September 22, 2013

Wanted: A New Hotel Syracuse (or an old gargoyle)

Three days a week, when I leave the Centro Hub and head off to the Murbro parking lot between  Salina and Clinton to meet My Sweet
Sue Drummond photo, July 2012

Baboo for the ride home, I stare at the empty Hotel Syracuse; the gargoyles on the roof glare back at me, wondering what the heck we're thinking leaving them sitting there ignored all these years. 

Across Onondaga from the original Hotel, the former Hilton Tower also sits empty, partially boarded up, the decorative brickwork in the sidewalk crumbling with neglect.

How is it that so many times over the years, bad owners have been able to keep the city of Syracuse and other developers from moving forward with renovations to the Hotel Syracuse?  And how much longer will the willing be held hostage by the unwilling?

I've lived in Syracuse long enough to remember the Hotel open for business; the Lobby bar and the piano man; the St. Patrick's Day and New Year's Eve parties; Zell's men's store and other retail establishments,restaurants and bars that populated the street level; our beloved Coach Mac and others living upstairs; seeing the local high school kids all duded up for their proms, and so on.

Years ago, I worked at the Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce, when the offices were on the first floor of the Hotel, on the Onondaga Street side. I remember the many meetings we sponsored in the conference rooms, breakfasts in the restaurant off the lobby, and parties on the bridge between the old Hotel and the Tower.

What I can't remember is how many times someone has bought the Hotel, and threatened to refurbish it, only to end up not paying their taxes, and letting the grand old Hotel slide a little further into disrepair each time, the few remaining businesses falling one at a time, like toy soldiers.

It was bad enough when it was local investors who were unable to complete the deal. It got much worse when, for some reason, Syracuse became the place for Israeli investors to dump their money.  (Anyone remember Eli Hadad?)

Plans along the way included apartment or condos, not only in the tower but also in the adjacent Addis building; reducing the number of rooms in the original hotel, to allow for larger rooms with more modern amenities; and of course there would be revitalized retail establishments and restaurants in that area of downtown.

A slide show in this article from The Post-Standard back in November 2010, one of many they've done over the years on the ups and downs of the Hotel, reflects both its promise and despair; on the one hand, there are pictures of the gorgeous lobby, one of the ballrooms, and folks working in the kitchen, but also damaged rooms, uncompleted renovations, and so on. That conflict of the "is now/could be" has been part of the Hotel's history from the beginning. 

Former P-S columnist Dick Case did a story a few years back with  "Mr. Hotel Syracuse", Spencer Wallace, who used to manage the Hotel.
Candle-maker Eric Will, who was president of the hotel at its 25th anniversary, wrote that the Hotel Syracuse had its beginning "early in the year 1921, when a small group of men, eager for opportunities to serve their city, undertook the building of a new hotel. There followed days of anxiety, months of privation and years of hard work."  The hotel corporation faced bankruptcy when the building was just a skeleton on the skyline of southern downtown. The corporation had to be reorganized with new money poured in to the project.
"Accomplishment was not simple," Eric Will wrote. "Obstructions were encountered, seemingly, at every turn.  Propaganda was rife. There were those who preferred that a new hotel should not succeed."
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Except for the fact that, of late, efforts to overcome the kind of obstacles that the Hotel faced from the beginning have been unsuccessful.  Earlier this year, there was some talk that the City of Syracuse would look into perhaps using eminent domain to get the Hotel away from the absentee owners, who completely ignore the property until someone else expresses interest in it. 

Let's listen again to Eric Will:
"Completely paid for - and modern in its appointments and equipment - Hotel Syracuse stands ready to meet anew the challenge of a greater Syracuse that must come with tomorrow."
The Hotel Syracuse once helped us meet our civic challenge; it now presents a challenge for city and county officials. It's one of our 'gateway' properties; it's in an area -- the Warren Street canyon -- that needs attention. Now's the time for Mayor Miner and her team to help get this property back in local hands, so that willing local developers can proceed with their plans. 
If not, can someone help me get the gargoyles down? They'd look great in my garden.