In 1928, the Gadsden Hotel was ravaged by fire, leaving only the elevator intact but with nowhere to go. The remedy was to rebuild the hotel (first was constructed in 1907), but on a much grander scale. No expense was spared: The latest technologies, including early air-conditioning and a state-of-the-art switchboard, were installed, and the most luxurious accommodations were outfitted with every amenity including bathrooms in every room. The new hotel was designed to thrill and inspire its guests, and the centerpiece was the creation of its stained-glass windows of the Sonoran Desert landscape.
Ralph Baker (1886-1961) designed these eye-dazzling windows while working for L.W. Hoffecker’s stained glass studios in El Paso where he moved following a stint in the army during World War I. Baker originally learned his craft from his father, who once operated a workshop in New York City along with his grandfather who was originally a noted artisanal glazier in London. To hone his craft, Baker studied with Louis Comfort Tiffany for more than a year, and distinct Tiffanic influences are evident in the Gadsden windows.
Framed by the windows is a western-themed painting by Audley Dean Nichols (1875-1941) entitled Cave Creek Canyon - Chiricahua Mountains. Known as one of the “Purple Mountain Painters,” Nichols was a prominent member of a group of artists who popularized and mythologized western landscapes. His work continues to feature conspicuously in exhibitions of western art, and the Gadsden painting is often cited as one of his finest creations.
Baker’s work, likewise, is acclaimed throughout the Southwest, especially the Gadsden installation. Sadly, the Great Depression shattered the stained glass business, and in the 1930s, Baker beveled toward the general and auto glass fields. However, the family business is still around and continues to operate several offices in El Paso to this day.
Meanwhile, the Gadsden Hotel similarly experienced its share of vicissitudes. At its height, the hotel hosted Hollywood glitterati like Paul Newman and Ava Gardner as studios hustled to satisfy the public’s appetite for old west movies, some of which were filmed in and around Douglas. But, as with all things, the hotel eventually fell into disrepair. Happily, in 2016, the hotel was purchased with the intent to restore its former glory, and it is reemerging a focal point of the city.
Today, guests entering the cavernous reception hall can once again marvel at the hotel’s artwork and soaring pink marble columns with 24k gold leafing gleaming from the empyrean light permeating Baker’s windows.