In light of the re-opening of the Hotel Pattee on Nov. 5, I think it is a good time to reflect upon how we, as members of the Perry community, view the building.
There is no question that the interior is rich and sumptuous, a warm place to gather with friends and celebrate special occasions.
Growing up in Perry, I constantly heard leaders tout the hotel’s importance in a spirit of civic pride, hoping the community would claim it as their own and support it financially.
However, there is certainly another way we can to relate to the hotel that is particularly interesting to consider now that it is open to the public.
There is a much deeper connection between us and our historical landmark than physical location—a connection to larger strains of history.
The Midwestern values of engagement, agriculture and community are voiced in the somewhat unassuming interior design of the hotel, and this Arts and Crafts decorative style shares a unique, paradoxical relationship with our town’s beginnings.
The truth is that the hotel’s Arts and Crafts style not only represents a seismic shift in the way design was done in the late 19th century but is also a direct reaction to the industrial technologies that made mass production of railroads and automobiles possible.
In effect, the Arts and Crafts movement is a response to the same historical events and technologies that founded Perry – the railroad and the Industrial Revolution.
To give a very brief review of some history and context, the Industrial Revolution ushered in James Watt’s steam engine and mass factory production fueled by raw materials and cheap labor.
Factories systematically processed raw materials into finished products, such as textiles and numerous other goods that could be shipped across the country.
Nowhere were these changes more evident and groundbreaking than in Chicago, the birthplace of the skyscraper and the location of the largest and most respected stockyards in the United States.
Chicago was also the home to Sears and Roebuck, a company that epitomized the benefits of the railroad and mass-production.
Their infamous, large catalogue offered anything and everything to the American family, and their goods, created in factories and purchased by the company in bulk, were transported via rail to train stations and homes nationwide.
Since these goods were mass-produced by machines run by unskilled laborers in a fraction of the time required by artisans to create similar products by hand, it comes as no surprise that the latter were quickly out of work.
These unemployed craftspeople helped bring about the rise of the Labor movement – as it became more economical to buy from factories, fewer consumers chose to buy from craftspeople and artisans.
Adding to this changing technology and consequent shift in the relations of owners to wage workers, cities like Chicago were unprepared for the sudden population influx that came with a large body of laborers. This meant housing shortages, slums, the spread of disease, unsafe working conditions and a harsh class divide.
The same miraculous technology that was connecting the different parts of our vast country was simultaneously dividing and harming its citizens, namely, those who lived in large cities and factory towns. Furthermore, factory workers were being trained in mechanical skills, not technical work, essentially de-skilling the creative process by breaking it into the many small steps of assembly-line production.
Enter William Morris, an Englishman and one of several society figures who were reacting negatively to the side-effects of Industrialization. While he was not trained as an artist or artisan – he studied theology – Morris became famous for creating a new model for "making," in which a collaboration of free-minded people would work in different media, such as painting and woodworking.
This attitude was primarily inspired by agrarian (farm) culture, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and Morris chose the craft tradition to inspire his new design movement. He did this because he felt that consumers had become disengaged from the process of making. Not only were people unaware of materials’ origins - they did not know how the objects they purchased and used were made.
These ideas led Morris to become a jack of all trades. Over the span of his career, he taught himself to weave, print, build, design, brew, engrave and etch. Many of his works are still considered seminal in the history of design. In his lifetime, his philosophy was adopted by a group known as the Guild, who worked side-by-side on an abandoned farm reviving old and nearly lost craft traditions.
His methods were not without weaknesses. While certainly committed to the idea of collective work, Morris strongly believed in a gendered division of labor, allowing women to work only with textiles and other historically female-associated crafts.
In addition, his generous use of the color green proved to be fatal, as it contained large amounts of arsenic and was a fertile breeding ground for mold. Despite these drawbacks, he refused to change his practices.
Nevertheless, many of Morris’ ideas have lingered and influenced different movements and styles. Both Stickley furniture and Mission-style furniture were born from the practices of Morris & Co. Their plain style and focus on functionality continued to connect them with the land, as did the Regionalist movement, popularized by such artists as Grant Wood and Frank Lloyd Wright. In the Hotel Pattee you can find this inspiration in the furniture, color schemes, materials and in much of the contemporary art.
As Midwesterners, we know we are provided for by the land. We know what hard work and respect for labor it takes to harvest the crops, and our families value the close relationships with others that come with living and working in a state with a rich agrarian heritage.
While our town was built out of need for the railroad, our respect for the land is most prominent in our heritage. It is this attitude that the hotel embodies. The building is itself an expression of protest against and rejection of the very forces and powers that brought it into being.
I cannot offer a resolution to this paradox, but it is worth thinking about, maybe over a cup of coffee in the Willis Library while surrounded by depictions of both craft and industrial toil.
I hope this awareness of the tensions the Hotel Pattee embodies—between labor and capital, farm and factory and handmade beauty and mass-market ugliness—will give us a different appreciation for its role as a Perry landmark and encourage us to be aware of what an historical treasure we have in the building.