Tuesday, January 15, 2008

First elegant and grand, later rowdy and raucous: the Willard Hotel in Tucson

In 1929, my grandfather piled all of his belongings into his Cadillac and left his hometown, Little River, Kansas, for good. He drove straight through, "bucking the snow" as he writes, and didn't stop until he hit Tucson, Arizona. He was a fledging pulp fiction writer, already having published well over a dozen stories for Wild West Weekly since he began submitting stories for them the summer before. Now, at 24 years old, already divorced and the father of a four year old, he was ready to start his new life as a red blooded writer of shoot em up Westerns. And he picked the perfect place to start in Tucson: the Willard Hotel.
He picked the Willard, he writes in Pulp Writer, because it was "the horsiest and cowiest lobby in Pima County. Most of the professional ropers, riders, and bulldoggers roomed there while waiting for the rodeo (pronounced ro-DAY-o in the Southwest)to get under way.In addition, ranchers and stock buyers used the Willard for a rendevous, and it was there that I met the late Ted Smith, Ed Ryan, and other well-known Tucsonians."

Mr. Willard Wright and Mr. Charles Fleming took over the hotel from Alexander Casey in 1902 and changed the name of the hotel from the Hotel Casey to the Willard. I don't think they had a wild West hotel in mind when they remodeled the hotel. Rather, Messrs. Wright and Fleming, who leased the hotel from Mr. Casey, designed what only be described as a "Grand Hotel," one of the first, if not the first, for Tucson. Certainly the town was excited when the hotel was being built, because several articles appeared making note of the progress and the furniture buying.

The Tucson Citizen wrote on writes on September 2, 1902 that "their efforts are far enough advanced to show that a unique and in all respects high-grace hotel - probably not surpassed in Arizona - will be the result."

"The bedrooms," the Citizen wrote, "both upstairs and down, single or in suites of two, three, or four - were designed for convenience and fitted for solid comfort. They contain splendid, heavy bedroom furniture of solid oak and birdseye maple, the large windows are elegantly curtained, the floors are covered with Brussels carpets and rugs of the finest texture, and last but not least, the beds are designed to make their occupants forget the troubles and cares of the work-a-day world." Even Arizona territory Brodie stopped to stay.

But things got off to a rocky start. An article in the Star on July 8, 1903 reported that the Willard was going to close. Mr. Wright, it appeared, had gone to Mr. Casey and requested a reduction in the rent. The rent was way too high, Mr. Wright thought, more than the business warranted. But Mr. Casey in response just turned off the water. Mr. Wright announced that he would be forced to close and move all of his guests. Records are sketchy, but it appeared that a William Siewert, a professional chef, took over the hotel shortly afterwards.

I don't know if the Willard had retained its elegance by the time my grandfather showed up in 1929. But it had become one of the most popular stays in Tucson - maybe legendary. Paul writes that it was a gathering point for many brave folk who liked to troop down to the Mexican border to watch the local skirmishes during Mexico's revolutionary wars. He writes of colorful encounters with locals down there and a few soldiers too, which I won't go into here for space purposes. Driving down to the border to watch an early version of a drive in movie, only with real bullets, apparently was a popular pasttime for many of the more adventurous Tucsonians.

The Willard, like so many unfortunate grand historic buildings, fell on hard times after World War II. According to "Yesterday's Tucson Today" (Harry and Mary Cuming), the hotel was converted to the Pueblo Hotel and Apartments in 1944. Sometime after that, a pool was added, which was the talk of the town at the time. The neon pool sign, a swimmer, stood for many years. In 1984, the hotel was condemned by the city and was a harbor for transients and cats for many years.

In 1991, a grand stroke of luck occurred. Six Tucson businessmen bought the hotel and decided to restore it to its original grandness. Accordig to the Tucson citizen on February 6, 1993, the law firm of Hirsh, Davis, Walker and Piccarreta and a development firm, R.B. Price, spent about $1.5 million to renovate the building. More photos were posted on the firm's website, but unfortunately, as of today, the web site is inaccessible. We could use more local business people like these folks - in every town.

1 comment:

Dreaming Casually said...

I was wondering if I could use the photo you have of the Willard Hotel for an article I am writing about it. I cannot seem to find many photos of it, and also wondered who your source was originally? I will give you credit for allowing me to use the photo, as well as noting your original source for my article if you allow me permission to use it. (jaimerubio213@gmail.com) thank you for your time.-- J'aime Rubio, author