Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Statler Hilton Hotel

In 1954 The Statler hotel family was facing an unwanted takeover bid. In response E.M. Statler's widow accepted an alternative offer from Conrad Hilton to keep the Statler properties with "hotel people". The $111,000,000.00 deal became the world's largest real estate transaction and made Hilton the largest hospitality chain in the world. It was decided that such a momentous achievement needed a symbol of success. That symbol would be built in Dallas.

Designed to be the flaghip hotel of the new Statler Hilton chain, The Statler Hilton Hotel in Dallas built in 1956 was unique. The hotel was designed by the renowned architect William Tabler, who introduced several new and exciting construction techniques and materials. Using a cantilevered reinforced flat slab system, Tabler was able to create a soaring building while significantly reducing the obstructions of regular support columns. Outside he opted for colorful porcelain enameled steel and glass, making the Statler Hilton Hotel the first glass sheathed hotel in the nation. When completed at a cost of $16 million, it was hailed as the most modern hotel in the world.

Built with a thousand rooms, convention facilities, showroom and 2000 seat ballroom, the hotel offered unheard of amenities for it's day including a helipad and televisions in every room so you would not have to miss a single episode of GE Playhouse, Ed Sullivan or The ALCOA Hour. Not into television? No problem! Enjoy the rooftop pool, the Empire Room showroom, or just sway to the music in one of the first elevators in the nation to have music piped in for your relaxation.

Opening Day was a glittering four day event with Hollywood stars and politicos
entertained by the dancing Hiltonettes sporting elaborate headdresses representing "the ingredients of Dallas" (Can't you just see a scantily clad woman in an oil derrick hat topped with an ostrich plume "gusher"?). Too fabulous.

Over the years, the Statler Hilton in Dallas hosted headliners like Elvis, Liberace (who had $25,000 worth of jewelry stolen from his room over Valentine's weekend 1974. The thief was caught.), and Robert Clary. Remember Robert Clary? You know, Lebeau from "Hogan's Heroes"? Well, before that he was a Broadway star and had an award winning nightclub act that was booked for a three week engagement in the Empire Room in November 1963.

On November 22, 1963 former Vice President Richard Nixon was attached to a law firm representing Pepsi Cola. He was attending a bottlers convention at the Statler Hilton in Dallas and was enjoying Robert Clary's show with Joan Crawford and her husband who was at that time Pepsi's CEO. I'm afraid any conspiracy rumors connected with JFK's assassination a few blocks away the next morning are nonsense. Or are they? I've always been suspicious of men in berets.

Of course the dems were well represented at the hotel in those early days, too. On March 11, 1962, Vice President Johnson and Lady Bird attended a brunch hosted by the Texas State Society in the Imperial Ballroom where the Cherry Blossom Princess for 1962- Miss Lynda Bird Johnson was presented.

Time marches on. The hotel was subjected to countless "refurbishments", "modernizations", and ill-conceived "re-modelings". The vibrant neighborhood around it decayed and business travellers began frequenting more suburban hotels. In 1988, Hilton Hotels sold the property to Hong Kong investors who re-named it the Dallas Grand. Under their ownership, it really was not so "grand". The hotel grew more seedy and in 2001 it was closed for good.

Enter downtown revitalization! In 2003, the parking garage was razed by the city in order to build the upcoming Main Street Gardens park. The main building was spared and optioned to a California developer who was interested in turning it in to pricey loft style condominiums.

Oops! Remember when I told you that the structure of the building featured "reinforced cantilevered slabs"? That means the ceilings must remain a mid-century modern standard 8 feet high. They can not be raised or cut away without tremendous expense and the risk of collapse. Fine with me, but not so fine to overpriced condo developers.

Ironically, it was the decay of it's neighborhood that caused it's fall and it is now the gorgeous revitalization of it's neighborhood that puts it in imminent danger by increasing the value of the property on which the hotel sits. It seems however, that Dallas doesn't want to give up on her yet. Offering up to $15 million dollars in tax credits and replacement of the razed garage with underground parking, the City Council is trying to get investors to look at the hotel's potential for moderate income housing. The University of North Texas is also in discussions to use a chunk of the building as Student Housing for their new downtown Law School (Having a husband who went to law school during our early years, I can attest their income can not be any more 'moderate').

Despite all these exciting ideas, the building is still very much in danger of demolition. For those of us with a soft spot for the old gal, great news came today. The National Trust for Historic Preservation officially designated it on their 2008 list of the country's most endangered historic places. While an NTHP designation can not guarantee the safety of any building, it is extremely rare when a designee is actually lost. If you would like to see some amazing photgraphs and learn more about this historic Dallas landmark, click here.