All Aboard

In the expansive Hamilton Galleries on the first floor of the Denver Art Museum is a glorious show, Inventing the Southwest: The Fred Harvey Company and Native American Art, which highlights a dazzling array of American Indian art. The Fred Harvey Company was a hotel and restaurant chain in the Southwest, and each of the company's hotels featured a gift shop that sold Indian curios--and the Indian mystique.

The Harvey exhibit was organized by the Heard Museum in Phoenix, a principal beneficiary of the largesse of the Harvey Company when the last of its holdings were distributed in 1978. The Arizona institution received most of the best material, with Santa Fe's International Folk Art Museum sharing in the bounty. The show traces the Harvey Company's history with photographs, pottery, jewelry, baskets and textiles, as well as period and contemporary accounts of the operation. Selections were made by two Heard staffers, research associate Kathleen Howard and curator Diana Pardue, who scouted the nation for objects related to the Harvey Company. Pieces in the show have been loaned by the Heard, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, as well a number of other collections both public and private.

As visitors enter the Hamilton rooms, they encounter a hand-tinted photo mural of a line of train engines parked in the Los Angeles station yard. Perched on the front of the trains are socialites in evening gowns and tuxedos, along with the trainmen in their greasy overalls; the photo is meant to symbolize the great social changes wrought by the railroads that opened up the American West. Next to the mural is a small display of American Indian artifacts, including a remarkable 1885 Navajo textile that combines the traditional Germantown pattern with a train motif across the middle--literally marking the intersection of the Navajo culture and the dominant culture of the United States.

The origins of the Harvey Company are noted with a portrait of its English-born founder, Fred Harvey, who immigrated as a teenager to the United States in the 1850s. Working first as a dishwasher, Harvey eventually opened his own restaurant at the train station in Topeka, Kansas, in 1876. Food and accommodations were in short supply in the West, and Harvey set up an innovative relationship with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad to provide food for railroad passengers, both in his restaurants and in Harvey dining cars. To say the least, his idea caught on, and he soon possessed an empire that included 26 restaurants, 16 hotels and a fleet of dining cars. The Harvey Company became the first hotel chain in America.

It may seem that this success was a foregone conclusion given the Western expansion of the time, but Harvey faced a formidable obstacle: fear of Indians. Many considered Indians to be murderous savages. (Here in Denver, for example, popular anti-Indian sentiment led to the elimination of proposed Indian braves from the cast of bronze characters in the "Pioneer's Monument," a 1910 piece by Paris-based American sculptor Frederick MacMonnies that still stands at the Civic Center. But no public outcry met the unveiling in 1918, less than a decade later, of Alexander Phimister Proctor's "Equestrian Indian," also at the Civic Center.) During the first twenty years of the twentieth century, the popular image of Indians changed from one of ruthless warriors to peaceful artisans--and the Harvey Company played a significant part in this transformation.

The company needed to battle negative Indian stereotypes not as a political act but to ensure that its business succeeded. If people thought of Indians as dangerous, they wouldn't come West and they wouldn't stay in the Harvey hotels.

So the company set about recasting the Indian image and that of the West. It recruited young, single women from the East and Midwest to staff its hotels and restaurants. The young women wore demure black and white uniforms that looked something like Pilgrim's dresses, and photos of them were published widely. The idea, according to Nancy Blomberg, DAM's Native Arts curator and a research contributor to the show, was to communicate that "if these girls are safe, you, the tourist, will be, too." These women were so famous in the first half of the century that a movie, The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland and Ray Bolger, was made by MGM in 1946. The musical features the Tin Pan Alley standard "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer.

Across from the display devoted to the Harvey girls is a showcase that features the AT&SF dining-car china, which was designed by the Harvey Company's resident designer and architect Mary Jane Colter, and a standing bas-relief figure of one of the Harvey girls. What's interesting about this small and beautiful statuette is that it has been made using traditional Zuni techniques. The piece, dating from 1948, is composed of stone inlay and hammered silver and is the work of Zuni Pueblo master Leo Poblano.

The hybrid of a modern American subject carried out in ancient ways well expresses the renaissance in American Indian art engineered by the Harvey Company--another strategy for recasting the Indian stereotype.

When Fred Harvey died in 1901, the company passed on to his son, Ford Harvey. At this time, Ford's sister, Minnie Harvey Huckel, suggested establishing what would come to be called The American Indian Department and Museum. It took the Harvey Company more than five years to put together the collection it unveiled at the chain's flagship operation, the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque. The company also presented displays of American Indian art that traveled to the great department stores in the East and Midwest. At first the intention was purely promotional, with objects for display only, but so many people expressed a keen interest in the artifacts that the company began to market them as gift and decorative items. The DAM show includes photos of the Alvarado's early sales room, paired with the actual objects depicted in these photos.

At the Alvarado, artifacts were arranged in roomlike settings, complete with fireplace mantels, to give tourists decorating ideas. The Harvey Company benefited from the concurrent Arts and Crafts movement, which was a decorative-art reaction to Victorian artistic excesses. American Indian art, with its strong sense of geometry, fit in perfectly with the straight lines of the Arts and Crafts style.

And the company's marketing spurred appreciation for Indian art, which in turn increased production--and led to basic changes in the forms. In ceramics, for example, traditional Indian vessels were used to hold water or flour and were therefore fairly large. Tourists, though, could not travel with large pots, so the Indian artisans made miniature copies for sale. Thus was born the Indian pot as vase, a decorating item that is still popular--but has no direct antecedent in traditional Indian pottery.

The DAM's show includes "before" and "after" examples, though the earlier items dominate. A large display includes magnificent functional pots in the various styles unique to individual Indian cultures. Several of these pots are real standouts, including a Zia water jar from the 1870s. This piece, in the baluster form, is covered with geometric and naturalistic decorations carried out in elaborate line drawings. Elsewhere in the show is a 1905 Zia water jar. Made to be sold, this jar is notably simpler than the older, traditional example and is more clearly inspired by the Arts and Crafts style, with a checkerboard motif made from drawings of flowers. Between the two we see the transition from functional to decorative. Baskets, originally meant for storage, were also miniaturized. And in the case of jewelry, artists invented lighter and redesigned versions of ceremonial pieces.

The Harvey Company also promoted the mystique of the American Indians by commissioning paintings by famous artists, including Thomas Moran and E. Irving Couse. Moran was given a free room in the Grand Canyon hotel in exchange for the paintings he produced while he stayed there. In addition, the company published handsomely illustrated books by established anthropologists and even produced kitsch items such as Indian-themed playing cards.

But the Harvey Company was not just interested in marketing souvenirs to the common visitor. The American Indian Department collected antiques and commissioned monumental works. This material filled the Harvey Company's private vault--where entrance was forbidden to all but a few trusted employees. Even millionaire William Randolph Hearst was denied entry--and he complained about it bitterly in correspondence with Herman Schweizer, the self-trained anthropologist who ran the Alvarado operation. The Harvey show at the DAM focuses on these special pieces, including several items collected by Hearst. But today, even the Alvarado sales room's most common fare is worthy of museum presentation.

Among the Harvey Company's most interesting marketing efforts were elaborate exhibits presented in 1915 at two rival expositions, the Panama-California in San Diego and the Panama-Pacific International in San Francisco, and the DAM's show includes a large section devoted to these fairs. On the San Diego fairgrounds, the company erected a multi-story pueblo as the centerpiece of a Painted Desert exhibit in which then unknown but today renowned potters Julian and Maria Martinez lived and worked for a year and a half. "They were so little-known at the time, promotional mate-rial for the fair doesn't even mention them, but they can be clearly seen in period photos," Blomberg says of the potters. In San Francisco, a large Grand Canyon exhibit had fairgoers traveling through several buildings on a small train--"just like Disneyland," Blomberg says.

Near the end of the show is a special display of the Harvey items in the DAM's Native Arts collection. Though they're not all on display here, the museum holds one hundred pieces purchased by Frederick Douglas, the DAM's American Indian curator from 1929 to 1956. Some of these artifacts are extremely fine and rare.

The efforts of the Harvey Company may appear exploitative, and to some extent, they were. But most of those Indian artists contacted by the exhibit's originators, Howard and Pardue, recalled a positive and financially beneficial relationship with the company. And without question, the Harvey Company engendered a renaissance in American Indian art.

That point is clearly made in the exhibit's conclusion, which takes up the topic of contemporary Indian art made by the descendants of artists who sold their wares through the Harvey Company and brings the viewer up to the present. Particularly notable is the gorgeous 1995 "Redware jar," by Tammy Garcia of the Santa Clara Pueblo. The bottle-form vase is covered in raised abstract decorations arranged in vertical ribs. Another compelling entry is the goofy but luxurious "Tourism/Route 66 belt buckle," made by Gail Bird and Yazzie Johnson in 1995 out of silver and turquoise.

In this last section, there is also a book for people with firsthand knowledge to write down their recollections of the Harvey Company. Sadly, alongside the thoughtful remarks of old-timers, kids have scribbled nonsense in the book, marring its pages.

Inventing the Southwest: The Fred Harvey Company and Native American Art is a must-see on several fronts. Superficially, it's a spectacular array of the finest American Indian material anywhere. But it is also a sociological and historical exploration of a single company's incredible role in fostering the continuing place of American Indian art in our culture.

Inventing the Southwest: The Fred Harvey Company and Native American Art, through January 24, 1999, at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 303-640-4433.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia