I finally made it into the Westward Ho.
Big deal, you say? You try getting past the security guard in the lobby of this downtown landmark. I attempted it often over the years and always failed. Once, I claimed to be looking for a place for my elderly parents to live; another time, I tried sneaking in when the guard wasn't at his post.
"But I write about old buildings for a newspaper!" I pleaded with him as he escorted me to the door. "You don't even have to tell anyone I was here!"
Nothing worked. And then, a few weeks ago, a fellow I'd never met before telephoned to ask why I never write about the Ho. When I griped that the former hotel, now a home for senior citizens and the disabled, wouldn't let me in, he offered to show me around. "I live there," Dennis McGarry admitted. "Come on over, and I'll give you a tour."
I leapt. And not only did I finally see the inside of this wonderful old skyscraper located at 618 North Central Avenue, but I got the skinny on its recent past, because McGarry, a retired railway chef, is a Ho historian.
I was nervous about what I'd find there. After the Ho was converted to HUD housing in 1981, it languished for more than 20 years. I worried that the yearlong, $8 million remodel of 2003 would have erased the hotel's former grand charm. For 50 years, the 16-story building — a Renaissance Revival beauty with an ornate, scrolled façade of masonry and concrete — had been the city's premier luxury hotel. Completed in 1928, the 208-foot building was then the tallest in Arizona. Today, I was certain, its interior splendor would be long gone, covered up with the dropped ceiling tiles and indoor-outdoor carpeting and wheelchair ramps of a nursing home.
Nope. What I found was the original pressed-tin-and-plaster-molded ceilings, supported by six-sided pillars trimmed with copper cornices. Wall-mounted sconces and 83-year-old gilt chandeliers lighted the lobby, a mammoth cave that's still covered in the Spanish wall tiling it displayed at its grand opening. The oak-clad arches are wide enough to drive a Hummer through, and I nearly wept when I saw that the lobby's original glass display cases, which now house antique stained glass artwork, are all still in place.
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Oh, sure, I had to squint to imagine what the Concho Room looked like before it was carpeted and filled with foldable tables and chairs, but, hey — the Concho Room is still there, and that's huge news in a tear-down town like ours. The original dance floor remains undisturbed, its elaborate turquoise and tan tiling entirely intact. The fireplace mantel remains untouched in the Kachina Room, a former reading lounge off the long-gone Ho library. Also gone is the Thunderbird Room, a 1,200-seat dining hall used for post-World War II-era conventions; in its place are an additional 32 one-bedroom apartments.
McGarry confirmed rumors I'd heard for years about the Ho's underground, flapper-era speakeasy and its basement racketeers' lair, where Bugsy Siegel entertained Hollywood dignitaries and prostitutes. (More interesting than the hotel's history of housing celebrities — what big hotel didn't? — are the hilarious inaccuracies in ASU's website honoring the Ho's famous guests. Myrna Loy is mentioned as the star of Meet Me in St. Louis, a film in which she didn't appear, and a photograph of Jack Benny claims he is Al Capone, star of The Jack Benny Program.) McGarry also reminded me that the broadcast tower mounted on top of the Westward Ho, originally leased by KPHO-TV, is taller (at 268 feet) than the hotel itself.
I wrote down everything McGarry told me, although we kept getting interrupted by the Ho's hyper-vigilant security staff, who didn't like that I'd brought a photographer with me and eventually chased him off. I didn't care. I'd seen the Turquoise Room (once reserved for President John F. Kennedy, who liked to hold meetings there, and now a rec room where residents play mah-jongg and work jigsaw puzzles) and was taken — in a wonderfully ancient elevator — up to the 15th-floor observation deck that used to be an oak-paneled "gentlemen's club."
I looked down at the former business district of Phoenix and, squinting again, pretended it was 1931 and that Dennis McGarry, a nice guy who loves old buildings as much as I do, was a Prohibition gangster I was meeting there for a drink.