How Hilton Hotels Became the Embodiment of American Cool
Hilton turns 100 years old in 2019. Even in its old age, the company — which now consists of 16 brands, from Waldorf Astoria to Canopy by Hilton — exemplifies forward-thinking innovation and jetsetting chic. Here’s the story of how a plucky young man from small-town Texas named Conrad Hilton built this global behemoth that exported American values around the world, and why it remains so important today.
The first Hilton I came to know — really know — was the chain’s Modernist monolith in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I stayed in 2001 while on a magazine assignment.
The hotel, which had grown charmingly shopworn since opening in 1969, had sprawling public areas, a set of beautiful red-clay tennis courts, a pool made to resemble the cross-shaped, rock-hewn Ethiopian Coptic churches at Lalibela, shops selling artisanal Ethiopian tchotchkes and safari suits, airline offices — even a branch of the treasury (which smelled strongly of dank paper). My favorite place was the Queen of Sheba Bar, a Nubian-themed cocktail lounge that felt like a time capsule.
While I was in Addis, unrest broke out after security forces fired on student demonstrators. I was informed that the national airline had decided not to send the plane from New York that week. Angry mobs were attacking government landmarks, including the state-run hotel, for which the airline had given me vouchers. I decided to stay on at the Hilton instead, eating Cobb salads by the pool in my jeans. Occasionally, I could heard cracks of gunfire beyond the hotel’s high walls.
The plane finally showed up to take me home, but the Addis Hilton stayed with me. Its town-square-like quality had much in common with other Hiltons built throughout the world during the postwar era, when the company, having made its mark in the U.S., began rapidly expanding its footprint abroad. Often these hotels were the biggest buildings in their host cities — places like Nairobi, Kenya; Abuja, Nigeria; Istanbul; Cairo; and Athens — and the first examples of Modernist architecture in their host countries. They represented a new breed of hotels that showcased their public spaces: places where guests and locals alike were meant to see and be seen, unlike the stately, cloistered hotels that preceded them, in which privacy and exclusivity were paramount.
Today, 100 years after Conrad Hilton opened his first hotel in Cisco, Texas, the company that bears his name operates more than 5,500 properties in 109 countries and territories under 16 different brand names, from high-end collections like the Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts and Conrad Hotels & Resorts to new lifestyle brands such as Canopy by Hilton and Motto by Hilton. While the various brands seek to appeal to distinct market sectors, all reflect Conrad Hilton’s philosophy of hospitality: confident, forward-looking, social.
Conrad unofficially entered the hotel business in 1907, at age 19, when he opened up his parents’ adobe home and general store in the town of San Antonio, in what was then the territory of New Mexico, to traveling salesmen for $1 a night. (The price included a meal prepared by Conrad’s mother, Mary.) “The Santa Fe Railway came through, and Conrad was in charge of going out and getting the salesmen off the train,” the historian Mark Young told me recently. “He’d say, ‘Hey, if you want a place to stay, we’ve got a room to rent you.’ ”
I was visiting Young at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel & Restaurant Management, founded in 1969 at the University of Houston, where he oversees the Hilton archive. As we sifted through artifacts such as pens, luggage tags, postcards, and soap wrappers, he explained that Hilton hotels were among the first to focus on business travelers. Hilton’s other firsts are too numerous to list, but they include the first in-room thermostats and TVs. Hilton was the first hotel chain with a loyalty program and a centralized reservation system. It invented the airport hotel and the piña colada — first served to guests at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1954. Last year, Hilton opened the first underwater hotel suite, at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island.
Because of Conrad’s proclivity for expressions like “By golly,” many took him for a country bumpkin. But he had a taste for the high-flying life, as he revealed with his purchases, after the Depression, of such iconic properties as the Town House in Los Angeles, the Stevens in Chicago, and the Plaza and Waldorf Astoria in New York — the last being among his proudest acquisitions. He also had a penchant for celebrity. In 1937, he moved from Texas to Los Angeles and, five years later, embarked on a brief marriage to the Hungarian socialite-cum-actress Zsa Zsa Gabor. Conrad’s foray into Hollywood reached its zenith in 1955 with the opening of the Beverly Hilton. The company celebrated with a series of swish parties, including a televised gala attended by Mamie Van Doren, Shelley Winters, Charlton Heston, and Walt Disney, at which Conrad and the actress Ann Miller danced the varsoviana, as they often did at Hilton celebrations. “It was more or less the hokey pokey,” Young told me as we perused invitations to other Hilton grand openings.
But Conrad was far from frivolous. When the government of Puerto Rico put out word that it wanted a partner for a big hotel and resort, Hilton responded with a letter written in Spanish, which he had learned as a boy in New Mexico. In 1949, he launched a new international division with the opening of the Caribe Hilton, which embodied an American jet-set glamour that quickly became an integral part of the social fabric in San Juan. Hunter S. Thompson wrote about the hotel’s effect in The Rum Diary, his novel about Puerto Rico in the 1950s: “Conrad had come in like Jesus and all the fish had followed. Before Hilton there was nothing; now the sky was the limit.”
The third season of Mad Men, set in 1963, captures Conrad Hilton further along on his arc of global expansion. After Don Draper bags the account for Hilton’s prestigious New York properties of the era — the New York Hilton, the Statler, and the Waldorf Astoria — the fictional Conrad flies Don out to the newly opened Cavalieri Hilton in Rome, one of the real-life Conrad’s very favorite hotels. He wants to bring Don up to speed, to help Don understand the vision of American luxury he had begun spreading around the world.
Today, these legendary hotels remain among Hilton’s tentpole properties and are integral to the brand’s contemporary identity. In 2008, the Cavalieri was rebranded as a member of the Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts collection, which now sits at the very top of Hilton’s food chain. The Caribe, which will reopen this spring following an extensive renovation after Hurricane Maria, is still the glamorous heart of San Juan. The original Waldorf Astoria New York on Park Avenue is itself undergoing a four-year refurbishment and will reopen in 2021, giving New Yorkers and visitors access once again to beloved restaurants like Peacock Alley.
Hilton president and CEO Chris Nassetta told me that Conrad Hilton’s master plan was always to build full-service hotels with restaurants and banquet halls and big public spaces across the world: “He figured all that out first in the U.S., in the major markets, and then said, ‘Gee, this’ll work everywhere.’ And if you put these things together in the right combination, they would become the epicenter of the community.”
For me, this philosophy really came into focus a few years after my confinement at the Addis Hilton, when I stepped into the Hilton in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Known as the “upside-down hotel,” it was erected in 1962 on a hillside overlooking the city, with the hotel’s reception on the top floor and guest rooms below, accessed via elevators. Like the Addis Hilton, it was huge, built in a Tropical Modernist style with sweeping public spaces designed to guide guests to the ballroom, the conference center, and the pool shaped like the island of Trinidad — with a Tobago-shaped children’s pool beside it.
As a child, the architect Mark Raymond, a native of Port of Spain, went to the Hilton Trinidad on Sundays to go swimming. For him, the hotel was a lodestar. “The Hilton was completely radical,” he recalls. “You could use the pool for a small fee. You could get married there. There wasn’t a feeling of exclusivity, but it was still special and distinctive. It’s also a beautifully made building, with unusual characteristics. It was a symbol of modernity we could all participate in.”
The historian Annabel Jane Wharton, an expert on Hilton’s postwar international growth, argues that these kinds of hotels exported an “aestheticized technological efficiency,” which she sees as distinctively American. What I like most about them is their ability to telegraph, through their architecture and décor, the optimism of the company’s founder. They were a city’s way of declaring, by way of a building, that it was ready to receive the world. Even now, when I book a room at one of these old, iconic Hiltons, I feel that I am in a place where things are happening — that I am somehow participating in progress.