A preface: I visit Phoenix regularly for my husband’s family reunions at New Years. I’ve recently been trying to learn more about the history of desert building and living while I am there. This year I visited the Arizona Biltmore hotel, built in the 1920’s. To warn you, I wax poetic here – it’s difficult not to. The building is a gem, and well worth a visit if you are anywhere near Phoenix. The two-hour public tour is chock full of history – design and otherwise – and well worth your time. If you won’t be near Phoenix soon, the website has many photos and some historic tidbits as well.
It’s hard to imagine a concrete hotel built in the 30’s in the desert outlands of Phoenix feeling cozy. Or simultaneously modern and timelessly classic. And yet the Biltmore accomplishes all of this. Ingenuity and grace. Elegance and approachability. Regionalism and grandeur. History and present. Weight and light.
The Biltmore is a complex building with a complex history. It’s famous as a Frank Lloyd Wright styled structure, but it was actually designed by his student, Albert “Andy”Chase McArthur, Wright’s connection was as a consultant and stumbling block – as the story goes, when he came in to provide design feedback on the plans for the concrete brick that would be the foundation for the hotel complex, he claimed that McArthur’s custom brick design was a trademark infringement on one of his own. He charged $10,000 for permission to use the design (bear in mind the entire 600 acre land purchase for the project cost only $300). A year later research showed no such copyright was held by Wright, who was promptly fired. And yet it is his distant association with the project that brings many to the hotel today. A recent renovation of one of the onsite restaurants includes the new name “Frank and Andy” as though the teacher and student were still old pals, and as though Frank’s name deserved top billing.
The hotel construction was funded by two brothers from Chicago, who made their fortune selling Fords around Phoenix in the twenties. When the Depression hit and the project lost its funding, the Wrigley family (yes, of chewing gum and stadium fame) bought it out as a private property and finished construction.
Although billed as a marketing effort to help people find the hotel so far outside of town, the iconic tower and spotlight actually served as a Prohibition era warning system. When local police forces approached the hotel (then 7 miles from the outskirts of Phoenix), the beacon warned the revelers inside to stash the booze and leave the secret drinking rooms via secret passageways. Bookcases rotated 180 degrees revealed fully (illegally) stocked bars, men had gambling parlors where the ladies were not allowed, dinner was served at 6pm on the dot. No matter how finely attired, guests who arrived at 6:05 would have to eat in the villas with the children and servants.
Every sitting president since Hoover has stayed at the hotel (except Obama, who stayed as a Senator and has just a few years left to uphold the tradition). The Reagans honeymooned here prior to taking office and had their own bulletproof, Secret Service-accommodating suite remodeled for them later on, as Nancy’s family lived nearby and they visited frequently. And yet today the hotel is owned by (wait for it) the government of Singapore.
It was beside the hotel’s pool that Irving Berlin wrote the lyrics to “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” – during a hot Phoenix summer afternoon. Marilyn Monroe frequented, as did various other Hollywood and political celebrities across the decades. Musicians as varied as Billy Joel, Liza Minelli and Frank Sinatra have performed impromptu in the lobby bar. The McCain’s reserved the ballroom for their wedding reception and the McCain-Palin ticket conceded defeat on the lawn in 2008.
And yet, and yet, these storied halls feel welcoming. Friendly. The concrete block is balanced by gold leaf ceilings, the low slung ceilings (for cost savings, imagine that) create intimacy, the staff are polished but not reserved. And everywhere, everywhere, the design motif is carried out. There is not a corner overlooked, not a moment of compromise. To walk through the Biltmore is to see a vision executed to the furthest degree. The original building has a cohesiveness that grounds its grandeur. The consistency of design, of detail, of material, creates a sense of calm and longevity. The thoughtfulness sets you at ease. The intricacy creates wonder. The beauty creates a space set apart.
This, to me, is the magic of good design. History brought forward, past and present overlapping instead of competing for space. The majestic alongside the intimate. The unimaginable made approachable. Wright might not have been an upright business man, if the stories are true. But clearly, he was a decent teacher, because his student McArthur created a landmark for the ages.