More 19th-century pen-and-ink engravings line the hallway to the next room where more botanical drawings hang over the bed in a Victorian-themed, manly-and-sober setting. These plants have no names and seem to be colored with oils or even, possibly, acrylics. No dates or signatures are legible. Over a desk is an amber-tinted photograph of the Grant Hotel and Horton Plaza. The cars on Broadway and Fourth Avenue date from the 1920s. The art, architecture, furnishings, and design at the U.S. Grant Hotel thematically conspire to ensure that your stay is imbued with a rich, historical quality no matter how pointless your business trip.
The Hyatt Regency La Jolla in “the Aventine,” set in the heart of the Golden Triangle, is the conceptual baby of the now-64-year-old architect Michael Graves. A professor of architecture at Princeton and architect of the Denver public library (he now does picture frames and toasters for Target stores), Graves is also a painter and has designed the San Juan Capistrano public library, as well as “…numerous showrooms for the Sunar Furniture Company.” The Hyatt calls attention to itself from a half mile away.
Stylized and sterile, an almost Disney-like theme park of blocky geometry (“Twelve palm trees in the courtyard are geometrically balanced and create a square,” brags the press kit on Graves and the Aventine), the grounds might host an upscale science-fiction convention with jousting tournaments and toga parties studded with cell phones and laptops, the poolside air fragrant with sunscreen and cappuccino.
This is visually strange territory. It seems inspired by Prozac or amphetamine, a manic, menopausal sensibility informed with a gay but selective, almost brain-damaged grasping at art history from classical to postmodern chaotic: Frank Lloyd Wright meets Julius Caesar, David Hockney, and King Arthur.
“Michael Graves designed the self-contained 11-acre Euro-style complex called Aventine,” reads the spiel sheet employees are given to read when guests ask about the art and architecture at the Hyatt. “This European Village, named after one of the seven hills in Rome, houses two office buildings, a business center, sporting club, recreational facilities, formal gardens, restaurant court and the Hyatt Regency La Jolla. The Aventine complex is located on some of the most expensive real estate in the Golden Triangle. The Hyatt Regency La Jolla marks a milestone for Hyatt hotels in its unique style and concept.”
The strange art-and-architecture project on the hill also marked a flurry of controversy upon its completion in 1989. Critics called it “garish,” and defenders insisted upon its “avant-garde innovation.” Here is the rest of the official line on Graves’s artistic intent:
“Colors — The soft, earthy and muted colors that are used throughout the hotel are typical of the colors that Michael Graves uses to signify natural materials. ochre (pronounced ocra) is the color used on the exterior of the hotel as well as parts of the interior.
“Design — Michael Graves has been influenced by the architecture of Tuscany, Italy, and it is represented in the soft tones, leisurely atmosphere, and European aura of the hotel. Michael Graves’ artistic talents and respect for natural materials are demonstrated through the use of warm stones. Rojoalcante is used on the staircase. Rosaduquesa and Grisaduquesa are the stones that make up the lobby floor and Crememarfilis is used for the columns. Paint is man-made, therefore, in keeping with the design of natural materials, Venetian stucco is used in the foyer of the meeting rooms and the ballroom to represent richness and variety and was done by local artisans.
“Consistency — Another unique feature of Michael Graves’ influence is the consistency throughout the hotel in structure as well as design. You will notice a flower in every carpet and oriental rug used in the lobby. The guest room furniture was also designed by Michael Graves. The armoire is designed very similarly to the exterior of the hotel with squares and the distinctive half moon.
“Theory of origin — Trunks of trees were used as columns originally before man-made materials and stones were used. The entry lobby has 16 columns, twice as many as needed structurally.…”
Now you know. Rojoalcante and Crememarfilis are not, as you might have assumed, some sort of Mediterranean desserts.
The first piece of actual art one notices upon checking in is a headless, armless, footless, and shinless torso from the Second Century a.d. The “Togatus,” as it is titled, stands some six feet tall and is situated on a pedestal.
“Stylistically,” the employee crib sheet reads, “this sculpture resembles a Roman marble relief sculpture, ‘Marcus Aurelius Sacrificing.’ From a relief panel from the Triumphal Arch of Marcus Aurelius. This narrative marble panel, which measures 10’6” in height, contains life-size figures resembling the togatus figure. The Marcus Aurelius relief dates a.d. 180. The poses of the figures and their drapery reveal Greek Hellenistic influences.
“The Second Century a.d. in Rome is considered historically the Early Imperial Period.… Emperors such as Trajan (r. 98–117) and Hadrian (r. 117–138) lived during this period. Major Roman works of art during the second century a.d. include the column of Trajan (a.d. 113), The Pantheon (a.d. 118–125), and an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (a.d. 165).”
The other remarkable sculpture is in the lower lobby, off the piano-bar cocktail lounge and restaurant, just past the check-in area and down the stairs. The life-size statue of Poseidon is a replica of the Fourth Century b.c. (460–450) original, which was recovered “appropriately from the sea in 1928 near Cape Artenmisium.… The replica…is only one of a few commissioned by our beloved Pope.”
The brother of Zeus, god of the sea, “holder of the earth,” stands six foot ten, poised to throw, I suppose, a thunderbolt or an invisible trident. This work is on loan from John L. Smaha and Associates. The bearded, empty-eye-socketed mariner’s god and son of Cronus is starkers and anatomically correct, even down to uncircumcised “shrinkage” from the cold Aegean.
Employee Jim Walters shows me suite 1507, the Biedermeier Suite. Pen-and-ink prints, again with an amber-wash background. (The bedspread repeats this pastel earth tone.) Four of the prints are drawings of pottery, archeological sketches drawn to scale with lines and notations, the dimensions of the crockery in a shorthand, possibly a foreign language. Names at the bottom of the print over the bed are Oefen, Gretchen, J. Spiegl, and architect Pein. One drawing is of a sort of love seat/throne with cloaking or drapery hanging, held by a cherub at an angle above the seat. A woman holds the other end, and a falcon or eagle presides over the top of the configuration. The armoire in the bedroom is indeed in the shape of the building itself.