January 4, 2015

The Hotel Syracuse: Looking Back, Looking Forward

There are times that it pays to pay attention.

Lobby ceiling detail
Back in December I got an email from the Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) letting me know there were still tickets available for a 'Ghostwalk' at the Hotel Syracuse. As many of you know, the Hotel Syracuse was a gem in Syracuse, dating back to the 1920s. Built by the firm that went on to do the Waldorf, she's getting ready to be restored to as much of her former glory as can be saved, and she should reopen, we learned today, on March 16, 2016.

The opportunity to get inside before the renovations kick in was too much to pass by, and I managed to get our tickets just in the nick of time.

The OHA doesn't look for ghosts on tours like this - it's not a seance or anything like that. Instead, they have actors portraying people who would have been around back in the day. Today it was folks who would have worked at the Hotel, including the concierge, the hotel detective, a bell captain, and a maid.  We also were thoroughly entertained by a singer who did a pretty good Al Jolson, Ole Blue Eyes and John Lennon.

Hotel Syracuse Lobby
Back in the 1980's I worked the Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce; at the time, the offices were on the street level of the Hotel on the Onondaga Street side. There were several Chamber events held in the Hotel itself.  Between those meetings, and holidays parties, and the piano bar, 'prom-watching' from the MONY Plaza, I have lots of fond memories of the hotel, but my personal history of her pales in comparison to what we learned on yesterday's trip.

According to the concierge, the Edward Joy Company (the same one you drive by on I-690 heading east out of the city) did all of the electrical work, including the sprinkler system, and there was some Stickley furniture too. All of the furnishings, including the Stickley pieces, were supplied by the E. W. Edwards department store on Salina Street. Bedding and other linens, miles of carpeting, all of the china (locally sourced from the Iroquois and Onondaga pottery companies, which eventually became our beloved Syracuse China), silverware and furniture and chandeliers and sconces (like the one in the Persian Terrace pictured here), and pretty much everything else you could see or touch in a grand hotel was delivered from just up the block.

If you're interested, there's a store directory from Edwards on the Department Store Museum blog, as well as some additional history from folks who remember it. It notes that 'our' Edwards dated to 1889, with expansion into other upstate cities (Rochester, Buffalo, Camillus and Dewitt!) happening later.

We learned from the entertainer ghost that the hotel was wired so that music played anywhere - in the ballrooms or the clubs - could be heard everywhere: the 1920's version of whole-house audio. The room he performed in eventually became the Library disco (one of only four in the country), the home for Wise Guys comedy club (recently closed in its third or fourth location) and then Viva Debris (comedy and magic).

Persian Terrace
I think the most fascinating part of the trip for me was the time we spent in the Persian Ballroom. I had no idea that there were fashion shows broadcast live from that beautiful room, while the fashionable ladies of Syracuse lunched. We learned this from two delightful performers, one the host of the show, and one the fashion director who fabulously ad-libbed as tour members modeled hats of the day.

The drapes and paint (a peach/pink/salmon color scheme), the crystal chandeliers and sconces, beautiful stone columns and white-veined black marble under the giant windows, the soaring ceiling, and the faded carpet, are as they were when the hotel closed for good back in 2004. So too is the obligatory parquet floor on which thousands of couples danced.

And now, it's the hint of what's to come for the Hotel Syracuse that has me excited.  We've previously been made aware that the original entrance, on Onondaga Street, will become the primary entrance once again.

Original lobby ceiling
And today, we learned that some of the giant arched windows that have long been covered up or painted over will become functional windows once again; that the lobby will be returned to her original glory, including the gorgeous mural that was recently uncovered, and removing a wall to give us back a balcony. We were told that the ceiling will be restored to its darker, more luxurious hue.

We learned that, underneath the paint in the Persian Terrace, there's a mural that hopefully can be restored. A small section of it is visible, including what someone said was part of an elephant's trunk.

There's so much to look back at, and so much to look forward to, as our grand Hotel Syracuse is restored. She may have a new name then and fewer rooms then she did in the 1920's, but we'll still have her history, thanks to the OHA, and hopefully there will be decades more history to be made there.  I know that I'm not the only one who will be following the progress of her restoration/renovation - and that we're not the only ones already planning on spending the night there come 2016 when she opens once again.