Discover luxurious history and Frank Lloyd Wright connections on the Jewel of the Desert tour of the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix
The Arizona Biltmore has been an Arizona landmark since it opened in 1929 and became known as The Jewel of the Desert. When the hotel was first built, it was 8 miles outside of Phoenix. Today the city surrounds it and the area around the hotel has become known as the Biltmore District. The hotel is strongly associated with renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright although he did not design or build it. On a recent history tour of the hotel I learned its rich history and discovered its current magnificence.
The hotel was the brainchild of two brothers, Charles and Warren McArthur. They received backing from the Bowman Biltmore hotel chain. They purchased land at 24 cents an acres and engaged their architect brother, Albert Chase McArthur, to design the building. Albert McArthur was a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright. He designed the building in the Wright style as a tribute to his teacher.
Frank Lloyd Wright was engaged as a consultant to the project. When he saw the bricks, he claimed he held a patent on the concrete block approach and the brothers paid him $10,000 for use of the design. They later discovered he had no such patent. During his six months as a consultant, Wright objected to many aspects of the construction, particularly the height of the building. The Biltmore was designed as a four story hotel. Wright felt three stories was ideal.
The building of the Biltmore was estimated to cost $1 million. As the project progressed it became clear the price would be closer to $2.25 million. William Wrigley, owner of Wrigley’s Chewing Gum and the Chicago Cubs baseball team, provided additional financing and eventually bought the McArthur brothers out.
Invitations to the opening were sent to 600 people with the expectation that not everyone would be able to attend. When almost everyone accepted, 200 invitations were cancelled and the opening spread over 3 days to accommodate everyone. On opening day, Scenic Airlines flew over the hotel and dropped a wooden key and a dozen roses on the roof of the ballroom. The key is on display above the fireplace in the History Room.
The Wrigley’s owned the hotel for 44 years. During that time, the hotel was not open to the general public. You didn’t stay without an invitation. Invitations were sent to movie stars and other famous people.
Catalina pool was the first pool built at the hotel. It was Marilyn Munroe’s favourite pool. Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” around this pool. The villas beside the pool are owned by a private company. Through an arrangement between that company and the Biltmore, suites are available for booking by the Biltmore when owners aren’t using them with the money split 50-50. Guests have full access to all Biltmore facilities.
There was a room at the Biltmore that became known as the Mystery Room. It was where the men went to smoke cigars and have a drink. This was during the days of Prohibition. The bar was behind a revolving bookcase. A beacon light atop the hotel, officially put there to light the way for guests, would be turned on and flashed on the skylight of the Mystery Room when police cars approached. When guests in the room saw that light, they would return to their rooms through secret passageways. Neither the hidden bar or the secret passageways exist today, although the Mystery Room has been renovated in a style reminiscent of that era. Unfortunately it was booked the day of the tour and I was unable to see it.
There was no air-conditioning in the original Biltmore. It was closed during the hot summer months. Guests often came and stayed for the season. For the convenience of guests in those pre-Internet days, the hotel contained an office of the New York Stock Exchange. In 1963, air-conditioning was added to allow the hotel to stay open year-round.
The lobby was rebuilt after a 1973 fire. The gold on the ceiling is not original. Lights hanging from the ceiling are also a later addition. Only lighting in original lobby was indirect, wall lighting. (Note that Frank Lloyd Wright was an innovator of indirect lighting.)
In 1973, the Wrigleys sold the hotel to Talley Industries. During installation of a new sprinkler system, a welding torch ignited a fire, causing extensive damage. Frank Lloyd Wright was no longer alive at this time, but the architectural firm he founded, Taliesin Associated Architects, was hired to do the renovations, which were completed in a record 82 days.
A stained glass display in the front entrance was donated by Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow after the 1973 renovations. The design is one Wright did for the cover of Liberty magazine. The magazine didn’t use it, saying it was too radical for their readers. Taliesin students used the design to create the stained glass window, entitled “Saguaro Forms and Cactus Flowers”.
In 1914 Frank Lloyd Wright designed sprites for Midway Gardens in Chicago. When Midway Gardens was demolished in 1929, the sprites were lost until they were unearthed in Wisconsin in 1945. It is not known how they wound up in Wisconsin. Mrs. Wright had a mold made of “Solemn Sprite”, from which six new sprites were cast and given to the Biltmore.
Over the years many famous people have stayed at the Arizona Biltmore. Thirteen presidents have stayed there. (An invitation has been extended to President Obama, but he has not yet stayed there as president. He did stay there when he was a Senator.) Rob, our informative and entertaining tour guide and historian, shared a few stories with us. One evening in the late 1980s, guests called the concierge desk around one in the morning, complaining about noise coming from the lobby bar. Instead of hearing “We’ll take care of it”, the response was “We know there is something going on there. Maybe you should come down and take a look.” Any guest who did come down had the good fortune to find Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Liza Minneli back from a concert and continuing to perform.
On another evening, the Biltmore’s pianist noticed Billy Joel sitting in the corner of the bar. The pianist began to play a number of Elton John songs. Eventually Billy Joel stood up and said “I know what you’re doing.” He took over the seat at the piano and announced “Now you will hear some real music” before beginning to play. Rob also told us about meeting the grandson of architect Albert McArthur. The grandson was in his seventies at the time. Rob took him to the all-day dining room Frank & Albert’s. He was not happy to see Albert’s name get second billing.
Over the years, the hotel has expanded and seen several renovations. Much of the refurbishment was inspired by the style of Frank Lloyd Wright. The history page on the hotel’s website says the hotel “is, in many ways, more Wrightian than when it was built.” The Biltmore Blocks are certainly visible everywhere. The original flooring was concrete (with area rugs). Thankfully, current flooring is either wall-to-wall carpet or wood.
Today the Arizona Biltmore is a Waldorf Astoria Resort owned by the Government of Singapore. The 39-acre resort offers 740 guest accommodations, a 22,000-square-foot spa, 8 swimming pools, 7 tennis courts, 2 18-hole golf courses, and 6 restaurants and bars. It has just completed a multi-millon dollar renovation.
The Arizona Biltmore is located at 244 E. Missouri Avenue in Phoenix, Arizona. Contact the Concierge Desk for information about their history tours.