The two buildings stand together on Commerce Street, frozen by a spell of decrepitude, waiting for a hero to restore their youth and viability. The Statler Hilton and the old Dallas Public Library, once lauded as outstanding examples of midcentury modern architecture, are a wreck.
Late last year, the City Council and the mayor’s office made encouraging noises about the Statler’s role in the revitalization of downtown. And almost on cue, a new suitor appeared. His name was Richard Chiu, president of Warwick International, a luxury hotel chain headquartered in Paris. Chiu apparently had—or has—ideas for the Statler, possibly combining a boutique hotel, condominiums, offices, and retail. City Hall prepared incentives for him to redevelop the property, including trading green cards for investment. Councilman Ron Natinsky evinced guarded optimism. “We’re expecting a concrete proposal first quarter of 2010,” he told me. Contacted through his company, Chiu promised a face-to-face interview when he came to Dallas sometime in the new year.
But January turned to February and February into March, and there was no sign of Richard Chiu. City Hall turned tight-lipped. Then Chiu’s publicist revealed that he had already come and gone. I was invited to submit written questions. Having done that, there seemed nothing left to do but go downtown, stand in front of the Statler, and face the void.
When you stare up its axis, where the two arms of the Statler stretch out in an expanse of glass and porcelain, it’s easy to imagine yourself in the 1950s, when Dallas was a brash city run by larger-than-life men. The building reflects them perfectly: big, strident, modern, and completely masculine without even a hint of irony. Over the years, there were attempts to update its unrelentingly spare interior, but what resulted were successive layers of ’60s and ’70s cheesiness. By 1988, when Hilton sold the hotel to a group of Hong Kong investors named Hamsher International, the decor was down to a kind of brick-and-gaslight butchiness. It lived on as the Dallas Grand Hotel until 2001, when Hamsher locked the doors. According to Jason Grant, a photographer and downtown resident whose Nostalgic Glass website documents both buildings’ history, “Hamsher didn’t bother capping the plumbing. As a result, the place smells bad.” Without electricity to run the sump pumps, the basement filled with water. By 2005, Hamsher owed the city roughly half a million dollars in taxes. Rather than pay up, the company handed over to the city the block of mostly empty buildings and parking garages adjacent to it. It was leveled and became Main Street Garden.
Many developers have come to stare at the Statler, to see the past and look for the possibilities of the future. One such person was Houston developer Gary Goff. “We put a six-month contract on the two properties,” he says. “The A/C and mechanicals would have to be replaced, plus some asbestos abatement, but nothing really surprising.” Goff also envisioned a mixed-use conversion. “There’s a lot of attraction for a building like that, a lot of nostalgia. The ballroom and that wraparound bar on the ground floor? They were incredible spaces.”
Preservation architect Marcel Quimby agrees. “The Statler has great bones,” she says. “It is a building that people want to be associated with.”
The library, on the other hand, requires immediate action. “A few years ago, its roof developed some serious leaks,” says Gary Morgan, vice president of construction for Aguirre Roden, a Dallas-based architecture, engineering, and construction firm. “Hamsher wouldn’t fix it, and now the damage is spreading to the rest of the building.”
Goff says his firm gave up on the project not because of the engineering challenges. “We always had the sense that the city was placing roadblocks in front of us, that some parties did not want the project to happen,” he says.
“It might have been true in 2005, but certainly not now,” counters Morgan. “The city wants to see them back up and running.”
Richard Chiu, the suitor who is—or was—going to save the Statler from Hamsher International, attended Cambridge and is a permanent fellow at Pembroke College. He knows the value of a good mistress story. He says he bought the Warwick Hotel in New York and borrowed the name for his hotel chain after learning that the Warwick had been built by publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst. Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies, was performing at the Ziegfeld Follies, and he needed a place where he and his friends could stay whenever they came to catch her show. Almost every news article on Richard Chiu includes this story and the scant details of his educational background, as few reporters have ever gotten closer to Chiu than the corporate handout containing them. For a man who runs a high-profile company that owns more than 40 hotels around the world, he has left a surprisingly small footprint on the media.
But he made a big impression in Australia. In the late 1980s, the New South Wales government handed Chiu the lease to a struggling historical theme park called Old Sydney Town. Chiu promised to invest millions of dollars putting in a hotel, 18-hole golf course, and amusement park. But as former staffer Brendan Ryan remembers it, the only improvement was some new shrubbery. “Old Sydney Town went downhill very rapidly,” he says. “Staff was not replaced, and authenticity went out the windows. It became a ghost town.” Then the government sold the place to Chiu for a price generally considered well below the park’s book value. In 2003, it closed. Many locals felt they’d been had.
One of the few interviews Chiu has ever given was in Dallas two years ago to KRLD 1080 about his acquisition of the Melrose Hotel, on Oak Lawn Avenue. “When we acquire a hotel, we particularly like it to be something with some history behind it,” Chiu said, adding that he was looking forward to being in Dallas and running a great Dallas hotel.
But Chiu is no newcomer to the Dallas hotel business. In fact, he entered it 20 years ago, when he bought what was then Dallas’ greatest hotel, the Statler, and ran it into the ground the same way he did Old Sydney Town. Of course, technically speaking, it wasn’t the Richard Chiu of Warwick International. It was Hamsher International, a Hong Kong investment consortium consisting of Richard Chiu and his brother.
A week after sending the questions to Chiu, an answer came back that it was too early to talk publicly about his plans for the Statler and the library. A few days later, the publicist conveyed Chiu’s assertion that he is not the owner of the Statler, but merely “acting as the agent for a family member.”
Neither the library nor the Statler deserves to have a future merely because they have a past or even because they are an irreplaceable part of our heritage. But standing across from the burgeoning Main Street Garden, they have the potential to generate foot traffic and city life better than new buildings ever could. Does Chiu see things that way? Does the family member for whom he acts as an agent? It would be nice to hear what his plans are—or simply be reassured that he’s still committed to the project. But for now there is just silence. The spell remains unbroken.
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Editor’s Note: We received this letter from Richard Chiu on April 8, 2011, nearly a year after this story was published. The letter came via international mail from Warwick’s Paris office. We stand by our story.