Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Moby Dick and the Statler Hilton

Every profession has its Moby Dick; a challenge that is the pinnacle of professional; something so difficult that everyone with the ambition to be great aspires to it but only the truly great achieve.

In baseball, that challenge is to reach of batting average of .400—something that hasn’t been done since Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter, managed it by hitting .406 back in 1941. The achievement is legendary for the way Williams accomplished it. He was hitting over .400 going into a closing day double header whose results didn’t matter in the standings. His manager offered to let him sit the games out to preserve his .400 average (at that time it had been over a decade since anybody had managed the feat), but Williams refused, saying “If I can’t hit .400 all the way I don’t deserve it.” He went six for eight to raise his average to .406.

In basketball, the challenge is to score 100 points in an NBA game. It’s only been done once, by Wilt Chamberlain in a game played in Hershey, Pennslyvania on March 2, 1962. Only 4,162 people attended the game, but later many more thousands claimed to have seen the most famous individual performance in the history of basketball.

For downtown Dallas real estate developers, that challenge is to renovate the Statler Hilton, which is probably why a standing room only crowd of over 200 attended a recent lecture by Dallas architect and preservationist Marcel Quimby (her website is here: http://www.quimbymccoy.com/index.html) on the Statler Hilton a few weeks ago. The Statler Hilton is often called the “first modern hotel”. It opened in 1956 with the kind of fanfare that we don’t see anymore. One airplane was chartered to fly luminaries in from the west coast and one from the east. It took one thousand people to staff the hotel, included all sorts of innovations in architecture and hotel design, and, when Conrad Hilton himself opened it, the Statler Hilton was the Southwest’s premier hotspot.

Ms. Quimby’s talk was interesting—especially when a women who had worked at the hotel’s opening interrupted to give her personal recollections—and informative. The discussion continued until it seemed the audience would have to be ejected, not just asked to leave. Much of the fascination, I believe, comes from just how difficult it would be to restore the Statler Hilton.

The building is enormous, 600,000 sq. ft. and almost 1,000 hotel rooms. The hotel has been closed for quite a few years. The sizes of the rooms and other features aren’t up to current standards—the rooms are too small, the doors too narrow, and the ceilings too low. The Statler Hilton is owned by an investment group from the Hong Kong who don’t seem likely to sell it to anyone at a bargain price. The hotel is full of asbestos. In short, it’s too big, too expensive, will take too much work and no one has been able to figure out a way to use all that space that is economically viable.

But people keep trying—I feel the attraction myself. I think a great part of the desire to rebuild the Statler Hilton (besides the “good” reasons related to it historical significance) is no different than explanation to Sir Edmund Hillary when asked why he climbed Mt. Everest—perhaps the greatest challenge of all, “Because it is there.”

You can read more about the hotel, among other places, here: http://nostalgicglass.org/display.php?pn=18.

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