Statler Hilton Hotel: Landmark Structure or a Giant Pain?

Jason Grant/National Trust for Historic Preservation

A peek at the abandoned interior of the former Statler Hilton downtown

As mentioned late yesterday, the Statler Hilton Hotel -- otherwise known as the site of Dallas Observer editor Mark Donald's bar mitzvah party in 1963 -- was today officially placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2008 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. At this very moment, in fact, Katherine Seale, exec director of Preservation Dallas, is at the hotel to make the announcement public. For that reason alone, I'm posting to Unfair Park this beautiful picture of the abandoned interior taken by Jason Grant on behalf of the Trust.

But more important are the documents on file with the city's Landmark Commission, which, on February 4 of this year, began proceedings to designate the hotel as a historic landmark with all its attendant protections. Among those documents you will find a very detailed history of the building, including its construction dates, and copious reasons why historians and preservations are trying to save the building from the wrecking ball, among them not only its architectural value but also because, even in 1956, it was "a model of efficiency and economy."

Hong Kong-based Hamsher International, which owns the property, said in its 2000 financials sent to shareholders that it planned on sprucing up the joint: "We have decided to undertake a complete and major renovation programme which will commence early next year. As the convention market in Dallas is expanding, we are confident the hotel will do well once renovated." Only, the owners now claim they have a buyer for the property -- who that is, they will not say. And they are not pleased about the fight over its preservation, because its proximity to the Main Street Garden makes it a perfect teardown for a developer who will claim, as several have, that it will cost upwards of $100 million to get it back to almost functional. Historical landmark status will make its razing an impossibility.

Fact is, the Trust chose the most controversial building in the city to put on its list. Preservationists make a tremendous case for keeping it: It's a monument of modernism designed by a genius; its ballroom alone could hold more than 3,000 visitors who, if they wished, could arrive via the rooftop heliport. And developers have, over the years, also made their case for razing the Statler: As The New York Times notes this morning, "Any renovation could be complicated by environmental issues," referring, no doubt, to developers' insistences in recent years that the place is full of asbestos. Even Friends in support of its preservation acknowledge "the rehab cost on this thing is going to be massive," as Jim notes in the comments.

Even Preservation Dallas' Seale admits as much, when she tells Unfair Park that any rehab will be a "challenge." Says Seale: "The Statler Hilton is representative of Dallas' progressive character. When it opened in 1956, its sheer size, innovative construction techniques and bold design put Dallas back on the map as a major business center and social gathering spot. The hurdles in redeveloping the Statler are emblematic of a lot of downtowns that are grappling with their mid-century Modern buildings and landscapes. These resources provide new challenges for developers, and even preservationists. It is the hope of Preservation Dallas that this listing will bring national attention to the building, leading to its sensitive rehabilitation. "

It's a fight over history. In this city, what else is new when it comes to the old? --Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky