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A Touch Of Class
Hartford, On Brink Of Hotel Boom, Recalls Great Hotels Of Past

January 23, 2005

Say the word Hilton these days, and most people think of Paris.

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 hotel.

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 lobby.

"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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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