Egypt is captivating America. It has for more than a century. Just look at this room fit for a pharaoh and built by a mogul in Altadena.
After the Civil War, the country roared to global prominence with manufacturing wealth and a lot of showing off by the rich. One of the flashier men at the top was the cofounder of the Rand McNally map company, Andrew McNally. In 1880, he rolled into town from the Midwest and later picked up 15 acres along Mariposa Street. He lured his friends to adjoining luxury lots and made it a millionaires’ row. By East Coast standards, Mariposa was a country lane. For greater L.A., it was a boulevard for vacationing business pashas.
At first, McNally was snuggly comfortable in the shingled villa designed for him by Pasadena architect Frederick L. Roehrig. But in 1893 the sultan of maps, along with more than 20 million tourists, saw an ancient wonder in Chicago that inspired him to decorating splendor.
That year, in the Windy City, a World’s Fair opened where competing spectacles boasting of national prowess included a life-size knight in prunes from California and a Norwegian Viking ship. Egypt’s display was unique. The country, burdened with debt from overexpansion, turned to history for representation. It sent a replica of the temple of Luxor, in wood faux-finished to look like stone. Its perfection was a triumph, its design romantic and alluring. Most important, it showed a young country aspiring to nobility what great societies create and preserve.
Street-paving and skyscraper-building Americans were feeling important but insecure, sensing they lacked the polish of a civilization. In no mood to wait millenniums for cultural patina, Americans adopted historic styles for home design. Neo-Greek, neo-French, neo-Tudor and neo-Gothic were the rage in the 19th century. With the Chicago fair, neo-Egyptian and Islamic decoration got a boost. After all, what better way to glory than to imitate a country then considered the cradle of the West?
Newspaper accounts reported that McNally, an organizer of the fair, picked up furniture displayed by Egypt at the exposition. He shipped it to Altadena and in 1896 hired Roehrig to design a wing to house it.
The architect was ideal for the job. Not only was he trained in the neo styles, but he was the son of renowned Orientalist Frederick L.O. Roehrig. The Prussia-born professor was a scholar of Middle Eastern and Western languages, recognized by the sultan of Turkey for his knowledge of Ottoman grammar. He moved from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., to Los Angeles and in 1896 taught Sanskrit at the new California State Normal School that became UCLA.
In a 25-by-25-foot addition to McNally’s house, Roehrig installed a domed, octagonal room, paneled and painted with Arabic letters. Pierced screens and ogee arches along the walls glowed in shades of tangerine, gold and azure blue. Colored glass in a brass lantern shimmered, illuminating decorations essential to every fashionable Oriental parlor: a hookah pipe, inlaid ivory tables, stools and a recessed, embroidered banquette. Opposite a painting of a mosque on a hill was a picture window facing Pasadena. When all was done, Roehrig had turned to ancient Egypt to glamorize a house in the modern Mediterranean West.
McNally was among several Angelenos inspired by the East. Oilman Edward Doheny at Chester Place, artist Eva Fényes in Pasadena and the Jonathan Club in downtown L.A. had Oriental rooms. Today only the Altadena den survives, without its furnishings, as part of the historic McNally house, still a private residence.
On the road to greatness, nations rise and fall. Their leaders come and go, their cities go up and they come down. Houses are built and they are demolished. Along the way the Middle East continues to inspire.