Each season of American Horror Story has centered on a spooky location: a haunted house, a mental hospital, a creepy old school, and a carnival full of freaks and geeks. For its fifth iteration, appropriately subtitled Hotel, the production design team of AHS, who were nominated for three Emmys, unleash their most stunning creation yet: the Hotel Cortez.
According to the show’s lore, the hotel was built in 1930 by a murderer named James March (Evan Peters) and in modern day serves as home to bloodsucking villainess the Countess (Lady Gaga). The hotel is not only her abode but also a place full of dark corners where she can kill … and hide the evidence.
“This show is crack cocaine for designers,” says production designer Mark Worthington, whose team built the two-story lobby — the Cortez’s crown jewel, complete with a second-floor bar and working elevator — in just seven weeks. “It’s not just creating fun scenery that looks like a nice background — you’re creating scenery that’s a character.” Here, Worthington walks us through the lobby and reveals the inspiration for the grand set.
While there’s no specific hotel the Cortez is based on, Worthington said he was inspired by art-deco architects William Van Alen and Timothy Pflueger. “Tonally, I thought [art deco] would make sense for the horror genre because it can be dark and spiky and odd and the composition is strange. It’s beautiful, but it isn’t necessarily inviting.”
Above the hotel’s elaborate staircase is a giant metal portrait of the notorious explorer the hotel is named after. Worthington says he thought Cortez would be the perfect first sight upon entering. “He’s a great image for the hotel because he was sort of a brutal and nasty, venal conquistador.”
DEVIL IN THE DETAILS
Nearly everything in the Cortez has been created by Worthington and his team, from the bar coasters to the keys featuring the hotel insignia to the central light fixtures. They even included tiny homages, like column carvings of a Venus flytrap. “A little bit of a cheeky joke, but it’s obviously an image that’s perfect for this season and for Gaga,” explains Worthington. “That’s really her character.”
STAIRWAY TO HELL
“Every year in the main big set we have a staircase,” explains Worthington. “Ryan [Murphy] loves a staircase, and so do I. So the genesis of any staircase has to do with avoiding what has been done in the past.” The staircase also had to allow room for the elevator, which will serve as a key location for much of Hotel’s action.