by Norman Hill
This venerable gem of Arizona hotel establishments is getting stronger than ever.
As a child growing up in the Chicago area, I studied two hotels that possessed quite a mystical, ultra luxurious quality, even though it would be years before I visited them: The Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island in upper Michigan and the Arizona (Wrigley’s) Biltmore in Phoenix.
The Biltmore was built in the late 1920s, starting from the insight of two visionaries, Charles and Warren McArthur. They saw that Arizona, the last state to join the Union, was ready to transform itself from a Wild West sort of desert wilderness into a resort and other type of paradise. With the feasibility of water irrigation, Easterners could escape winter storms and humidity. For those suffering from tuberculosis, still a scourge among mortality causes, travel to the state’s dry , hot climate could prove the difference between life and death. A wide variety of agricultural crops, such as cotton and citrus, could be grown there and even dairy cows could prosper.
The McArthurs wanted to build a highest quality hotel and resort, and an adjoining community of high-end homes. With the help of their architect brother, Albert Chase McArthur, backing from the Bowman Biltmore hotel chain, and other investors, they hoped to build the new Biltmore for about $1 million. As often happens with visionaries, it soon became evident that completion costs would be much higher, around $2.25 million. With this necessary additional financing, William Wrigley, owner of Wrigley’s chewing gum and the Chicago Cubs baseball team, became the largest investor and, eventually, de facto CEO of the operation.
Both brothers included many innovations in the design. A complete water reservoir was constructed, so that the property was not dependent on imported water. They started with 200 acres of orange groves as the hotel site, with another 400 acres intended as a residential sort of park.
The brothers wanted the hotel’s design to reflect its desert surroundings. They were committed to preserving the many great cactuses on the property. Brother Albert’s design used a type of concrete block approach, which he had adapted from his mentor and former employer, Frank Lloyd Wright. Custom concrete blocks, around 250,000 of them, were woven together with reinforcing rods to form the building’s skeleton.
However, Albert McArthur incorrectly assumed that Wright owned a patent on the concrete block approach. He offered Wright a $10,000 payment for the concrete block system and a consulting fee to come out and review the building. Unfortunately, Frank Lloyd Wright had a reputation as inflexible, obnoxious, and a royal pain to deal with. He lived up to his image when he visited the Biltmore construction site. He objected to many aspects of the construction, notably the intent for four floors, rather than his ideal of only three. Wright objected to the custom size of the construction blocks. Also, he was opposed to the Biltmore’s use of a conventional steel and concrete frame to back up the concrete blocks on the outside.
For some years afterward, rumors swirled that Wright was the actual architect of the Biltmore, not Albert McArthur. Understandably, this misunderstanding made the brother furious. It took some years, aided by Frank Lloyd Wright’s own correspondence, however barbed, to set the record straight.
In spring, 1929, when the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa finally opened, it was taken for granted that, without air conditioning, it would close during the 100+ degree-days of the Arizona summer. Then, at the start of the fall/winter season, November 10, 1929, the stock market crashed. Many of the affluent clients intended as hotel guests were now financially strapped. As a result, the Biltmore encountered financial difficulties.
Owner Wrigley was one of the fortunate ones not wiped out by the crash. He had the financial wherewithal to wait for things to pick up and keep the Biltmore intact.
He hired Harry Boyle as property manager, a capable executive who kept this position until 1953. Boyle made sure that dinners were always quite formal. A top golf pro was also added to the staff, to serve on the Biltmore’s top notch golf course. Each year, the number of celebrities using the hotel, including top entertainment stars and political figures, grew. These included Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, President Harry Truman, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Before Ronald Reagan became President, he spent his honeymoon with bride Nancy Davis at Biltmore. In the late 1980s, guests witnessed the trio of Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Liza Minnelli rehearsing for their national concert tour.
In the meantime, Wrigley left more of his stamp on property adjoining the Biltmore. He built three affluent homes there, and, for himself and wife, a hilltop 23 room mansion.
The Wrigley family retained Biltmore ownership until 1973. After that, the property was sold several times. The Waldorf Astoria Collection, owned by Hilton, has kept it on course since 2006.
Under all owners, The Biltmore has not been allowed to stand on its considerable laurels. As guest tastes have changed and competition from other hotels has intensified, there have been upgrades, renovations, and periodic additions. To allow year around availability, air conditioning was added in 1963. As another example, the fine dining room, now named the Wright’s at the Biltmore, has been completely remodeled.
One recent addition has been the Ocatilla. This additional luxury space constitutes a mini hotel within the larger Biltmore. Its 120 rooms come complete with a separate swimming pool and guest lounge for breakfast and breaks. The private concierge ensures that your every need is covered.
All and all, our stay at the Arizona Biltmore exceeded all my expectations and childhood dreams.
The Biltmore Hotel rightfully bills itself as the “jewel of the desert.” Its tradition and elegance, combined with updated features and amenities, make it worthy of that acclaim. To coin a phrase, There is more and more from the Biltmore.