie.
On another wall are what look to be framed pages of an old botanical guide. Again pen-and-ink with the Latin names of the flowers or plants printed in a calligraphic typeface meant to evoke a medieval monk’s mutedly illuminated manuscript; the kind of thing Roger Bacon might have leafed through in the 13th Century, mortar and pestle at his elbow. “Caryophyllus multiplexma, Ximus variegatus, Leucokimflore rubropleno.”