With the Statler Hilton's Future in Question, Last Night a Loving Look Back at Its Past

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Scott Dorn
Jo Fischer, who worked at the Statler Hilton even before it officially opened in 1956
Organizers of last night's "Story of the Statler" presentation at the Dallas Center for Architecture expected, oh, maybe 30 or 40 folks to show for architect Marcel Quimby's talk about the historic, neglected hotel on Commerce Street. But it was standing-room-only -- 150 and then some, among them Mayor Tom Leppert's chief of staff Chris Heinbaugh; former council member Veletta Lill, now executive director of the Arts District; and myriad preservationists, developers, photographers and City Hall staffers concerned about the sprawling 53-year-old building named one year ago to The National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Place.

But the star of the confab was Jo Fischer, who, after the hourlong presentation, attracted a crowd like a red-carpet celeb. Where Quimby offered a detailed PowerPoint history of Conrad Hilton and his two downtown hotels -- indeed, the very first Hilton built in the U.S. was the Dallas Hilton in 1925, now known as the Hotel Indigo on Main Street -- Fischer offered a first-person perspective. From 1956 till '67, when she moved to the Adolphus Hotel, Fischer was personnel manager at the Statler, where she "was responsible for all the employees," she said.

"It truly was Hollywood, the best show in town," Fischer says of the 1,001-room Statler, whose opening-night party on February 19, 1956, attracted the likes of Ann Miller, Hedda Hopper and Piper Laurie. "And Neiman Marcus put on a style show every Wednesday in the Empire Room." Alas, when Fischer drives by the hotel now, "It breaks my heart."
About the only person of note not in attendance was Tom Keen, the Plano attorney who reps the Hong Kong-based owners of the building, who, in 2000, promised "a complete and major renovation" of the Statler only to let it rot instead. Only Keen could have addressed the questions following Quimby's lecture -- the what-now's and why-not's.

As we've noted before, the Statler's high on the mayor's to-do list when it comes to either renovating or at least tidying up downtown's vacant buildings. And word is Hamsher has complied with many of the city's demands, including drying out the rotting basement and getting the power back on. But attempts to rid the hotel of its bird infestation have proven only moderately successful, sources say, and the City Attorney's Office is said to be negotiating with Hamsher concerning the building's frontage. Hamsher wants to board up the building, which faces the Merc and the under-construction Main Street Garden; the city wants Hamsher to do something far more attractive than decorate the facade with wood.

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Several attendees said during the post-presentation Q&A that they'd toured the building recently on behalf of would-be developers and found the hotel untenable as a redo: The ceilings are too short, the place is full of asbestos, the hallways are too narrow, the doors aren't Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant. In other words, the usual list of reasons not to redo the building. To which true believers respond, it'll cost as much to tear it down as redo it, so why not preserve a building currently being considered for city landmark designation?

"It's a long way from being 'modern,'" said one developer's scout of the hotel once known as the most modern in the country, and a hotel built primarily to attract convention business to Dallas following World War II.

Standing next to me, another downtown developer responded, "So are most historic buildings that haven't been rehabilitated."

There were no answers, of course, not last night. Which didn't stop the questions -- chief among them, why didn't the city redo the Statler rather than opt to build a new convention center hotel? The obvious answer: Because the city wants a hotel that's attached to the convention center. Which didn't stop someone in the audience from wondering, quite aloud, "When are people in this city gonna wake up and realize what's happening with this city and the mayor and his gang ...?"

Heinbaugh, standing next to me in the back of the room, kinda smiled. "I've heard that before," he whispered.

The man continued: "Everybody has no clue!"

To which Quimby responded, sheepishly, "No comment."

Alas, Preservation Dallas executive director Katherine Seale did tell the assembled that "as late as yesterday, they" -- meaning Hamsher -- "were meeting with someone" about the building. But that's happened countless times in recent years. Which is why last night was all about yesterday, not tomorrow. Not yet, anyway.

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