Photos courtesy McCulloch Bros.; Adams Hotel fire,1910

The Adams Family

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: November 2017
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The Hotel Adams has been constructed on a grand scale three times since 1896 – twice rising from literal ashes to become a symbol of Phoenix’s stubborn survival.

Great hotel nicknames are usually the result of clever marketing campaigns or a guest’s epiphany, like San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado known as “The Del.” For one Downtown Phoenix hostelry, however, there was no human involvement. The building branded itself. As the soaring rooftop sign atop the Hotel Adams flickered to life one evening in the 1950s, four letters malfunctioned and remained dark. The crimson neon spelled out, “HOT DAM.”

The phrase sums up the love affair between Arizona and three iterations of the hotel, which has provided upscale hospitality for more than 120 years at the northeast corner of Central Avenue and Adams Street. Twice, the Adams has been destroyed only to rise from its ashes. No other building better embodies the spirit of Phoenix, the city that sprouted from the ruins of the Hohokam civilization and continues to grow despite hellish heat, brackish politics and wily haboobs.

outside the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown HotelArizona was still a territory and Phoenix was but a hardscrabble community of 5,000 residents when J.C. Adams arrived from Chicago in 1894. Adams was a lawyer who had wealthy, Windy City clients such as Marshall Field of department store fame.

Unimpressed by Phoenix’s rudimentary accommodations, Adams nevertheless recognized the community’s potential. Using his financial connections, he built the city’s first luxury hotel. The elegant Adams Hotel was a four-story, 200-room wooden building that brought immediate respectability to the dusty frontier city. “It’s a handsome structure of complete equipment and lavish appointments,” proclaimed The Arizona Republican in 1896.

The Queen Anne-style building extended over the sidewalks to form a colonnade, while the top three floors featured balconies. Many rooms included private bathrooms, an extravagance at the time. Fireplaces provided heating, and a primitive cooling system used electric fans to blow air over 300-pound blocks of ice in the lobby.

The stylish hotel was the site of presidential visits, elegant social events, business meetings and political deals before its premature demise in 1910, succumbing to a blaze that was called the city’s most spectacular fire. But the inferno could have been much worse. “The firemen were favored by the absence of wind. If the conflagration had occurred five hours later it would have swept the entire town,” noted the Republican. The fire was thought to have been caused by a chemical combustion in the basement.

Adams started construction on a new hotel on the site, but halted work before a potentially ruinous vote on Prohibition in 1911. In a full-page ad in the Republican, Adams claimed that hotels in dry states didn’t make a profit, and warned he might not complete the hotel if the law passed. The legislation failed, though Arizona would vote to go dry in 1915.

The renamed Hotel Adams opened 18 months after the fire, in time for the statehood celebration in 1912. The five-story Mission Revival-style building was constructed of fireproof, reinforced concrete. The lobby again became the meeting place of the city, and featured the state’s first commercial radio station.

The Roaring ‘20s were boom years for Phoenix, with many new hotels constructed. To remain competitive, the Hotel Adams was remodeled, and a new nine-story annex opened in 1926. Renovations included an air conditioning system, which added to its popularity. “The Hotel Adams was the hub hotel of Downtown,” writer Kathryn Runbeck says. “When we visited from Clifton to shop in the 1930s, the Adams was always our meeting place. The lobby was full of ranchers dressed in suits, ties and cowboy hats.”

mural of courtesan Melinda Curtis, painted by Hugo Medina and Darrin Armijo-WardleDuring World War II, the Hotel Adams instituted a rule that there was always to be an open room for servicemen. When German prisoners of war escaped from their camp at Papago Park in 1944, one fugitive took a liberal interpretation of this policy. “He was apprehended after relaxing in the hotel lobby,” Rhonda Benston-Showman, a longtime bartender at the hotel, says.

The Adams added a rooftop pool and shuffleboard courts in 1948. The amenities proved popular with hotel guests – and nearby office workers. After college in 1966, former Arizona Secretary of State Betsey Bayless worked for Valley National Bank in the Professional Building, which overlooked the hotel pool. “Men who came into our office would often go straight to the windows with their clients to check out the women in swimsuits lounging around the pool,” she says.

The hotel continued to be the place where politicians plotted Arizona’s future. “The Adams was as important a location for legislative business as was the State Capitol,” says Athia Hardt, the press secretary for Governors Babbitt and Mofford.

During the Cold War, the Adams touted itself as the Phoenix building “most able to withstand an atomic attack.” But Downtown was on the decline as a shopping and entertainment destination, and after several ownership changes, the hotel’s popularity ebbed. In 1973 the new owners decided to replace the Adams with a modern hotel to support the new Civic Center.

Spectators amassed Downtown to watch the first building imploded in Arizona. Letters were removed from the rooftop sign to again display “HOT DAM” before the implosion. “I feel it’s better for a building to bow out gracefully in a few seconds rather than be hacked to death for several weeks,” demolition expert Doug Loizeaux told the Republic.

For some, the loss of the Adams marked a tipping point. “Downtown didn’t die all at once, but when the old hotel was imploded, it marked a transition that it never quite recovered from,” Walter Hall, who is retired from the City of Phoenix finance department, says.

Within two years, a new 17-story, 538-room Adams Hotel opened on the site. Sometimes referred to as the “cheese grater” building, it is now called the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel. An upscale hotel, it nonetheless has an edgy vibe, with art exhibits such as “26 Blocks,” in which photographers and writers, including former PHOENIX magazine editor-in-chief Ashlea Deahl, reflect on Downtown Phoenix.

Still, like an old flame, many have deep feelings for the imploded hotel. “I was young, but I recall the hotel as being very impressive and elegant,” Bayless says. “I never thought I’d see the day they would tear it down.”

Melinda’s Alley “speakeasy” in the hotel’s basement; Adams HotelBack Alley Cocktails
When a building is imploded, usually only photographs and memories remain. But with the Hotel Adams, it’s still possible to drink up its history. The new hotel was built directly on the old foundation. The concrete walls poured in 1910 encompass a basement area that bartender Tony Escalante calls “the most unique place in Downtown Phoenix.”

On weekend nights since early 2016, a line forms beneath a red light in the alley behind the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel, waiting to descend the stairs to Melinda’s Alley. Candles light the speakeasy-like space featuring vintage furnishings. The distinctive hangout is named after Melinda Curtis, an African-American courtesan known for her “rambunctious behavior and big heart,” who lived across the alley in the early 1900s.

Five new cocktails are offered every weekend. The selections are never repeated, except once when Escalante went on vacation and put together a list of five old favorites for his substitute. “One regular actually texted me, ‘#1 – You’re not here and #2 – I’ve had this drink before,’” he says. Escalante adds that coming up with new cocktail names is almost as challenging as the concoctions themselves. “The pressure is ridiculous some weeks,” he says.

Promotion of Melinda’s Alley is almost non-existent. “But it’s become a destination where people want to come,” says Joey Shultz, the hotel’s food service director. He says the space is constantly being reinvented, though not always by the staff. “Someone started leaving dollar bills in the display books, with the message, ‘Add one if you find this,’” he says.