A Touch Of Class
Hartford, On Brink
Of Hotel Boom, Recalls Great Hotels Of Past
January 23, 2005
By PAT SEREMET, COURANT STAFF
Say the word Hilton these days, and most people think of
Not Paris, home to La Tour Eiffel, but Paris Hilton, the enfant terrible and
headline-grabbing great-granddaughter of grand hotelier Conrad Hilton.
But there was a time in Hartford, starting in 1954, when the Hotel Statler, part
of the combined Hilton and Statler chains, was the talked-about girl in town.
Built for $7 million, it boasted the biggest ballroom in Connecticut - it could
hold 1,200 people - and attracted conventioneers, dignitaries and stars who more
than eclipsed what fleetingly pass for celebrities today.
As Hartford stands at the brink of a hotel-building boom, with the Hilton Hartford
(formerly the Sheraton Hartford) opening March 1 after a $25 million makeover,
and the new $81 million Marriott Hartford Downtown opening in September - both
developed by the Waterford Group - it seems timely to take a trip down the shag-corridor
carpeting of memory lane into the ballroom under the grand chandeliers of yesteryear.
The Hotel Statler, which opened Sept. 7, 1954, knew how to put on the ritz, back
when "hooking up" meant climbing the social ladder instead of using your computer.
Its first public event was held three days after its opening, when 850 people
attended the annual dinner of the Hartford Chamber of Commerce. Conrad Hilton
himself was there to accept the first-ever golden key to the city from Hartford
Mayor Dominic DeLucco. For most people, it was their first glimpse of the new
There were high-society photographs of "out of town guests" like Mr. and Mrs.
Henry Crown of New York. "He heads a real estate holding company that recently
acquired the famed Empire State Building," it said under the couple's picture
in the Hartford Times.
As president of the chamber, Howard E. Critchfield addressed the crowd, saying, "Here
in Hartford, much of our history was made in inns."
And when it came time to introduce Hilton, Critchfield described him as "the
greatest and most romantic hotel man of all time, Conrad Nicholson Hilton."
John Cleary of the Hartford Times wrote of the "distinguished men and exquisitely
gowned and coiffed ladies" at the party but added, "the most popular topic for
table conversation was not the speakers or the fashions, but the Statler Hilton."
Hilton returned the favor by singing the praises of executives of the Aetna Life
and Travelers insurance companies. He called Hartford "a city whose influence
can be felt across America and across the world."
He marveled at the ingenuity of walls that would open with the touch of a button.
He spoke of the shrubs and trees at the entrance - this before "curb appeal" was
invented. And he described the décor of cool greens and rich reds existing "side
by side without offending the eye."
And let's not forget that one of the old Hilton's greatest assets was the views,
as Carl Candels, who was executive vice president for 28 years of the Connecticut
Hotel-Motel Association, points out. The windows in the gleaming blue-steel exterior
provided sweeping views of the State Capitol, the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial
Arch and Bushnell Park.
Other facts impressed Paul J.C. Friedlander, who wrote in The New York Times
Sept. 12, 1954, that single rooms at the Hilton started at $5.50, and the hotel
had "television sets in every room."
"The whole décor smacked of New York," said Paul Landerman, whose orchestra
played at that gala and eventually provided music six nights a week at the hotel. "The
Terrace Room [at the hotel] became the hottest nightclub around."
Presidents, governors and senators regularly held conventions there, with stars
like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. turning heads as they passed through the
"When it first opened, it was special and glamorous," said Rhoda Chase, who was
president in the '80s of what was later called the Parkview Hilton. "People had
seen nothing like it."
The Statler Hilton followed Hartford's proud hotel heritage.
Before the Statler opened (it was torn down in 1990 and is now a parking lot),
the prominent hotel was the Hotel Bond, which reigned as the grand old girl on
the street, opening in two phases in 1913 and 1921. The Bond had the magnificent
top-floor ballroom for elegant banquets (once again open for posh social events).
The hotel industry has undergone a major shift, from concentrating on glitzy
ballrooms and meeting rooms to guest rooms, said Suzanne Hopgood of Hartford,
president of the Hopgood Group, a business consulting company with a specialty
in hotel consulting.
"You don't have the big black-tie events," she said. "Today, people want money
spent in guest rooms and bathrooms. And they want high-end electronics."
With new hotels emphasizing their state-of-the-art technology and wireless computer
hook-ups, it would seem that people are more interested in clicking on the mouse
than putting on the ritz.
Len Wolman, principal of the Waterford Group, assures that the new Hilton can
do both: have public space that's airy, bright and inviting; have an "exciting
bar and restaurant"; and also have guest rooms to accommodate the traveler who
wants to order in and plug in (his computer).
But time will tell if there will be any big ballroom fetes like those in old
Hartford. Whereas the new Hilton will have only a quiet ribbon-cutting when it
opens, the Marriott Hartford Downtown is planning a giant Beaux Arts Ball with
a "Moulin Rouge" theme for its grand opening Sept. 10.Because Hopgood's parents
were in the hotel business, and her father was president of the New England Innkeepers
Association in the '60s, they would take her as a little girl to galas at hotels
like the Statler Hilton, Parker House and Copley Plaza in Boston.
"They were big-ticket, elegant hotels," she said, "and they were really big affairs."
Hopgood said that contemporary hotels are looking for "the younger, hip crowd." She
had just spent a night last week at The 70 Park Avenue Hotel in Manhattan (run
by Kimpton Hotels), and besides being wired for wireless computers, it also featured
a 40-inch flat-screen TV on the wall and a speaker and stereo where you could
plug in your i-Pod.
As someone who knows the hotel industry and the Hartford scene, Hopgood said, "With
the convention center, we have two brand-new hotels. We've got some opportunities
we haven't had since 1979, when I came here."
Wolman predicts a synergy between the two large downtown properties.
"Each will have its own personality, but there will be an equality of service
and product," Wolman said. "And as you look around, you see the city is going
through a real renaissance."
Or, as Conrad Hilton said at that chamber dinner in the Hotel Statler on Sept.
10, 1954, "Hartford has more than a history, it has a promise."
Among other percolating hotel projects is aproposal for the former Bond Hotel
to be converted into a Homewood Suites, and a plan to develop Hartford's Capewell
factory near Adriaen's Landing into two hotels.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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