BY THE LATE 1940’s, Dallas was in real need of more hotel and convention space. Mayor R.L. Thornton along with a couple other bankers formed a company to solicit a new hotel project downtown, and by 1950 had enticed Statler Hotels to draw up plans for a large Dallas location. There was some wrangling about financing, some more wrangling with the government (the Korean War had just started and all construction material orders had to be cleared by the War Production Authority in Washington), but by the fall of 1953, construction had begun on the 20-story, 1001-room Dallas Statler Hotel, which ended up costing 16 million to build.
Conrad Hilton—who’d gotten his start not too far away in Cisco, Texas—bought out the Statler chain in 1954 for 111 million dollars, which at the time was the largest real estate deal ever. And so the Statler, still under construction, became the Statler Hilton.
The hotel opened January 16th, 1956 to great fanfare. Guests flew in from both coasts to Love Field, where they were carried from their planes to a large tent in horse-drawn buggies, accompanied by a “sheriff’s posse.” After an evening of initial hoopla, Navy sailors in vintage cars drove the guests down to the hotel, where three more days of celebration awaited. The guest list was certainly of the “star-studded” variety, with all sorts of LA and New York big names and fat wallets. Conrad Hilton was the master of ceremonies, and saw that both the guests and the media were amply entertained. Besides some popular Hollywood acts, there were the dancing Hiltonettes, chorus girls decked out in mink chaps and headdresses symbolizing the ingredients of Dallas (oil, cotton, the State Fair of Texas, SMU, money, show biz, fashion, cattle, bluebonnets, and the Statler Hilton, if you didn’t know). The Dallas Times Herald ran a full section on the hotel, detailing all its technological marvels and amenities, from the giant natural gas powered laundry to the custom 21” Westinghouse TVs in every room.
Today this might all seem like much ado about not that much, but in many ways the Dallas Statler Hilton actually was quite remarkable. Besides having many of the largest facilities in the South and being the first major new hotel Dallas had seen in some time,
1956. (Dallas Public Library Photographic Archive) the Statler Hilton really was the first hotel of the modern era, and introduced a number of innovations that nowadays it’s hard to imagine a hotel without. For example:
- elevator music
- central TV reception, and a set in every room
- function rooms on the lower floors, allowing visitors to reach them easily without an elevator
- a large, open ballroom free of any columns
- modern conference and exhibit facilities, with moveable partitions and a flexible lighting system in the ballroom, and a range of smaller meeting rooms nearby, all with ample power outlets for easy set up of exhibit booths
New York architect William Tabler designed the building, which was also quite new and innovative for its time. A flat slab cantilever design reduced the number of columns and footers needed, which allowed a massive, column-free ballroom (initially they’d wanted to build the biggest ballroom in the country,
The Empire Room. See images 18-06 and 18-09. but since the longest steel beam that could be produced in Dallas was 94 feet, they had to settle for the largest west of Chicago). The building was also one of the first in the nation to use a thin-skinned curtain wall design, with the outer wall consisting of 1 3/8” thick panels of glass and porcelain coated steel. The hotel’s unique Y shape provided for an off-street drive for guests arriving by car, and also gave a bit of additional privacy to the units on the back side of the hotel, since their windows were angled away from each other somewhat. However, the building’s concave facade creates an eddy that tends to catch any trash blowing down the street and leave it circulating right by the front entrance.
One of the most striking differences between the Statler Hilton and a modern hotel, though, was the sheer number of people required to run it: around 1000. The main kitchen, with a 3000-meal capacity, covers nearly half an acre and required 80 cooks. 26 more people were needed just to run the phone system (1400 phones with a 400-line switchboard manned by 19 operators, three technicians, three supervisors, and one boss).
At some point many of the rooms were combined to create larger units, taking the hotel from 1001 rooms to 710. The original floorplans are still recognizable in many areas, though. Many more worked in the enormous laundry facility, which could wash, dry and press 70,000 pounds of laundry a week.
A few interesting features don’t seem to have made it into modern hotels. Like Servidor, those bulging compartments on each room door which could be opened from both sides and allowed laundry to be picked up and delivered without entering the room or disturbing the guest. The room doors also had a special button that the maid could press to determine discreetly whether the room was occupied (more precisely, whether the door was locked from the inside), so that it wasn’t necessary to bang on the door and yell “Housekeeping!” like today. And in a few areas the hotel just got way ahead of itself, most notably with the aero-taxi bit. Conrad Hilton also envisioned plastic carpet that never needs cleaning, UV lights in the bathrooms, and indestructable plastic-impregnated furniture, but thankfully I don’t think these things were ever implemented.
Location: U.S. / Texas / Dallas
Photography: December 2006
Sadly, this unique elevator foyer was probably the first thing to go in the 1967 remodel. Currently this area is pretty unremarkable.
See image 18-05. The sculpture rotated at one revolution per hour, and also inspired the hotel’s logo, which you’ll notice at the top of this page.