16 Jun AiroAV Antivirus Reports: El Paso Hilton building’s rebirth as Plaza Hotel renews…
The El Paso Hilton was a symbol of hope and confidence in the city’s future when it was born in 1930 in the midst of the Great Depression.
Ninety years later, it’s again becoming a symbol of renewed hope for a better future, especially for Downtown revitalization, as it’s reborn in the midst of a world pandemic and recession as the independent Plaza Hotel Pioneer Park.
The new hotel’s owner, El Paso businessman Paul Foster, and his management group “could have put this (opening) off. Moving forward is a shot of confidence on many levels,” said Joe Gudenrath, executive director of the El Paso Downtown Management District.
The renovated, 130-room, upscale, boutique hotel, located at 106 W. Mills Ave. and Oregon St., in the heart of Downtown, is scheduled to open June 17 with a low-key ceremony. The 10 a.m., private ceremony is to be livestreamed via the Plaza’s Facebook and Instagram pages.
The El Paso Hilton was the brainchild of Conrad Hilton, and helped launch what became one of the nation’s great hotel chains after he almost went bankrupt.
The 19-story hotel, which was El Paso’s tallest building in 1930, became a symbol of a progressing El Paso, and as Hilton wrote in his autobiography, “Be My Guest:” “A miracle of hope, a flag flown confidently in the face of adversity.”
An El Paso Times article estimated the Nov. 6, 1930, opening of the hotel drew about 15,000 people. Hilton called that number a “slight exaggeration.” However, he said, people came from all over Texas and New Mexico to not only see the new hotel, but to get reassurance at a time when “almost everyone was talking doom.”
The newly renovated Plaza Hotel is the product of Foster, an El Paso billionaire who’s made Downtown revitalization one of his causes. He renovated the Mills office building, and plans to renovate the vacant, former Kress department store building — both across the street from the hotel.
Besides the ironic parallel of the Plaza opening in another extremely difficult economic time, there’s also the parallel of two entrepreneurial giants bringing their visions to fruition, said Bill Helm, co-owner of In Situ Architecture, the El Paso architectural firm that served as a consultant on historical details involved with the renovation. The renovation’s lead architecture firm was Cooper Carry of Atlanta.
Comeback comes 30 years after former hotel closed
The building, which later became the locally owned Plaza Hotel after the Hilton Hotel chain sold it in 1969 to El Paso’s Mike Dipp family, has been closed for 30 years, Helm noted. The name was changed to Hotel Plaza in 1965 when Hilton leased the hotel to another company, he added.
“It’s long overdue for its comeback, and I think it will be a focal point and catalyst for the next phase of the rebirth of Downtown,” Helm said. “I think the (COVID-19) pandemic will be a short-lived bump” in Downtown’s revitalization, he said.
The Downtown Management District’s Gudenrath, who called the Plaza a cornerstone of Downtown redevelopment, agreed that it should help ignite the “possibility of Downtown regaining the great momentum we were experiencing.”
The historic Hotel Paso Del Norte, just down the street from the Plaza Hotel, also is being counted on to boost Downtown revitalization. The 350-room hotel, also being renovated, is tentatively scheduled to open in August, according to its website.
$1.75M to build; $78M to renovate
Hilton announced construction of his El Paso hotel in the fall of 1929, and “nineteen days later the stock market crashed,” he wrote in his autobiography.
The building took about a year to complete, and was reported by Hilton to cost $1.75 million. In today’s dollars that would be $26.8 million, according to an inflation calculator on Indiana University’s stats.indiana.edu.
The renovation took more than two years to complete at a cost estimated at $78 million when it was announced in late 2017 — a number that a Foster representative declined to update. Foster also built a $15 million, 541-car garage next to it.
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In 1930, buildings could be constructed faster because they were less complicated and involved less people and less plans, architect Helm noted.
“It took about 30 sheets of (plan) drawings” for the original Hilton construction, Helm said. “For the renovation, several hundred sheets” of plan drawings were needed.
The building was the last major project designed by prolific El Paso architect Henry Trost, who died in 1933, Helm said. Trost designed many of Downtown’s most-interesting, now-historic buildings.
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The building is solid because it’s frame is made of rebar-reinforced concrete, Helm said.
The exterior, mostly covered with a red-brick facade, looks much as it did when the building was completed 90 years ago. The exterior of the bottom three floors feature gray, cast stone, or an artificial stone, with a hybrid mix of decorative pieces in an modernistic, art-deco style now known in the architectural world as “Pueblo Deco.”
The inside of the building was gutted, and only a few historic elements were salvageable, including the 7,000 square-foot ballroom with its ornate, plaster ceiling and chandeliers, Helm said.
The original windows, which numbered several hundred, had to be replaced.
$200-plus room rates even in the COVID-19 era
The original Hilton had 350 rooms. The new Plaza has 130 rooms that are much roomier, with contemporary furniture. A nod to the past comes with retro radios in each room because Hilton ads in the 1930s boasted of radio in every room, Helm said. Of course, TVs are now also in every room.
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The rooms, on floors three through 16, have beautiful views of the Downtown skyline, San Jacinto Plaza, or Mexico, said Wolfgang Jonas, the hotel’s general manager.
The room rates fit the going price for a luxury hotel, Jonas said. They range from $329 per night for the Plaza’s regular rooms to $529 per night for a handful of large suites, according to the hotel’s website.
However, it’s now offering special, introductory rates ranging from $231 to $371 per night, and a $30 food and beverage credit per stay.
Pandemic makes success a challenge
Operating the hotel in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left hotels struggling throughout El Paso and globally, won’t be easy, conceded Jonas and William Kell, vice president of Franklin Mountain Management, a Foster company that manages many of his properties.
“We don’t know what kind of activity we will have in terms of room nights,” and how long it will take to get people comfortable traveling and staying in hotels again in the COVID-19 world, Kell said.
But Foster “felt it was better to open it rather than have it sit empty,” Kell said. The hotel had been slated to open April 7, but COVID-19-related restrictions prompted the opening to be postponed.
“It’s important to get it open. It’s important to have things progress back to normal,” Kell said.
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Jonas, who has been in the hotel industry about 30 years, including as general manager of three other luxury hotels, including one in his native Venezuela, said June 11 that the hotel had 43 guest-room reservations so far for the June 17 opening, including some El Pasoans who want to be among the first to stay in the renovated Plaza, Jonas said.
The hotel’s Àmbar Restaurante, which will serve Mexican food, will likely fare better than the guest rooms in attracting customers early on, Jonas said.
COVID-19 fears might deter some people from staying at the hotel, but it won’t keep people from trying the restaurant, Jonas said. It will be able to operate at 75% seating capacity under Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s state reopening schedule, Jonas said.
Reservations are required for the restaurant, which is open to the public, as is the bar. The restaurant will be open 7 a.m.-11 p.m., daily, and the bar will operate daily from 11 a.m.-midnight.
The hotel’s 17th-floor, rooftop bar, La Perla, located beneath the hotel’s familiar green-tiled, tower roof with the refurbished, simple white Plaza letter signs, is scheduled to open to the public in late September or early October, Jonas said. However, before then, some private events will be held at the bar, which has two terraces, one for the public and one for private events, he said.
The space was once a penthouse where actress Elizabeth Taylor lived around 1950…