Originally Published: December 9, 2017 6 a.m.
Just below the front and side roof lines of the historic, dark brick Hotel St. Michael is a row of ornamental stone circles some historians and long-time residents suggest is sculptured satire.
The less-than-flattering stone carved faces have sported lots of speculation for more than a century.
Was it an act of revenge aimed at pompous politicos and civic leaders who thwarted the vision of architects assigned to rebuild the glamorous cornerstone of Whiskey Row after the Great Fire of 1900 reduced it to rubble? Was it a tribute to the frontier theatrical troupe known as “The Horribles,” a high-spirited group of prominent men who dressed up in “horrible” costumes to entertain crowds at the annual Fourth of July parade? Or are they non-traditional gargoyles intended to protect the guests and visitors who come to dine, shop and stay at the elegant hotel long known as the “Grand Dame of Prescott?”
From historians’ stories and archival documents, the then Hotel Burke underwent several expansions and remodeling in its early years. In 1894, a third story was added complete with elegant exterior decorations and a corner turret that occupied the second and third floors. An ornate concave roof piece added “visual appeal” to the Gurley Street wing, according to Sharlot Hall archives.
When rebuilt in 1901, the new hotel’s exterior proved less ornate than the original, although it did retain a third floor with basement store spaces that on the Gurley Street slope toward Goodwin make it appear as almost a four-story structure. The name change occurred in 1907 when Burke sold out his share.
The one new feature was the faces that wrap around the hotel.
Prescott native and historian Melissa Ruffner said the faces have long been a source of intrigue to visitors and natives alike.
“This town has run on gossip since the day it was conceived,” Ruffner said.
The author of “Prescott: A Pictorial History,” Ruffner has guided many tours on downtown streets and she said she always points them out because “they are so obvious.”
On one of her tours in the 1980s, Ruffner said she was delivered the most plausible explanation.
A lady who identified herself as a relative of one of the 1901 architects said the faces were the result of posturing between the Knights of Pythias, whose claim to fame was Prescott’s “territorial skyscraper,” the tallest building in the frontier that managed to survive the Great Fire. The building today is home to the Tis’ Gallery on Cortez Street.
Most of what transpired during that period is mired in mystery, but the relative and other historians agree that city and civic leaders balked at some of the restructuring plans, particularly those that would have expanded the footprint and height of the hotel.
The hotel’s new design apparently would have made it a rival to the Knights’ structure, and so there was some tug-of-war between the hotel owners, the Knights and city leaders over the final hotel appearance, Ruffner recalled of the relatives’ story.
And the Knights prevailed, she said.
A close look at some on the Montezuma Street side of the hotel appear to be wearing hats that were the style adopted by the Knights of Pythias; a narrow, triangular Napoleon-type cap worn back to front, Ruffner said. Others sport exaggerated features and odd facial expressions.
A Chicago writer in 2006 penned a blog, “Walking Prescott,” that surmised from her research the appearance of the circle faces was a form of architectural defiance aimed at the then-powers that be.
Archivists at Sharlot Hall found at least three references to the hotel’s faces: one describes them as “crude images of local politicians;” another calls them gargoyles intended to protect the guests and visitors; and the third is one that suggests the carvings were a form of “revenge” against the “prominent men of the time.”
History and hauntings buff Darlene Wilson said she heard a story that the architects initially proposed incorporating the council members’ faces into the façade as an incentive to approve their building plans. When the final vote went against their wishes, Wilson said the carvings were still included, but with an unexpected, unflattering, twist.
“My bet is that these were among some of the first caricatures,” she said.
The most benign theory is the one about the faces being a tribute to “The Horribles.”
All of these stories are strictly conjecture, said Sharlot Hall Executive Director Fred Veil.
Ruffner said it is likely no one will ever know the truth. But it is fun to speculate.
“Basically, they are whatever you think they are,” she concluded.