When Carl Hayden stood for his last U.S. Senate term in 1962, he faced a state that had been radically changed by population growth in the late 1950s and early '60s. He was also confronted by a radical Republican challenger in car dealer Evan Mecham who found purchase with many of these newcomers.
Hayden's crafty aide Roy Elson came up with a "re-introduce Carl Hayden" campaign — even though Hayden had served Arizona in Congress since statehood and was the indispensable man on water, especially the Central Arizona Project. For the showpiece, he angled a Carl Hayden Day featuring President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson.
The location was never in question: the Hotel Westward Ho at Central and Fillmore, the premier hostelry of Phoenix since it opened in 1928. The event was a huge success and Hayden won the election.
Within little more than 13 years, with downtown dying, the Westward Ho was a target for demolition. The iconic Luhrs Hotel and others had already met the wrecking ball. The beautiful Hotel Adams had been torn down, replaced by a box containing all the charm of 1970s brutalism. The Ho was saved by making the building into subsidized housing for seniors and the disabled. After falling out of family ownership, the property was repeatedly flipped and eventually sold at a sheriff's auction. Now the owner is using $44 million in a "multifaceted refinancing project" to upgrade the building. And it will continue as elderly housing.
Is this really the best Phoenix can do?
From the time of its opening, the Westward Ho held a special place in Phoenix's history and heart. With elegant Spanish-influenced Art Deco architecture, it was the tallest building in the city for 30 years. A radio mast made it even taller, with neon that could be seen for miles. Although the Hotel San Carlos competed for celebrity guests, the Westward Ho was larger. Presidents, movie stars and gangsters (Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel among them) stayed there. Powerful men kept suites for their mistresses.
The interior was spectacular, the huge lobby presided over by massive oak arches, gilt chandeliers and featuring Spanish tile and a ceiling of pressed tin and molded plaster. Dining included the Concho Room. The Turquoise Room was popular for weddings. Many of the city's most important events were held in the Thunderbird Room, which seated 1,200. The Kachina Room was a cocktail lounge where many a deal was done or assignation begun. The hotel offered a library, too. On top was the elite Top of the Ho, with views of the entire Valley. After World War II, as the automobile became more dominant, the Westward Ho expanded, adding a garage and annex (above) specifically aimed at motor travelers.
My great aunt, who owned a designer dress shop north of the hotel for many years and had the money in the family, took me to the Top of the Ho a couple of times. It was almost as fun as Phoenix Union Station. Almost. The food was definitely better.
The Hotel Westward Ho was the center of a real city, a city that was loved. As the center was thrown away and the short hustle became dominant, few saw a need for it. At least it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and the owner has made periodic renovations, including maintaining the integrity of the exterior.
All over America, the most beloved downtown hotels have been kept in business (the Olympic in Seattle, Brown Palace in Denver, Mark Hopkins in San Francisco and Netherland Plaza in Cincinnati, for example), usually as top-flight destinations. Elsewhere, such as the 1911 Skirvin Plaza in Oklahoma City and Book Cadillac in Detroit, glorious derelicts thought to have been impossibly lost have been reborn in new glamour.
In Phoenix, heroic efforts by Melikian family saved the Hotel San Carlos, also finished in 1928 and with its own storied past. After the disaster of Mortgages Ltd., the Professional Building is being renovated as a Hilton Garden Inn by CSM Corp. of Minneapolis. These are triumphs, especially in a city which so many don't consider "home," much less with a heart and history worth celebrating.
But it's astounding that the unique landmark Westward Ho sits as it does. New housing could better serve its current tenants. That it has not been restored to its splendor as a first-rate hotel, especially with its location by the ASU downtown campus and on the light-rail line (WBIYB), is a prime example of the dreadful lack of vision and leadership in Phoenix. The staggering inability to attract moneyed stewards or skillful civic fixers.
It is what it is. Don't be sore winners.