In March and April of 1938, the Cromwells traveled to Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and select European cities. They spent the longest period of time—March 19 through April 14—in Iran, where they visited Persepolis, Shiraz, Isfahan, Tehran, Mashhad, Tabriz and several towns along the Caspian Sea. The impact of this visit to Iran on Shangri La’s general appearance was considerable and can be divided into two categories: architectural recreations created onsite by local contractors but inspired by pre-Islamic and Islamic prototypes; and Pahlavi tilework made by Isfahani ceramists and modeled after early modern Safavid designs.
Within the first year of Shangri La’s history, the Cromwells and their architects were aware of, and evidently enamored by, Safavid Isfahan and its canonical monuments. In January of 1937, two months before construction began, Baker drafted a proposal calling for the north wall of the living room to be decorated with a mural of the southwest corner of Isfahan’s renowned maidan (square), including the Masjid-i Shah (Shah Mosque, 1612–c. 1630) and Ali Qapu (High Gate, 1590–1643) palace. By the end of that year, the nearby Chehel Sutun (Forty Columns, c. 1647–50) palace had been identified as the inspiration for the poolside pavilion at Shangri La called the Playhouse. By the beginning of 1938, construction of Shangri La was in its final stages. The modernist core of the main house was intact, and the architectural shell of the Playhouse was also complete. What remained to be resolved, however, was the appearance of the Playhouse façade, as well as the grafting of architectural details—architraves, awnings, columns—onto the main house’s modernist core. Toward this end, the Cromwells resolved to document Persian forms firsthand, both pre-Islamic and Islamic, that would be most suitable for their home. To organize their trip to Iran, they solicited Arthur Upham Pope (d. 1969), a collector, dealer and scholar of Persian art. They received extensive advice from him about how to film and photograph monuments in Iran. On the ground, their main travel companion and advisor was Mary Crane, a graduate student at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts who had considerable field experience in Iran working on Pope’s architectural surveys for the American Institute for Persian Art and Archaeology.
The cities that had the most profound impact on Shangri La were the Achaemenid capital of Persepolis (founded in 518 BCE) and the Safavid capital of Isfahan (1598–1722). At Persepolis, the Cromwells photographed Achaemenid architectural forms for recreation on the south façade of the living room (four architraves) and the lanai and west façade of the dining room (entablature and columns). To complete the Playhouse’s incarnation as a “reduced version” of the mid-seventeenth-century Chehel Sutun, they documented the geometric panels decorating the ceiling of its porch (talar), as well as its entablature. A second relatively contemporary Safavid Isfahani palace, the Ali Qapu, was selected as the model for the central courtyard’s architecture. In this instance, the awning and column capitals of the Ali Qapu’s talar were closely copied for the central courtyard’s arcade, which was constructed in August 1938. The Cromwells’ interest in pillared porch architecture was not limited to the royal prototypes of Safavid Isfahan. For the living room portico, also dated to August 1938, they turned to vernacular architecture of the Caspian Sea region, where the shapes of awnings and columns were markedly different.
By January of 1939, the façades of the living room, dining room and Playhouse had all been successfully “Persianized.” The final step in Shangri La’s “Persianization” would be the sheathing of the property’s walls, including the façades of the Playhouse and living room, with mosaic and underglaze tilework custom-made in Iran by a well-documented workshop. For inspiration, the Cromwells again turned to the masterpieces of Safavid architecture that they themselves had documented while in Iran. The primary source in this instance was a religious monument, Isfahan’s Masjid-i Shah.
Architect H. Drewry Baker exiting the living room, while the Persepolis-inspired architrave was being installed, July 28, 1938. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.
Achaemenid architectural features were photographed in Persepolis, Iran, in 1938. Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, “Commissions and Recreations, 1935–1938: Iran, 1938,” Collection Highlights, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, November 2012, www.shangrilahawaii.org.
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, “Tilework: Pahlavi Iran,” Collection Highlights, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, November 2012.
Keelan Overton, “Commissioning on the Move: The Cromwells’ Travels and Patronage of ‘Living Traditions’ in India, Morocco and Iran,” in Doris Duke’s Shangri La: A House in Paradise, eds. Thomas Mellins and Donald Albrecht (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2012), 93–113.
Keelan Overton, “From Pahlavi Isfahan to Pacific Shangri La: Reviving, Restoring and Reinventing Safavid Aesthetics, ca. 1920–40,” West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 19, no. 1 (Spring—Summer 2012): 61–87.
View More in Commissions and Recreations, 1935-1938< Return to Commissions and Recreations, 1935-1938