It’s hard not to notice the former Statler Hilton Hotel (last operated as the Dallas Grand) when driving east on Commerce in downtown Dallas. The Y-shaped building is a mammoth archetype of midcentury-modern architecture. Its flat-slab structural system, the first full application of its kind, was cutting edge in 1956, but now … well, it’s looking a little slumped.
It’s a vacant reminder of a time when the economy was booming -- a building that many people don’t want to see demolished. However, it costs money -- a lot of money -- to fix the structural issues that have resulted from its sub-grade (below street level) water problem. But who is legally responsible for its fate? The owners who keep getting ticketed by the city despite efforts to stay up to code, or the city?
Attorney for the company (a subsidiary of a publicly held fund based in China) that owns the hotel, Tom Keen denies that they have ever been approached by any buyers who expressed intentions to demolish the Statler Hotel. But that wasn’t always the case.
Spared from demolition in 2003, the Statler Hotel was designed by New York architect William Tabler, who designed more than 400 hotels before his death in 2004. He designed the 376-room New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge, 333 Adams Street in Brooklyn, which opened in 1998, and the 714-room Grand Hyatt Cairo, which opened in 2000. Tabler designed Hilton hotels in Baltimore, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and St. Paul; Statler hotels in Dallas and Hartford; and InterContinental hotels worldwide. Three of his most notable manifestations of his clean style are New York Hilton near Rockefeller Center, the 12-story Washington Hilton overlooking Connecticut Avenue and the 1,200-room Hilton in San Francisco, built near Union Square in 1964.
As historic as it is neglected, the 20-story Statler Hotel still stands, made from steel and glass that required material orders clearance from the War Production Authority in Washington.
“Its existence is iconic. The post WWII period really was Dallas’ coming out time architecturally and even socially. The Statler so excellently captures all of that, having used the same old building materials in such a different way than was ever used before. It’s bold and exuberant with its blue porcelain panels,” said Katherine Seale, director of Preservation Dallas… her voice trailing off quietly.
Whether or not post-modern American architecture is “your thing”, the general consensus is that the hotel should stay.
He took a run at the Statler Hotel a few years ago, but didn’t receive a response from the owners at the time. He later denied an offer to invest in the hotel because he wasn’t sure of a successful pay off at the price it would cost to take part. Despite the Statler Hotel not taking up space on Hamilton’s impressive real estate roster (Dallas Power Light Building, Mosaic and the Davis Building) Hamilton’s speaks with conviction as hard as concrete about the its importance.
“It’s worth an awful lot to downtown Dallas. The strength of downtown is its representation of this beautiful pastiche of architectural history. We have all these different buildings built at different time periods. You can’t re-create the urban fabric that already exists so why try?” said Hamilton.
And so it sits on the market, collecting pigeon droppings and emitting a musty odor that smells like the inside of a house having an estate sale.
Thus, for obvious, albeit fiscal reasons, the current owners said they prefer to sell to a company that doesn’t plan to demolish the hotel -- that would lower the selling price. For now, as the economy continues to languish like the soft water stains on its faded façade, the Statler Hotel remains on the The National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
“Buildings from the late ‘50s are generally recognized by architects, but it’s not common for the general public to have awareness about them. Now the Statler is gaining popularity ever since it was put on the endangered list,” said Seale.
But Keen insists the current owners are doing more than just trying to get the lights turned on since Mayor Tom Leppert and other city officials announced the city’s Downtown Vacant Buildings Initiative last year.
“We’ve been trying to comply with the city’s ordinances all year doing clean up and minor prep work,” said Keen.
THE THREE ‘P’S
The Statler Hotel’s fate is most affected by parking, politics and a park. The hotel’s parking lot across the street from it was demolished to clear the way for Main Street Park. According to Seale, former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller made a deal with Forest City, forcing a tight deadline making it impossible to build underground parking (for the Statler Hotel) in time. It takes a pretty penny to build underground parking, especially in such ugly economic times, and street level parking lots are cash cows for the city.
“I’m skeptical of anyone with blue skies expectations’ because if it were demolished and became a surface parking ad interim, well it would just sit there for a very long time as the powers that be decided what to do. And surface parking lots can last just as long as buildings do,” Hamilton says.
The ramifications of demolishing the hotel will adversely affect Main Street Park. Imagine Central Park, on a much smaller scale but without the buildings that create that proverbial “concrete jungle” that encapsulates the park. There goes your escape from the city within the city, and you’re just hanging out in the burbs or some other hood with nothing really going on. There’s energy to any city and parks can either invigorate or interrupt it.
“It’s especially important to keep the Statler Hotel in regard to Main Street Park. You need a visual edge to maintain the beauty of an urban park. One of the most dramatic things about Main Street Park is that buildings surround it. Take away the Statler, put in a parking lot -- and the edge will just bleed off. Parks in the city can easily become no man’s land and mess up the continuity of the city’s architectural flow,” Hamilton agrees.
Ultimately it all comes down to flow -- as in cash. The Statler’s uncertain future and storied past reminds us of a wayward friend who has fallen upon hard times. Everyone has one, a really cool friend who talks about how great things were ‘back in the day’. You’re compelled to clean them up to help them stand on their own again. Thus, your friend becomes an investment … a project, one worth saving if you can afford it. Hopefully, the powers that be can reach a decision merging the preservation of this iconic building that will benefit the city as well. The possibilities with such a grand space are limitless.
“Why not re-create some portion of it and call it the ‘Hotel Retro?” Hamilton muses.
That’s one idea worth keeping right there.