By Terry Trucco
Normally, the New York Hilton isn’t one of those hotels that revels in its history with vintage photos and menus encased in glass in the lobby.
But on June 26th, the hotel celebrated its 50th anniversary with a big party in the airy duplex where Lucille Ball once lived. And for one night, at least, it was easy to time travel to the Hilton in its mid-century glory days, when the Rockettes high-kicked in the ballroom the night before the hotel opened, the Beatles checked into the penthouse when they performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, and Tab and Bacardi was something you might actually want to drink.
From a 21st century standpoint it’s hard to imagine a time when the New York Hilton didn’t
loom 44 stories above Avenue of the Americas. But back to 1959, when real estate impresario William Zeckendorf announced plans for “the greatest hotel ever built,” Sixth Avenue’s full line-up of skyscrapers was not yet in place. Two years later, a partnership formed between the Uris real estate developers, the Rockefeller Group, which wanted a stake in a hotel on the avenue, and Hilton Hotels Corporation, which replaced Zeckendorf as developer of the new hotel.
What was The New York Hilton at Rockefeller Center, to use its given name, like in its earliest days, when rooms cost between $12 and $24? I talked with hotel historian Mark E. Young, director of the Hotel Industry Archives at the University of Houston, home to Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management. And yes, having a television and radio in every room was a big deal in 1963.
Conrad Hilton operated a fleet of hotels by the time the New York Hilton opened. Why was this hotel so important to him?
He owned several hotels in New York, including the Waldorf, which was grand and glorious. But he wanted something modern and up-to-date with all the bells and whistles of the technology of the time. Another thing that’s often overlooked was the symbolic meaning of this hotel being part of Rockefeller Center. When you think of someone like Conrad Hilton, born and raised in territorial New Mexico in very humble beginnings, owning and operating a hotel with the Rockefeller Brothers had a lot of symbolism.
It was New York City’s biggest hotel with 2,165 rooms and a $75 million price tag ($570 million today), but what else what made the opening of the New York Hilton newsworthy?
What people forget was there had been no new big hotels built in New York after 1931. It was understandable when you think of how many hotels went under during the Depression. And no one built during the war. The first new hotel was The Americana [now the Sheridan New York Times Square], which opened in 1962. The Hilton came next.
And the two hotels stand a block apart. How would the average person back then have reacted upon seeing the Hilton for the first time?
This was the era of the slab building. And from the perspective of most people back then, slab buildings were a big Wow!
What’s one of the building’s most notable details?
The windows were designed so you could lean out and look down the street. The technique was called Vista Vision, and it was creative back then. It cost more than plate glass, but it gave the customers something extra. The windows also had blue tinting to keep the sun from shining into the room.
We don’t hear much about William Tabler, the hotel’s architect, these days. Why was he chosen?
They chose him because he had done hotels already. He’d designed the Dallas Statler Hilton, the first hotel with Hilton’s name on it, and the Pittsburgh Hilton, which opened in 1958. One of the things the Hilton management felt strongly about was having control of what went in the hotel because they knew how hotels operated. They wanted a hotel built as a hotel. Tabler had worked with them before and had worked well. I know he’s out of fashion right now, but he made classic mid-century buildings. He later did the Washington Hilton.
Though Conrad Hilton was in his 70s during the planning of the New York Hilton, he was involved in every step. What was one of his biggest concerns?
He was concerned about the square footage of the rooms. In particular, would the bathrooms be big enough for the guests? And would the guests like them? In the first half of the 20th century, E.M. Staler was the hotel man, and he worked out the formula for how to do hotel bathrooms. But his hotels were primarily geared to salesmen, so they had small rooms with small bathrooms. In the 1920s the idea of having your own private bathroom was enough since not so long before the average hotel guest would have expected to share a bath. But Hilton was going after a different audience, a more sophisticated business and leisure traveler, and he was concerned that the bathrooms be big enough to attract that kind of guest.
It’s hard to imagine a guest room today without a TV even in the sleaziest motel, but not in 1963. What other amenities at the New York Hilton were noteworthy for the time?
Back in the 50s Baron Hilton made the case that television wasn’t a passing fad and that all the hotels needed TVs. Each room also had a radio. The telephones had direct dial so you didn’t have to go through the hotel operator to make a call. And the hotel had a central electronics system, so wherever you shopped, whether it was one of the restaurants or the gift shop, your charges would go electronically onto your bill. In the past someone had to pull together all the receipts and add them up manually before you checked out. If they couldn’t pull everything together in time, you might get a second bill later.
Hotel air conditioning is something else we take for granted, but it wasn’t always an amenity.
Hilton spent millions of dollars in the late 50s to air condition every room in his hotels. Up until the 50s none of the big New York or Chicago hotels had air-conditioning. Hilton did an analysis and decided if they retrofitted all the grand hotels with air-conditioning it would cost several million dollars. So they were worried about making their money back. But in the summertime all the convention business dried up. Once they air-conditioned their hotels, they created the 12-month convention business.
Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic of The New York Times, deemed the new Hilton one of “today’s slickly designed commercial structures [that] more and more frequently resemble a product, a machine, or a package.” Do you think Conrad Hilton cared?
He wouldn’t have liked it, but he wouldn’t have lost sleep over it. I think from his perspective he would have found her a little high falutin. As long as there were paying guests, that’s what mattered to him.
The New York Hilton, 1335 Avenue of the Americas; 212 576-7000. A special 50th anniversary package includes a $50 food credit at the hotel, discounts at local attractions and a commemorative mug.