A Brief History of Mayan Revival Architecture

Walking up to the Templo de la Ciudad de México, one would believe that they were about to enter a Maya temple from the pre-Columbian Era. It must be shocking then when they realize that this Maya-style building is actually a religious temple for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). This entry will discuss what Mayan Revival architecture is, how it became a common form of architecture in America, and how it became associated with, and used by, the LDS in the twenty-first century in order for the history of Mayan Revival architecture to be followed chronologically.

Mayan Revival architecture became popular in the early twentieth century and remained popular through the 1930s. The style featured opaque color schemes, sweeping geometric patterns, horizontal lines, flat roofs, stucco, and a close connection to the landscape. Inspiration for this style came from the ruins of Maya cities of Uxmal and Labná and illustrations of the Post-Classic era sites of the Yucatán as chronicled and illustrated in John Lloyd Stephens and Fredrick Catherwood’s book Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán. These sites were chosen because of their importance stated by Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia; which was a group of archaeologists in charge of clearing, restoring, and excavating important ruins in order to preserve them. Arguably, the history of Mayan Revival architecture starts with Stephens and Catherwood’s publications.

Stephens was an American travel writer and Catherwood was a British artist and architect. Both men were deeply interested in the conservation of the ruins and this inspired them to visit and document them while on a trip for president Martin Van Buren of the United States in 1839. They believed that if something was not done soon the ruins would be forgotten forever as they were already reclaimed by the jungle. Although they were not the first travelers to visit and document the ruins, Catherwood was the first to sketch the ruins instead of relying on only photographs. These sketches made it easier for scholars to observe the ruins and also helped dispel the common myth at the time that the ruins were created by indigenous peoples from East Asia or from the Old World.

Besides being an international best-seller, Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán inspired American archeologist Edward H. Thompson to visit Uxmal as well. In 1885 he was sent to Mérida, Mexico as U.S. consul for the Yucatán and Campeche. He conducted his research on Uxmal and Labná while there, and later on became fluent in the Yucatec Maya language due to the extensive amount of time spent studying the ruins. He took his findings and turned them into nine hundred and twenty-nine square meters of plaster models for the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, where he was later employed by the Field Museum to further study the Maya ruins. This exposition was an intellectual world’s fair with exhibits from all over the world. The fair was also a celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the New World, with exhibits featuring artifacts from the past as well as modern advancements. Thompson’s recreated models of the city of Uxmal and the arch of Labná were put on display here for all to see. Thus, the magnificence of Mexico’s ruins was brought to the United States.

The emergence of Mayan Revival architecture in the United States took over architectural and interior design in the early twentieth century due to changing attitudes about tracing genealogy from Native Americans and not from Europe. Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the architects who adopted this form of architecture. He took his inspiration from the architecture of the Maya temple at Uxmal that he saw at Chicago in 1893. Wright’s employer, Louis Sullivan, was in charge of designing a golden archway for the Transportation Building at the fair, so Wright was familiar with the Uxmal and Labná plaster exhibits. It was here that he found his new muse in architecture. He appreciated the openness and earth-like design of the buildings because it felt natural and allowed a way for nature to interact with the architecture. The classic style of architecture and the modern style were boring to him, so he was pleased to find new inspiration. The house he built almost thirty years later, known as the Hollyhock House, was designed in true Maya fashion with an open courtyard and a terraced and slanted roof. It also encompassed the horizontal lines and “textile blocks,” that Mayan ruins were recognized for.

Architects were not the only intellectuals interested in the Mayan Revival architecture. Scholars in the United States also decided to focus on the peoples of the New World. This led them to study indigenous peoples like the Native Americans of the United States and the Maya of Central America in order to identify the aspects of indigenous culture that had previously not been studied due to the dominance of European studies. American scholar and poet William Carlos Williams argued the importance of Maya architecture in modern design in his writings and his argument for reverting back to indigenous roots was featured in Broom magazine in 1922. Other scholars believed it was insensible to look back on a dead past for inspiration in the modern world, but Williams argued otherwise. He believed that looking to the Maya past was great inspiration for the present society because the Maya were able to create great things without the mindset of modernity and discussed this argument further in his writings on American history and society. In his work In the American Grain he states “The land! don’t you feel it? Doesn’t it make you want to go out and lift dead Indians tenderly from their graves to steal from them — as if it must be clinging even to their corpses — some authenticity?” Williams argues in this way that the architecture of the Maya was more “American” than the common European architecture and should be looked to for inspiration in American studies of heritage.

The LDS also took interest in Mayan Revival architecture because of its American indigenous appeal. How did the LDS become associated with Mayan Revival architecture and how did this architecture end up in Mexico City? The Hollyhock House is an important component in this story; because it inspired the LDS to adopt the Mayan Revival style. In the 1930s, just as interest in Mayan Revival architecture was beginning to fade, the LDS administration in the United States decided to adopt the style for their religious buildings and temples; specifically based off of Wright’s Hollyhock House. The idea behind the use of this specific type of architecture by the LDS actually had to do with the nature of their religion due to their interest in indigenous peoples. They look to the past of Native Americans who they believe migrated to the Americas from Israel after 600 BCE and believe that the Maya are related to the indigenous of North America and are therefore also Lamanites or derived from one of the four civilizations that make up their religious past. Originally, ideas for an LDS meetinghouse in Mexico City were planned in 1934 but were never accomplished due to the onslaught of World War II. Eventually, Emil B. Fetzer constructed the LDS temple in 1976 in the Mayan architecture style that Wright used, as originally planned in the 1930s. The fact that Mayan Revival architecture was still used exemplifies the Mayan Revival legacy started by the plaster recreations of Uxmal and Labná.

Upon entering the Templo de la Ciudad de México, the visitor witnesses the beauty and timelessness of Maya architecture that captivated Catherwood when he created his illustrations of Uxmal and Labná. They share in the greatness demanded to be displayed in the form of plaster models created by Thompson at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. They understand how its’ viewers were subsequently captivated, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, and how he was enthralled by the natural beauty of the architecture. They encounter the past that William Carlos Williams found and decided that modern day America needed to look back to it. Just as the beauty of Mayan Revival architecture could not be left in the jungles of the Yucatán, so it also had to be brought back home. The LDS temple was able to achieve this feat eighty-three years after its original display at the Columbian Exposition, and Maya architecture can now be honored as it should have been all those years ago while waiting in the jungle.