In 1902, a young architect, Charles Whittlesey, wrote a letter to the President of the Arizona Lumber and Timber Company asking if the Oregon pine he planned to use for a new lodge at the Grand Canyon would be affected badly by local weather or parasites. Whittlesey, an Arts and Crafts style architect, was working for the Santa Fe Railroad, and he planned a rustic lodge using local rock and logs which would blend in with the surrounding environment on the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
This short letter began a relationship which created the Riordan family homes, now preserved as Riordan Mansion State Historic Park. While it is important that the Riordan homes have been preserved, because of their role in Flagstaff history, these homes are also the finest remaining example of American Arts and Crafts architecture and furnishings in the state of Arizona.
The American Arts and Crafts Movement was from about 1900 to the 1920's, and is popular again today in home decor and architecture. This style grew out of the philosophies of William Morris and John Ruskin in England at the turn of the last century. Reacting to ostentatious Victorian style household furnishings and architecture, they believed that simple, functional things are beautiful instead. At this time the Industrial Revolution was putting many people to work in factories, churning out mass-produced, poorly made furniture and other items. Ruskin and Morris lamented the decline of handicraft guilds where men could make individually crafted items and share in the profits of their efforts. They believed the guilds were better for a man's spirit than factory work. In the United States, furniture maker Gustav Stickley spread and nurtured these ideas, incorporating that which is quintessentially American--the western frontier, Spanish missions, and Native American arts into what we now know as the American Arts and Crafts Movement. Stickley is considered the father of this movement, and his furniture represents the essence of the movement--simplicity and beauty.
Built with a rustic facade, the Riordan homes are intended to blend in with Flagstaff's forest environment. Although people often think Riordan Mansion is a log structure, it is actually an elegant, modern, wood frame structure featuring indoor plumbing, central heat, and electric lights. The Arts and Crafts emphasis on buildings which blend into their surroundings is a technique we have celebrated here in Northern Arizona for quite some time. Buildings featuring local volcanic rock predominate here in town, and have become part of the cultural fabric of our way of life.
Celebrating Native American heritage, the Riordan homes were called "Kinlichi" by the family, from the Navajo word meaning "red house." Totems carved on the side of the house were inspired by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, and a katsina image is under the front archway. The photo transparency windows in the billiard room feature Native American portraits, and ancient Anasazi ruins. When the families still lived here, they had on display in both homes many Native American baskets and rugs. The stucco fireplaces in both homes celebrate the Spanish missions found throughout the southwest, and pull a little bit of nature inside with embedded petrified wood.
Inside the home, people are often struck with its modern feel, this is largely due to the open floor plan. A revolutionary idea in 1904, the open floor plan was intended to encourage families to spend time together, and be more comfortable than a Victorian style home. The furniture in the home also seems modern. The emphasis during the Arts and Crafts period was on simple, durable, functional construction. Ornate carvings and fancy upholstery used during the Victorian era were put aside in favor of the natural beauty of the wood grain, leather, and inlaid marquetry designs. Another way the Arts and Crafts architects sought to make homes more simple was to build in cabinets, cupboards, window seats, and bookcases. These ideas are resurfacing in today's homes for the same reasons--simplicity and ease of use.
As nature is brought inside in textiles and wallpaper, there is also a strong emphasis in natural light in Arts and Crafts style homes. Of course, at the turn of the century indoor lighting relied on open flames, or early electric light fixtures, neither of which generate much light. But not only is bringing more sunlight into the home important, but also the nature of the light as filtered through art glass light fixtures or stained glass windows. The light itself becomes part of the artistry of the interior decor. The Riordan homes both feature a skylight in the middle of the home which allows sunlight through the middle of the home and through to the ground floor. The windows on the roof, and the skylights, lift open, to allow air circulation for cooling purposes in the summer. Perhaps most decorative of all, the entire structure is situated on a knoll and angled to give a view of the San Francisco Peaks from all the front windows.
Arts and Crafts style homes often feature wonderful woodwork. From the built in cupboards, cabinets and bookcases, to window and doorway casements, and baseboards, natural wood grains are an essential part of the ornamentation in an Arts and Crafts home. Employees of the lumber mill built the Riordan homes, and their fine craftsmanship is still stunning today. Especially fantastic are the unique handmade Arts and Crafts style wood and brass light fixtures, possibly designed by Whittlesey.
Flagstaff's relationship to the Arts and Crafts Movement could just be an accident of history. After all, the town was growing and developing between the 1880's and the 1920's when the style was popular. But it seems that the Arts and Crafts ideals are especially well suited to the culture of Flagstaff. Using local materials to make structures which blend into their surroundings, open floor plans which allow light and air to flow through the home, and the celebration of Native American artforms are constant features of our community. The recent popularity in the rest of the country is occasion to smile a little and feel good that we never abandoned the Arts and Crafts ideals here in Flagstaff.