Aquamarine and Gold: The Statler, Dallas' Work In Progress

For five years, the blue glow of the abandoned Statler Hotel on Commerce Street defended its sleeping base across the street from Main Street Garden. It was a guarded blue that streamed 19 stories down: saturated, primary, synonymous with goodwill for the police and the Chase bank logo, meant to keep loiterers away.

While cranes and trucks add constantly to Dallas' downtown cityscape, this blue has been quietly subtracted from it. Now a few bright spots checker the hotel's curved facade in the windows of guest rooms and residences. At the top of its Y-and-T structure the words STATLER HILTON are restored to the mast in cooly lit Helvetica. Inside, the hotel is open, but it’s not finished. Would-be sunbathers on Thanksgiving weekend weren't let up on the elevator to the forthcoming rooftop garden and pool. Anyone who got to peek was a construction worker or friend of the bartender. The future gift shop is an empty shelf, around the corner from gold-metallic phone booths that looked ransacked of their handsets and cords. Sunday at brunchtime people streamed in and out of the hotel’s airy diner past construction in progress; casually, ladders and plastic sheets peeked out from dividers made of aquamarine glass.  

This color, the idea of water as expressed on most classroom globes, is everywhere in the Statler, and somehow, suddenly, noticeable outside it. This is at least as unlikely as the hotel’s successful renovation. Powers that be in this city haven’t exactly played for team mid-century-aquamarine. A tower at 211 North Ervay with alternating azure and aquamarine panels— origin 1958— was called an eyesore and almost drew the punishment of a good demolishing at Mayor Laura Miller’s directive in 2004. Preservation Dallas moved to keep it safe by including it on a list of Dallas’ Most Endangered Historic Places. It was the first such list ever made by the coalition. One could say many a Dallas building owes its life in part to 211 North Ervay and its uncommon bursts of that hue, a standout amid shades of gunmetal and sand.

Now, in the Statler, you can see aquamarine dance with slate blue and gold in the broad strokes of paintings hanging on guest room walls, on the key cards. And from rooms with city views there’s the aquamarine tinges in the facade of the redone Mercantile building. Downstairs in that diner, the restaurant’s name, Overeasy, is spelled out in aquamarine LED that echoes through the glass that joins it to the lobby, and the street.  

The Statler’s presence in Dallas when it officially opened in 1956 wasn’t striking for the newfangled less-is-more attitudes of mid-century modern design, per se. Dallas was already well behind other cities in shedding weight to embrace the trends of the fifties.  A semblance of progress was just a matter of time, and the Statler chain was known for current fashions. It wasn’t what the Dallas incarnation had that surprised critics and guests. It was what it seemed to lack. There were no signifiers of what New York Times critic Paul J.C. Friedlander referred to as “Texas nationalism.” Where was the exorbitant cost, the ostentatious gold and thick walls of its neighbors, the chunky Baker Hotel and the stately Adolphus, an elder to both?

“The building doesn’t appear very much at home in the middle of downtown Dallas architecture, such as it is,” Friedlander wrote.

He’d arrived to find an outlier, a stranger to the street. The light inside was gentle but, as an amused Friedlander wrote, style mavens of Dallas kept their sunglasses on at the grand opening.

“Lightweight Aluminum-Glass Facade Cuts Construction Cost by a Third,” read the subhead on his piece, in a poem decidedly foreign to the city.

The Statler’s accessible personality was notable on a scale outside the city, too. The ballroom, for example, where later the Jackson Five would play, struck Friedlander as the biggest open hall in the South “without a pillar to obstruct anyone’s view.”

Today the restored room is just the same, totally wide open, and covered completely with a dance floor. At a capacity for 3000 people it’s slightly smaller than The Bomb Factory in Deep Ellum. The women’s restroom closest to that space is the most gilded corner of the new Statler Hilton — even the trash can is gold. In the art on the walls, a bottle of Chanel perfume and a hairbrush alternate with soft metallic patterns. In its newness groups of all genders are coaxed by staff to enter the pink lair and just come on in, look around.

Though the first Statler was open in the winter of 1956, that hadn’t been the plan; it was supposed to be ready for the fall of 1955. When the Hotels Statler Company, Inc. announced it would open a property in Dallas it was riding high on its best gross income and net profit in the outfit’s fifty years. (In between that announcement and the hotel’s opening, Conrad Hilton bought the chain. He was, incidentally, a Texas person, and a hard partier.)

There isn’t much information about what the activity was like before the stylish grand opening – if guests could stay there before it; if its historically sweeping restaurant served meals before January 22nd. For the past month, the new Statler has been open to stumblings-upon in a beautiful conversation with the street outside. This is due mostly to Overeasy, billed and laid out like a diner, just with refined levity and mid-century modern furniture.

The common reach of a hotel’s food programme is often what endears people to it as a public space, or doesn’t. You don’t find city dwellers, for example, meeting at the Magnolia for coffee to feel special (its café feels very separate from the main hotel), and The Joule’s Weekend Coffee is prohibitively small and precious. Overeasy at the Statler and its glass storefront feels as much a part of the hotel as it does the burgeoning scene around Main Street Garden Park, a feat of design unmatched by any other hotel downtown. It doesn’t hurt that the food is delicious and oddly summative, culturally; the biscuits carry a heartiness like cornbread but stay fluffy, and new-school vegetarian dishes mimic comfort favorites, like the meatless moussaka with its fake bolognese sauce. (There’s a little gold in that décor, too, albeit in the form of an art piece on the wall that looks like a pyramid of bicycles welded together).

But you don’t have to eat onsite at the Statler to feel like you’re getting a comprehensive Statler experience, and that’s what struck me most about this breakout phase of downtown that the new hotel defines in form and function. The Saturday after Thanksgiving my friends and I walked ten minutes from the Statler to Mirador, the rooftop spot across from the Joule. That restaurant is also encased in glass, breathing in the outside; in the morning, thinking back on a blur of a night, I remember the walk to and from. We stopped also at the Midnight Rambler, underneath the Joule, but it all seemed a trip through one cohesive space, even the sixth-floor room looking out onto old buildings made new. We pushed a button to open and close the curtains.

There’s been an amount of death and abandonment in the Statler’s history between these two openings. It was vacant for 17 years, and for a time its dominant characteristic as a neighbor downtown was the smell brought on by failed plumbing. That part is, astoundingly, so easily to forget in the calm of all the Statler’s schemas and its lens to the city. The capture it offers of what Dallas is becoming, as a visual message, is seen even in the courtyard opposite the diner. LED lights make stripes on the stairs. That same aquamarine glass is there, separating the courtyard from a forthcoming lounge, and the vista of overlapping buildings reflects in it that calm blue; and those lights on the stairs stay on in the daytime, not as a warning, but a welcome.