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Historic Hotel Syracuse Saved

Syracuse native Ed Riley led the restoration of the Hotel Syracuse, bringing it back to its glory days.
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Hotel Syracuse, Syracuse, NY, now the Marriott Syracuse Downtown
Ed Riley, formerly of Pyramid Hotel Group, Boston, MA; Holmes-King-Kallquist & Associates (HKK), Syracuse, NY, Bruce King, AIA, Jamie Williams, AIA; MLG Architects, New York, NY, Mario LaGuardia, AIA.

If Ed Riley had not stepped up to the plate, Hotel Syracuse, one of the city’s most revered landmark buildings, would probably be staring at a wrecking ball today. In 2014, some 90 years after the hotel’s gala opening, Riley acquired the beleaguered structure and announced a $70-million+ restoration project aimed at returning the expansive historic spaces to their former grandeur.

By hotel standards then and now, the Hotel Syracuse is massive. Triangular in shape and comprised of three main towers totaling 473,000 square feet with 612 guest rooms, the architecture is compelling throughout, with towering ceilings, opulent chandeliers, and elegant, extraordinarily detailed decoration and embellishment.

Walk into the huge lobby (think of a football field) and you are transported to a bygone era. Stand in the magnificent Persian Terrace (formerly the Terrace Room) and you can hear a big band orchestra playing swing music to a packed dining room, everyone dressed to the nines, eating, singing, dancing and surreptitiously sipping on small flasks. Gaze around the palatial Grand Ballroom and you can conjure all those lavish weddings, bar mitzvahs and high school proms, and you can feel the wild and raucous celebration of a great old New Year’s Eve.

It was the Roaring Twenties and Hotel Syracuse was one its symbols. People knew how to have a good time back then and they did their carefree merriment in style. It was an affluent era and Hotel Syracuse was the place to be. Five presidents stayed there along with countless celebrities, including John Lennon, who celebrated his 30th birthday by staying for an entire week.

The hotel was designed by William Stone Post of George B. Post & Sons. George Post was a prominent New York architect whose eclectic designs include the New York Stock Exchange Building, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s French chateau on Fifth Avenue and the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Building in Brooklyn. His eight-story Equitable Life Assurance Society on Broadway was the first building designed to use elevators.

A fourth-generation native of Syracuse, Ed Riley has great passion for his hometown. This is where his extended family resides, where he went to school, got married and raised three children. He even took his eventual bride-to-be to the high school prom at the Hotel Syracuse.

A Passion for Old Hotels

Riley’s other great passion is old hotels that are architecturally significant. An architect for more than 40 years, he specializes in their restoration and has a resume that includes such historic gems as the Fairfax at Embassy Row Hotel in Washington, DC, the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix and the Claremont Hotel in San Francisco. Naturally, he has a special fondness for Hotel Syracuse. “To me, this building is the heart of Syracuse. It’s where the city

keeps its memories. It was painful to see it so abused and neglected. I just could not abide the idea of letting it die, especially in my hometown,” he says.

According to Riley, Hotel Syracuse is one of the best and last examples of neoclassical design, which is derived from three enduring principles of architecture:

Firmitas (Durability) – It should stand up robustly and remain in good condition.

Utilitas (Utility) – It should be useful and function well for people using it.

Venustas (Beauty) – It should delight people and raise their spirits.

Riley’s acquisition of the Hotel Syracuse came after decades of ownership changes, dubious reconfigurations, failed restoration attempts and questionable business models that led to a shutdown in 2004 and bankruptcy in 2008, accompanied, of course, by protracted litigation. The legal wrangling ended in early 2014 when the City of Syracuse wrested the property out of limbo by applying the power of eminent domain. This opened the door to a $1.6-million sale to Ed Riley, contingent upon his commitment to restore the building and revive the hotel. Riley put down $500K of his own toward the sale.

When he purchased Hotel Syracuse, Riley was fully aware that the grand “Old Gal” (as he calls it) of central New York was in a moribund state, which is to say that it had become an astounding smorgasbord of dilapidation and debris: extensive water damage from a profusely leaking roof; broken pipes and no running water; an antiquated electrical grid from 1924; a missing original lobby reception desk; fallen pieces of plaster in every room; the terrazzo and wood floors damaged and covered in glue; holes in almost every wall and ceiling; all decorative finishes painted over in white; a delaminated plaster-on-metal-lath ceiling in the Persian Terrace; marginally functional elevators; damaged ornament in every room.

The list goes on and on, and doesn’t even include the many questionable additions that would have to be ripped out. And to make matters worse, the place was stuffed with debris – in the main lobby, in the hallways, in the guest rooms – everywhere.

So, when confronted with this seemingly immitigable mess, and very much aware of his predecessors’ failed attempts at sustaining the hotel, what does Riley do? He decides to leave his plush skyscraper office and well-paying job as Senior Vice President of the Pyramid Hotel Group, a top architectural restoration firm in Boston, and plant himself in a makeshift office in a vacant building with no running water, to take on a challenge that arguably no other person on this planet would even consider.

“I realize that this is quite an undertaking, and I’m very much aware of the hotel’s history,” says Riley. “But I’ve done this type of restoration many times before and I know what it takes to do the job right. Yes, it is a somewhat more daunting challenge than the others I’ve taken on, but it can be done. In the end, it will be worth it.”

The first part of the daunting challenge was to raise the $70 million+ to pay for the restoration. This was achieved through a complex array of public and private financings along with government grants, incentives and tax credits. Suffice it to say that Riley was able to get the deal done because there are still enough people of culture and influence in Central New York who appreciate that Hotel Syracuse deserves to be preserved, and that Ed Riley is the man to preserve it.

With the financing in place, Riley’s next task was to remove all the debris from the building, demolish the unwanted additions and choose the right architects to design and oversee the restoration. The sole objective of this project was to restore the building to its grandeur, remaining as faithful as possible to the original design and decoration.

Riley chose locally-based Holmes-King-Kallquist & Associates (HKK) to provide architectural services relating to all the historic components of the building’s restoration, including the overall preservation strategy.

Exterior restoration included parapet reconstruction; the patching, replacement and cleaning of brick masonry, decorative cast stone and terra cotta components; the restoration and recreation of historic window systems; the replication of ground-floor storefront systems, historic marquees and signage; and the replacement of all roofing systems.

Interior restoration included all historic spaces on the ground floor, lobby, mezzanine, typical hotel floors, and tenth-floor ballroom level. Historic elevator cab interiors, main reception desk, original millwork, decorative cast plaster and polychromatic painted wall and ceiling finishes and numerous other original architectural components were recreated. In addition, HKK was responsible for the design of all of the new restaurants and bars in the historic interior spaces.

Many Challenges

“This entire project presented myriad challenges,” says architect Jamie Williams, senior associate with HKK, which was responsible for preparing all of the design and construction documents. “The one that stands out in my mind was conducting months of field work over the course of a Central New York winter in an unheated building. Man, it was cold.”

Williams cites one other particularly difficult challenge involving the severely damaged historic masonry façade, which required extensive restoration of complex components, including brick, decorative cast terra cotta, monumental wood windows, a bronze revolving door entrance, and the replication of the original decorative marquis.

The renovation and restoration of the hotel guest rooms and housing quarters were assigned to New York-based MLG Architects, which has a track record of designing memorable, high-quality hospitality spaces. MLG’s primary task was to convert 600+ small guest rooms into 281 spacious, luxury rooms and historic suites, replete with ornate decorative finishes and the finest modern fixtures.

The restoration of the Hotel Syracuse involved more than 100 trades and an army of tradesmen, including artisans and craftsmen of the highest skill. A prime example is the venerable and locally based Stickley Audi & Company (formerly L. & L.G. Stickley Inc.), which made the furniture for the hotel’s opening. It was only fitting that Riley would hire Stickley to refurbish the original wood “coffin guest room doors.”

Grand Light of Seymour, CT, had the very challenging task of taking down, refurbishing, rewiring and replicating the amazing array of chandeliers located in the Persian Terrace, Grand Ball Room, and Main Lobby. The chandeliers in each location were originally fabricated using a wide range of different materials, including plaster, brass, bronze and steel, which required the Grand Light artisans to use a considerable variety of restoration techniques.

For the chandeliers in the Grand Ballroom, thousands of crystal beaded strands were replicated using Austrian crystal. A key element in the restoration of both the old and new fixtures was to ensure that all of the colors applied during this process were historically accurate and matched the originals, as well as complement the colors of the ornate murals in the hotel.

The Color Scheme of Hotel Syracuse

Riley is particularly proud of the restoration of the entire color scheme in the Persian Terrace and Grand Ballroom, conducted by New Jersey’s John Tiedemann Inc. (JTI), which was also responsible for restoring the extensive historic ornamental plaster and flat plaster, and for consolidating a delaminated section of plaster-on-metal lath ceiling.

After removing the white overpaint, JTI artist and artisan Katerina Spilio created exposure windows to reveal the colors and styles of the original decorative painting throughout the huge rooms. She then developed a color palate and techniques involving 15 different finishes to match the original decorative schemes, including faux marble, faux wood, decorative glazes, faux stone and stencils. “It was very important for us to get back to the original colors and designs,” Riley says, making special mention of faux plaster painting on the Persian Terrace ceiling that uncannily resembles wood.

Riley also points to the restoration of the 40-ft. mural located behind the lobby reception desk, which had been inexplicably hidden by mirrors. The mural was painted in 1948 by artist Carl Roters to depict the history of Syracuse to celebrate its centennial birthday. Marek Mularski, art conservator with John Tiedemann Inc., began the mural’s restoration by carefully removing old varnishes and grime from the surface. He then repaired the damaged areas and in-painted wherever necessary, being careful to match Roters’ long and distinctive brush strokes.

Going forward, Hotel Syracuse will operate under the banner of Marriott Syracuse Downtown, and will be the official hotel for the Onondaga County Convention Centre just two blocks away. Riley expects the convention centre to generate 20 percent of the hotel’s guests. It should also draw well from the nearby hospitals and Syracuse University. The hotel has already booked 90 weddings for the next 12 months.

The restored historic hotel was scheduled to reopen in August of this year, following the “Forever Hotel Syracuse Gala,” which was attended by 1,500 people. When operating at full throttle, the hotel will feature three restaurants, five bars and employ 300 people.

The “Old Gal” has come back to life, her venustas has been restored and she’s ready to delight and raise people’s spirits again. The timing couldn’t be better. It’s just a few short years until 2020 and the start of what Ed Riley hopes will be a renewal of the Roaring Twenties.

Select Suppliers
General Contractor: The Hayner Hoyt Corporation, Syracuse, NY
Restoration of mural and historic plaster; decorative finishes; consolidation of delaminated plaster on expanded metal lath: John Tiedemann, Inc., North Arlington, NJ
Refurbished wood doors: Stickley Audi & Company, Manlius, NY
Restoration/replication of historic lighting: Grand Light, Seymour, CT
Marquis reconstruction: PWF Enterprises, Phoenix, NY
Plaster treatment methods and products: Historic Plaster Conservation Services USA, North Arlington, NJ

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