Duke Alumni Magazine

Art professor Annabel Wharton's new book reveals how a legendary American entrepreneur used the stylistic language of grand commercial buildings to convey a staunch cultural-political ideology and changed the hotel industry in the process.


Wharton: "Host country governments and investors wanted Hilton to build in modern, not indigenous styles"

What is it about hotels that can be so seductive to a traveler of a certain temperament, the kind of person who willingly leaves the familiar behind forthe uncertain rewards of temporary quarters, of someone else’s mostly impersonal room with—or without—a view, whose every comfort or disappointment comes at a price? Some travelers prefer to stay in hotels, even when friends or relatives in the places where they touch down kindly offer to put them up.
  Some hotels, effusive in their offerings of plush services and “amenities,” as their enticements are known in the trade, have come to be regarded as desirable destinations in their own right. Spa treatments, personal trainers, unique architecture, blue-ribbon cuisine, concierges on every floor—such are the attractions of these top-ranked and often pricey hotels in today’s fiercely competitive market.
  Many other hotels around the world are plain and undistinguished, even mediocre. There is nothing special about a roadside Motel 6 or most downtown Ramada Inns, with their dropped ceilings and stale air, and the forced cheeriness of their by-the-numbers décor. Some cities boast a handful of great hotels but might not be, strictly speaking, great hotel cities. In this era of global everything, in which a kind of post-capitalist corporate totalitarianism has displaced the powers of governments and helped boil rich, local cultures down to a gluey stew for tourists, the notion of a hotel as a monument to the customs, history, style, and aspirations of a people and the city they call home has largely faded.
  Nevertheless, some establishments still embody the quirky, deeply personal, sometimes regal traits that earned them singular reputations in the first place and that loyal customers adore; they have not yet been gobbled up or “upgraded,” meaning disastrously homogenized, by huge multinational chains, with their bottom-line business ethos and aesthetics of blandness. Among the holdouts: the artist-filled Hotel Chelsea in New York; the Brown Palace in Denver, with its Renaissance-style architecture and Rocky Mountain spring water piped into every room; and the countless one-star, two-star, and no-star lodgings across Europe and Asia that continue to offer travelers more variety, ambiance, and real hotel-culture experience than any dispiriting corporate chain could ever dream of delivering.
  But such companies never do, and that’s the point; nowadays, only the most unaware consumer fails to recognize that marketing-driven technocrats can swiftly destroy what an unpredictable confluence of cultural, social, and economic forces can take generations to create. And that, invariably, is something precious. It is the most ineffable equity of any business. It is, for a distinctive hotel, its irresistible, inestimable soul.
These are some of the themes and circumstances that weave the cultural, commercial, and historical backdrop for a new and unprecedented study of the Hilton International hotel chain by Duke art history professor Annabel Wharton. Published by the University of Chicago Press, Wharton’s Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture is a revealing analysis of how a legendary American entrepreneur, Conrad Hilton (1887-1979), used the stylistic language of grand commercial buildings to convey a staunch, cultural-political ideology—and how he changed the hotel industry in the process.
  Wharton, a former head of Duke’s art department, which offers both art history and studio-practice courses, might seem an unlikely author for such a book. A medievalist who specializes in early Christian and Byzantine architecture and painting, Wharton is interested in how, over time, places like the shrine city of Lourdes, in southwestern France, or near-mythical cities like Jerusalem became popular, cult-status destinations that helped give rise to what we now call tourism. She is interested in the evolution of the institutions, accoutrements, and customs, such as hotels, guidebooks, sightseeing, and collecting souvenirs, that have become indelibly associated with touristic travel.
  In Building the Cold War, she puts her cards on the table and states: “I am an American writing about the Middle East; I am a medievalist writing about Modernity.” Nevertheless, Wharton brought firsthand familiarity with her subject to the project. When she was in college, her parents lived in Iran, where their jobs were linked to the oil business. Her father’s company—he was a petroleum engineer—paid for her to travel overseas to visit them twice a year. Wharton met her parents in London, Rome, Istanbul, or Athens, where they stayed at Hilton hotels. Later, during the early years of her academic career, she returned to those cities to do research.
  That a scholarly work like Building the Cold War is so obviously shaped by a personal, interpretive perspective gives it a refreshing, critical voice. “I wasn’t sure I could get away with it—it was something new for me. But it’s still very academic writing, don’t you think?” Wharton muses during an interview in her East Campus office, where a vinyl blow-up Egyptian mummy doll keeps company with hundreds of art reference books, a modernist stamped-metal armchair, and a smattering of gilt-edged Eastern icons.
  The book, she says, is “my means of coming to terms with the ambivalence toward Hiltons that I experienced, an ambivalence that proceeded from a sense that Hiltons powerfully represented America where America did not necessarily belong.” That Wharton felt those hotels’ collective vibe, that she intuitively understood the messages they conveyed—about high customer-service standards, physical security and comfort, and the commercial power they represented—was, she later learned, no accident.
Conrad Hilton, who was born in New Mexico and began buying up hotels in Texas in 1919, fashioned an international corporate empire by rustling up co-investors to help him acquire numerous properties. In 1949, he famously went after and leased New York’s Waldorf-Astoria (“the greatest of them all”), and in 1954 his company took over the Statler chain. (Founder E.M. Statler’s slogan: “A bed and a bath for a buck and a half.” Hilton would be remembered for a more prosaic pronouncement posted in his guests’ bathrooms, reminding them to place their shower curtains inside their tubs.)
  Hilton’s first property outside the continental United States was the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which opened in 1949. Building the Cold War examines the magnate’s Hilton International projects in two other geographic regions: those in London, Berlin, and Rome; and those in Cairo, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Athens, and Istanbul. Wharton explains that, for his ambitious ventures in these culturally and politically diverse cities, the crafty Hilton structured deals in which local, often public funds—or, in Europe, post-World War II Marshall Plan aid from the United States—financed construction. Typically, Hilton structured deals in which host-country investors paid for and retained ownership of the hotel buildings that bore his name; often, they were erected on what had been public-park land. Host-country partners contracted with his U.S.-based Hilton organization to manage each new hotel and split revenues with it in a mutually profitable arrangement.
  Hilton’s overseas partners eagerly sought what he could uniquely provide: cost-efficient, innovative “American know-how” at a time—the late 1950s and the 1960s—when U.S. management expertise was something special, authoritative, and rare. Hilton International hotels offered special features such as a third tap, for chilled drinking water, in every guest’s bathroom. They were often sited, Wharton says, “like great civic monuments.” With their sleek, cutting-edge architecture and carefully chosen locations, they were often the first significant modern structures to be built in their host cities. In some, such as London or Tel Aviv, they redefined a historic place’s urban plan and its relationship to major aspects of the surrounding cityscape or landscape, such as public squares, roadways, or the seacoast.
  The physical placement of each new high-rise, Wharton explains, intentionally allowed spectacular views to become key elements of a customer’s Hilton International experience. Uncluttered, simple lines; sculptural, poured concrete; fine materials; and large expanses of plate glass distinguished their design and construction. “Glass was the essential means” by which Hilton International hotel buildings were “dematerialized,” Wharton says. Large windows allowed customers to savor grand vistas from every guestroom and to grasp easily at a glance the layout or “the anatomy” of each hotel.

Wharton notes that the best Hiltons “were marked by their brilliant transparency”; gone was the visual clutter of traditional “luxury” décor—elaborate moldings, ornamental ceilings, or painted, trompe l’oeil details. She adds: “The program of the space was immediately legible.… The principal route from registration to elevator to room to balcony was clear.” The stripped-down modernist aesthetics of a typical Hilton International did incorporate local artistic-stylistic touches, but they were studiously abstracted and subdued, as in the Israeli designer Dora Gad’s interiors for the Tel Aviv Hilton, which opened in 1966.
In a book about her work published decades later, Gad said of the Tel Aviv project that she had tried “to impart...an Israeli character, but without Israeli clichés.” Thus, her designs depended more on color and geometric pattern than on any specific, predictable, biblical-historical references. Hilton International projects employed the services of leading modern architectural firms, too, including Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and Pereira and Luckman from the U.S., and Jakov Rechter in Israel
.From interviewees’ comments about Conrad Hilton, company correspondence related to his overseas projects, and the big man’s own writings, like his 1957 autobiography Be My Guest, Wharton learned that he had conscientiously created his hotels to symbolize the Christian, capitalist, materialist values he unabashedly espoused. Their looks, their shopping arcades, and their plentiful services all expressed his worldview—that material comfort offered a ticket to personal freedom and that “if we really believe in what we are all saying about liberty, about Communism, about happiness,” then “we, as a nation, must exercise our great strength and power for good against evil.” 
  A devout Roman Catholic, Hilton wrote: “We mean these hotels as a challenge...to the way of life preached by the Communist world. Each hotel spells out friendship between nations, which is an alien word to those who try to reduce friends to slaves. To help fight that kind of thinking...we are setting up our hotels of Hilton International Across The World.” Thus, dusty

Istanbul might have wrestled with an inferiority complex with regard to the capitals of continental Europe, and daily life in postwar, divided Berlin could be hardscrabble and psychologically intense, but a hamburger and Coca-Cola at a Hilton International coffee shop offered an escapist treat to those who could afford them, a dollop of deliverance in the desire-gratifying spirit of the American Way. 
  “There is nothing louder than an American hotel,” Nabokov’s narrator, Humbert Humbert, writes in Lolita, recalling a particular establishment where he and his pouty nymphet log some serious tryst time during a long road trip. “And, mind you, this was supposed to be a quiet, cozy, homey place—‘gracious living’ and all that stuff.”
During the decades of overseas expansion that Wharton chronicles, for Hilton’s managers and work force alike, as for the general public, the gracious living the hotel chain offered was synonymous with modern elegance, design flair, and American-accented luxe. In 1963, the former New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable gushed: “The New York Hilton is laid out with a competence that would make a computer blush.” Hiltons opened with celebrity-thronged festivities and became chic, high-profile settings for press conferences, receptions, and special events. 
  “In the cities I examined,” Wharton says, “host-country governments and investors wanted Hilton to build in modern, not indigenous styles. Hilton employees and local residents were proud to have these hotels in their cities; to them, they symbolized modernity, progress, what was new. Only later, as the political climate changed, did anti-American feelings arise in some places, which changed the way these and other American businesses overseas were perceived.” 
  In the course of her research, Wharton located old blueprints for the Hilton International hotels she studied. She conducted dozens of interviews with current and former Hilton workers, including, most memorably, she says, some of the surviving, earliest staffers at some of the company’s establishments in the Middle East. “I spoke to a woman who started as a waitress at the Nile Hilton, in Cairo, which opened in 1958,” Wharton recalls. “Later she became a telephone operator. She came close to crying in talking about the early days. She remembered how the hotel had smelled of flowers and how she had hated weekends because she had to take time off.” If, for paying guests, a Hilton hotel abroad promised refined modern style and “an oasis” of familiar American foods and services, for its employees, Wharton says, it provided an environment marked by “a sense of nurturing, protection, and discipline.” Staff members at one Hilton called their top manger “father.”
  Conversely, as corporate conglomerates grew ever larger, new owners sometimes subsumed smaller companies’ identities. This is the theme that emerges as Building the Cold War comes to a close, as the turbulent 1960s are seen giving way to successive decades of unstoppable expansion by U.S. and foreign firms, across cultures and borders. Takeover giants with holdings in everything from rental cars to processed food also saw their once-distinctive corporate identities become weaker and less easily recognizable in or reflected by even their keystone industries. “In 1967, Hilton International was sold to Trans World Airlines,” Wharton writes. “In 1988, Hilton International was bought by a British firm, the Ladbroke Group, best known for its interests in gambling.”
  One of Wharton’s contacts at the Nile Hilton told her: “In the old days, the Hilton was a family. Now, young people graduate from university and they immediately want to be general managers. They want to take everything and give nothing.”
Indeed, Building the Cold War comes at a time when masses of consumers throughout the world are becoming keenly aware of what might be called the dark side of globalization and of the monolithic corporatism that both defines it and reaps its profits. Technology improves, companies swell in size, but, time and again, customer service deteriorates. Anyone who has ever called a company to seek help with or to comment on a product or service, and who has quickly landed in recorded-answer, voice-mail hell, knows that something about the culture of business as an ages-old system for communicating values and ideas, and for showcasing craftsmanship and care, has diminished. Similarly, most classic Hilton hotels in the U.S. and abroad, now often physically altered, long ago lost much of their once-special allure. In some establishments, cheap glitz ousted true glamour. Arguably, Hilton became just another once-proud brand name seemingly untethered from its rich past.
  In a way, Wharton explains, Hilton hotels of the 1950s and 1960s might have been too successful, at least in their strong, characteristic design. Customers began to regard their consistent modernist styling as too “predictably” similar from one city to another. Thus, changes made at the Istanbul Hilton, Wharton says, were typical of what happened next. Its pared-down, modern interior was “purged,” a simple fountain in its atrium was “replaced with a pseudo-Japanese garden,” and “elaborate moldings...large ornamental jars, multiple oriental carpets, and potted palms” were generously installed. If the Istanbul Hilton has a theme today, she says, “It is vaguely late Ottoman-European-colonial.” It is a schizophrenic style smorgasbord for the delectation of winking postmodern ironists. 
  Building the Cold War appears at a time when many art historians, curators, architects, and artists are reconsidering classic modernism’s theories, philosophy, and utopian vision, as well as its down-to-earth, practical achievements in art, design, and architecture. At the same time, in today’s marketplace, manufacturers and consumers alike seem to be more appreciative than ever of the design of products of all kinds and of structures around them in the built environment, from kitchen utensils and laptop computers to cars and buildings. Considering the overlapping subject areas of architectural design, entrepreneurial history, and urban planning, among others, which Wharton touched upon while working on Building the Cold War, she says that one of her most meaningful realizations was that “a hotel is a kind of barometer of attitudes about public and private space.” 
  Moreover, Wharton says, “Even though I’ve finished this book, I can’t give up modernity. It’s too much fun talking to important modern architects who are still alive about their past work. Working this way, there’s an immediacy of meaning you get about the subject that’s different from the sort of archival work one does in order to get an intellectual high.” Wharton is planning to do in-depth research about Jerusalem in late antiquity and in the early Christian era and has developed courses focusing on historic destinations (such as Lourdes or nineteenth-century spa towns) and on the history of pilgrimage and tourism. 
  “Looking at travel is something new for art historians,” she says. “Usually it’s social scientists and anthropologists who do this sort of work. But there’s a lot of information to put together, a lot for art and architectural historians to explore, such as how architecture determines who is traveling—that’s where hotels come in—and what travel is about.”
Inevitably, of course, travel is about transporting oneself—physically, intellectually, emotionally—to places familiar or unknown, either through books or TV, in the comfort of a favorite armchair, or in the flesh, by car, camel, or plane, across real-world distances that, in simpler form, become mere lines and colored patches on maps. Buoyed by the discoveries that her research turned up—about the meanings and functions of hotels as “travel architecture,” about travelers’ expectations and desires—Wharton is looking ahead to new trips of her own, although they might be closer to home. “There are many towns and cities in America that I’ve never heard of or that I’d like to see. Each one has its own history and special character,” she says. 
  She might not stay at Hiltons, or what’s left of them, Wharton says, the next time she hits the road. But she looks forward to staying in hotels. “I’m someone who likes hotels,” she knowingly affirms, already imagining her next journey—and her next stay in someone’s high-toned or humble room-for-hire, temporary but enticing, with or without a view. 

Gomez ’79, a member of Duke Magazine’s Editorial Advisory Board, writes about art for The New York Times, Art & Antiques, and Raw Vision.

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