October 31, 2011

Bring Back the Ho

by: Will Novak


Today’s post is by contributing writer Will Novak:

There have been recent rumblings on Facebook that Ben Bethel, the man behind Midtown’s Clarendon Hotel, may be acquiring the old Valley National Bank building and finishing its conversion to the Hotel Monroe.  That would undoubtedly be great news for Downtown, as a hip boutique hotel would be a welcome addition to Downtowns amenity portfolio.  The last few years have seen a fair amount of activity in the Downtown hotel market; new hotels like the Sheraton and Westin have been built, others like the Wyndham and Lexington are set to rebrand, and there are still hopes that the Hotel Palomar at CityScape will be built.  However, even with all this good news the quantity, quality and variety of Downtown Phoenix hotels is severely lacking.  With the new Convention Center attracting thousands, and Downtown really starting to click, its time to bring back the Grand Dame of Downtown Phoenix hotels: The Westward Ho.

The 16 story Westward Ho opened its doors in 1928, shortly before the onset of the Great Depression, and proudly stood as the tallest building in Arizona until 1960. Over the years, the Ho was visited by Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Roy Rogers, John Wayne and others before it was converted to H.U.D. (Housing Urban Development) housing for low income Seniors in 1981.  At one time the grand hotel boasted seven bars, a 15th floor terrace with sweeping Valley views, a tunnel to a subterranean bowling alley and the magnificent “Thunderbird Room,” which was the meeting place for Arizona’s elite for many years.

When comparing Downtown Phoenix to other regional Downtowns our fair city comes up woefully short in its hotel stock. Desperate to alleviate the lack of Downtown hotel space, the City itself built the 1,000 room Sheraton in 2008 to serve Convention Center visitors. However, even with the Sheraton our Downtown has fewer than half as many rooms as rival cities like Denver and San Diego (see chart).  Not only does Downtown PHX lack in the number of rooms, but the variety of rooms is sorely lacking as well.  For instance there is only one boutique hotel Downtown, the San Carlos, though hopefully the Lexington and the Hotel Monroe will soon join it. There’s a complete lack of unique, high-end hotel space in our Central Core, a void that a rehabilitated Westward Ho could easily fill.

Seemingly by its nature, our City Government has done a fairly good job with big projects; Chase Field, US Airways Center, the Light Rail, the Convention Center, etc., but struggled with the fine grain issues that really make a Downtown work. The private sector and local community seem to do a much better job with the small-scale projects that really bring flavor and character to our Downtown; and perhaps this sort of public/private division of labor is a wise course to continue pursuing. With that in mind, revitalizing the Westward Ho and bringing it back online as a high-end boutique hotel should be one of our next Mayor’s priorities.  Having the Ho, with 200 or so rooms, back online won’t close the huge hotel room gap with Denver and San Diego, but it would be a step in the right direction.  By its urban nature the Ho would be at a slight disadvantage to the Valley’s other high-end hotels with their sprawling campuses and championship golf. However, the lack of a golf course is nothing that couldn’t be overcome; shuttles could be provided to City Golf Courses and/or the Phoenix Country Club. Plus, the Ho’s location in a walkable core would be something places like the Biltmore and Phoenician will never be able to offer.

Dreaming of a grand-again Westward Ho of course begs the question, what of the current residents? I, for one, would love to see them stay in Downtown, as they add to the vibrant mix of people that make up a cosmopolitan core. Downtown isn’t lacking in City-owned land and it would be great to have a new building constructed that is designed specifically for the needs of the Seniors who are currently at the Ho. The old Pappas School site might be a fitting place for new H.U.D. housing, or perhaps somewhere near the Bio-Medical campus so that the residents would have extremely easy access to top flight medical care as that area develops.

With the recent announcement that Super Bowl XLIX will be played in the Valley, 2015 would make an excellent goal date to have the Westward Ho back online as a working hotel.  Wouldn’t it be grand to look down on Central Avenue from the Ho’s 15th floor and watch the parade of the first ever team to win the Super Bowl in its home stadium? The Cardinals in another Super Bowl in my lifetime? Maybe I am dreaming too big this time.

Photo Credit: All photos and images by the author.

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8 Responses

  1. Steve Weiss says:

    Will, I simply don’t get this. Why should the current residents move somewhere else, when they already have a place of their own? We need to build another new building?

    I say let the residents enjoy a cool place, but maybe open it to monthly tours.

  2. Will Novak says:

    Steve, yes we need another new building, and another and dozens more, have you seen the dirt lots? A new building for the Seniors currently at the Ho at the very least fills one of those lots.

    A gem like the Ho should be put to the highest possible use, which means letting a lot of people have access to it. Having it as a high end hotel would also be an economic boon to the City.

    I myself have taken a tour of the Ho in its current state (thats where the above pics are from) and while it was cool, its not something a lot of people are going to want to do. The building smells like rot, its falling apart in places and overall its a sad place to be as it currently is.

  3. A thoughtful post on a difficult issue. Although it was before my time, everything I’ve read suggests the Westward Ho worked very well as a hotel, so it’s a shame that a lack of commitment to Downtown allowed the hotel’s support to evaporate. Now that the building has been reallocated for its current purpose, there are the awkward questions of whether and how it should be returned to its former role as a hotel.

    I recall that when the last contract with HUD was signed, there was a website that expressed a strong opinion in favor of the building’s current use. Unfortunately, that site appears to have gone dark, so there’s little representation of that opinion online. I seem to recall, however, that HUD contracts for use of the building have durations in terms of decades, not years, so a 2015 return to hotel status is unlikely.

    One question you did not address: What are your thoughts on the radio tower? I believe it’s no longer in use, but I’ve heard many Phoenicians describe it as a crucial part of the building’s history.

  4. Steve says:

    Keep the tower on the Hotel, we are way to quick to tear down old stylish buildings and replace them with new ones trying to look old,case in point in Mill ave. in Tempe. Not all people coming to Phoenix want to play golf, there is so much for the downtown has to offer in the way of theater and museums, The “Ho” would be perfect to re-do as an upscale destnation. As for the folks living there Will is correct in the thought of using old schools as a new home for them. Ans as for the contract with HUD, well as a country we know how to break a contract if we must.

  5. Will Novak says:

    Well the radio tower has been there longer than I have, so to me its part of the building. I’ve seen photos of it without the tower, and it looks nice, but certainly odd and different than I picture it in my minds eye.

    I suppose I don’t have a super strong opinion on the tower, though I guess I’d lean towards keeping it.

    Speaking of aesthetics….I’m not a big fan of the gray paint job they did recently though. I didn’t like the old Hospital white either. I’d prefer an off white/cream, like the Post Office next door. The man who gave me my Westward Ho tour, Earling (the Hos unofficial historian) says there’s a lot of controversy over what was the “original” color. But he had some reason to believe that an off white color may have been the original.

  6. Will Novak says:

    Wikipedia says the tower was added in 1949, so its past the 50 year barrier to qualify it for Historic Preservation, so I guess that makes a stronger case for the “keeping it” side of things. At the very least I’d like to see the “Westward Ho’ sign illuminated and the tower hit with some nice up lighting.

  7. Steve Weiss says:

    A ton of stuff is, as I understand, completely gone via the city’s redo. No more Thunderbird Room, or do you know if it still exists?

    There is a history in public housing for taking/creating great buildings and then not funding upkeep. I’d be really curious if this is the case. I’m screening a film about a modernist public housing project that addresses this issue. Nov 10, 7pm, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth”, free screening at Braggs Pie Factory but bring your own chair. http://www.nofestivalrequired.com

  8. Will Novak says:

    Steve Weiss, the Thunderbird room is gone, its been subdivided into a bunch of apartments. It was just a big ballroom/convention sort of space, I imagine it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to pull out that convention space.

    There were other rooms too that have been messed up, one was the “Concho” room which I believe was a ball room/dancehall/bar. The ceiling has been lowered, weird flooring put in, but part of an old dance floor still exists.

    There’s a guy that lives there (or did when I took the tour a year and a half ago) named Earling Eaton I believe…he’d be happy to give you a tour, its VERY worth it. I think its something any Downtown advocate should do.

    Heck doing a Downtown Voices group field trip/tour there might be a good idea…

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