In Denver, Colorado, modern architecture, contemporary literature and a Hollywood movie converged in one grand and ambitious project. Modern sculpture was almost included to the mix. In 1938, Harry Huffman, a Denver movie theatre owner, completed construction on a mansion in Denver. It was not your traditional mansion of the American West. Its inspiration came from a little farther east. Okay, a lot farther east – – Tibet. Well, sort of. Its inspiration came from Hollywood’s version of Tibet, as depicted in the 1937 film, Lost Horizon. The home, designed by architect Raymond Harry Ervin, is grand and elegant in the streamline modern style. Huffman and Ervin created a bit of Shangri-La in the Denver hills, with more than a little inspiration from Hollywood.
The film Lost Horizon was directed by Frank Capra and starred Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton, H.B. Warner and Sam Jaffe. The sets were designed by art director, Stephen Goossen, who was a trained architect before he became an art director. He won an Oscar for his design work on the film. Huffman was no stranger to looking abroad for building inspiration. One of his Denver theatres, the Aladdin (demolished in the 1980s), was modeled after the Taj Mahal.
Arnold Rönnebeck met with Mr. Huffman in August or September of 1938 and subsequently produced several sketches of proposed sculptures for the grounds of Denver’s Shangri-La. As far as I am aware, none of the pieces were executed. In the archives I have found only one page of a September 13, 1938 letter from Rönnebeck to Harry Huffman discussing this potential project and it sheds little light the subject. In it, Rönnebeck writes that he wants to “help round out the spirit expressed in Shangri-La and its mysterious background, ‘Lost Horizon’. You encouraged me to put such ideas on paper, in the form of sketches. This I have done.”
The first drawing shows the front of the home, with the proposed sculpture, Spirit of Hospitality, positioned near the entrance. In the 1933 novel, while recounting to Robert Conway the story of how Father Perrault arrived at Shangri-La, the High Lama says, “There, to his joy and surprise, he found a friendly and prosperous population who made haste to display what I have always regarded as our oldest tradition – – that of hospitality to strangers”. In the second panel, on the left we have a detail sketch of the Spirit of Hospitality. In this sculpture, the hands are significant. The Buddha’s right hand is in the “Karana mudra” position. This powerful gesture expels negative energy. Perfect for the entry of a home.
On the right, The High Lama. The High Lama is the closest connection to the film with its depiction of Sam Jaffe, the actor who played the High Lama in the film. This sculpture was to be on the reverse of the Birth of Buddha fountain, seen in third drawing. The fourth sketch depicts a seated Buddha sculpture by of a pond and waterfall. In this Buddha, the hand positions symbolize the earth as the witness to his enlightenment.
Rönnebeck’s oil painting, White Lotus of Lhasa, c1941, would seem to be inspired by either or both of the novel and film as well. The painting shows the Buddhist hand gesture signifying the expulsion of negative energy, the same one he depicted in the Spirit of Hospitality sketch. The lotus flower symbolizes enlightenment, purity, devotion or rebirth.
Given the state of the world in the 1930s and 1940s, everyone was looking for their own Shangri-La, be it in Tibet, Hollywood, Denver, or even Maryland. In 1938, the WPA completed construction on a presidential retreat in Maryland. In 1942, President Roosevelt named the retreat Shangri-La. In 1953, President Eisenhower renamed it Camp David. I prefer Shangri-La. Throughout his life, Rönnebeck was on a spiritual quest. This quest influenced his work in different ways over the years. Perhaps his participation in this project was, in a small part, a continuation of that quest.