Granted, this isn’t normally the kind of “Mayan” architecture I blog about, but in a distant sense, it’s related. Today I’m going to show you a bit of Denver history — the historic Mayan Theater, one of a few surviving examples of Mayan Revival style architecture.
The Mayan was built in 1930, in the face of the Great Depression, in an era when recent archaeological discoveries had stirred interest in the U.S. in things “exotic.” A wave of movie theaters were built with design elements borrowed from ancient Egypt, and in this case, Mesoamerica.
Mayan Revival style in some sense started as an attempt to synthesize a modern version of an “all American” design style — taking architectural elements from a variety of ancient Mesoamerican structures, and shuffling them around as needed to form a new aesthetic. As a result, although it’s called the Mayan Theater, you can see stylistic touches borrowed from other cultures in the western hemisphere — Aztec and Inca, as well as some themes from a variety of Native American tribes. But all were reshaped in a playful, often gaudy sort of way. Even the lighting was custom designed to fit the motif.
As a still-operational theater, the Mayan isn’t a place you’d normally take your camera gear to. But fortunately, the Mayan was a stop on this year’s Doors Open Denver weekend, so along with being open to photography, visitors could make reservations for a talk on the history of the place by Chris Citron, the “godmother” of the theater (that’s her with the mic below).
To make a long story short, the Mayan was nearly torn down in the 1980s by a development company that thought it’d be worth more as a (small) parking lot. After two years of struggle, Chris and a band of helpers (with ample assistance from the then-Mayor of Denver, a U.S. Congresswoman, and a civic-minded buyer) managed to save it from the wrecking ball.
Add nearly a million dollars of cleanup and refurbishment, and the Mayan was reborn — although admittedly, many of the artistic elements that once thrilled and puzzled visitors are nearly comical to a modern eye.
For what it’s worth, those terra cotta figures flanking the main screen were intended to get people just a little on edge, to add to the excitement of the movie experience.