Story by Barbara Penny Angelakis
Photography by Manos Angelakis
A Waldorf Astoria Resort
2400 East Missouri Avenue
Phoenix, AZ 85016
The “Jewel of the Desert”
The controversy is ongoing. Did Frank Lloyd Wright legitimately have a hand in designing the Arizona Biltmore or did he try to horn in and take over the project from Harvard trained architect Albert Chase McArthur? During our recent stay, resident historian Becky Blaine walked us through the halls and the history of this elegant hotel and told us the fascinating story behind the building of the Biltmore.
Charles McArthur, Albert’s younger brother had followed Warren, an even younger brother, to Arizona in 1923. Charles had an entrepreneurial personality and taking advantage of the wide open opportunities, developed several enterprises until he stumbled upon the concept of sightseeing tours to visit natural phenomena and the Indian Reservations, both so prevalent in the undeveloped territory. Unfortunately, there were no facilities for hosting his wealthy clients and the idea of building a luxury hotel in the desert seemed a perfect extension of his business. Charles managed to raise the capital, in good part from the chewing gum magnet William Rigley Jr., and invited his older brother Albert to be the architect.
Albert had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago for a few years and was intrigued by the concept of organic architecture for his building, especially taking into consideration the harsh physical conditions of the Arizona desert landscape. Believing Wright had a patent for his hollow pre-cast concrete block design – which made from local sand, soil and water, Albert believed would keep the building cool in summer and warm in winter – he wrote Wright for the patent rights for which he was willing to pay a handsome fee. No question that Wright was an innovative genius, but he was also an egomaniac and opportunist and when McArthur told him of the project, Wright jumped at the chance and rushed off to Arizona. It is unclear if McArthur asked for his help or if he “volunteered” it, but one thing is certain, Wright never held a patent for the blocks.
Eventually the two architects had a falling out – perhaps when Wright’s treachery was discovered - and Wright had to return the fee he had undeservedly received for the “Biltmore Block” formula. He moved further into the desert and built Taliesin West, literally from what was available on the land… but this is another fascinating story for another time… back to the Biltmore…
Eventually over 250,000 of the blocks were made on site and the source for the distinctive geometric pattern to this day is still under dispute; some say stylized palm trees or abstracts inspired by cacti, strangely enough to me it looks like a fractal, an unknown concept at that time. Sparing no expense on the building, McArthur eventually ran out of capital, and it fell to William and Ada Rigley to complete the project. The hotel opened in 1929 as the Rigley’s private playground for the rich and famous. William was awestruck by celebrities and the Biltmore’s guests were by invitation only and often stayed gratis. The hotel was opened only six months a year and frequently stars, the likes of Clark Gable, had their own suites where they stayed months at a time – his rooms were on the landing overlooking the lobby so he could see who was coming and going - a favorite pastime of his. Irvin Berlin wrote “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” by the pool, Harpo Marx honeymooned here, the Tequila Sunrise drink was birthed here in 1940, the glamorous full-dress dinners and balls are legend, and endless are the stories of The Biltmore’s famous guests. The Biltmore has the distinction of having entertained every standing President since Herbert Hoover, in fact Ronald and Nancy Reagan honeymooned in Cottage L. Becky is hoping that President Obama will not break the chain.
The Biltmore’s main building exits on to a broad lawn with flower beds, fountains and sculptures. Several of the fascinating statues scattered throughout the property are the “Sprites”, sometimes referred to as the “lost children of Frank Lloyd Wright”. The statues were created in 1914 by sculptor Alfonzo Iannelli in a strange art-deco/Japanese influenced style favored by Wright for a project he was working on in Chicago. The project was scraped and it was feared the Sprites were lost. Fortunately six were located and now live in the Biltmore garden as an endless source of mystery and delight to the guests.
Over the years the hotel has undergone upgrades and restorations and is now probably more a reflection of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design style than it was when it was built. The new Ocatilla wing, a hotel within a hotel, is the ultimate in luxury. A courtesy room in the wing has a key entry for the guests where breakfast, snacks and drinks are available along with a business center and full concierge services. Details of the famous blocks are lighted for dramatic effect in the bed frames and in the bathroom tiles in the Ocatilla rooms, while black/white photographs of the early Biltmore grace the hallways. The wing faces out on the garden which makes for a lovely stroll, accented by the fragrance of flowers, as you make your way towards the main building. All of the free standing casitas and buildings encircle the lawn and are decorated with the famous “Biltmore Blocks” from the 34 still existing original forms. www.ocatilla.com
The Arizona Biltmore takes its history seriously and daily has a complimentary tour of the famous building, pointing out much of the celebrated art work that graces the walls and garden. And least I neglect to mention the fine dining experience at Wright’s, see review in Restaurants, and the also terrific but less formal Frank and Albert’s. www.frankandalberts.com
Of course there are several pools, one featuring a 92-foot-long waterslide; two 18-hole PGA golf courses, plus a putting green and driving ranges; seven tennis courts; life-size lawn chess; and endless walks and gardens to wile away the time.
I had such a good time at the Arizona Biltmore. I loved the history, and the stories, and the shear beauty of the property. There were so many areas to explore, once we passed an opening between buildings and found ourselves in a proper formal English garden with the chefs herb garden off to the side. Another time we heard the story of the Catalina pool – the all time favorite of Marilyn Monroe’s - that was initially covered with hand-painted imported tiles that over the years had been resurfaced and is now half the depth of the original. We had fun searching out all the six Sprites, and of course shopping in the boutiques that line the walk. And we especially enjoyed the warmth and friendliness of the staff that were so eager to accommodate. The Arizona Biltmore is not your usual hotel… it is definitely one of a kind.
© February 2012 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.