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Hilton hotels and the challenge to Communism

14 September 2001 by
Hilton hotels and the challenge to Communism

The declared aim of Conrad Hilton in building hotels around the world was "to show the countries most exposed to Communism the other side of the coin". David Harris looks at a book published this week which examines the ideological role of the great post-war Hiltons.

When Conrad Hilton said that every Hilton was a little America, he wasn't joking. The expansion of the chain in the 1950s and '60s went hand in hand with the Cold War and Hilton's founder was quite straightforward about the political role of America's most famous hotel export.

"We mean these hotels as a challenge - not to the peoples who have so cordially welcomed us into their midst - but to the way of life preached by the Communist world," he said in an in-house publication.

Conrad Hilton was a strong supporter of the H-bomb and satellites, but added that "frankly…they will not get the job done". What would help, he said, was the cultural challenge offered by Hilton hotels to Communism in the Cold War.

In a time when shareholder value is more usually held as the central, if not only, concern of high ranking corporation executives, such political ardour already has a dated ring. But the Hilton founder's own analysis of what his hotels were doing provides a thought-provoking perspective on how the chain has evolved.

In Building the Cold War - Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture, Annabel Jane Wharton finds it easy to show what Hilton intended, but admits to finding it harder to assess how the process actually worked. The book is no less fascinating for that.

For British readers, two things might stand out: one is the analysis of the reaction to the London Hilton after it opened on 17 April 1963 (not always supportive) and the other is the fact that Hilton became a British company.

Wharton's own analysis of the Hilton in Park Lane is that it is a financial success but an aesthetic failure.

She says bluntly: "The early Hilton International hotels tended to be good buildings. The London Hilton is one exception."

But Wharton's restrained critique pales beside some contemporary accounts. One critic in the Architect's Journal wrote: "The harmonica cluster of the Hilton hotel is by far the largest architectural disaster to hit London so far. By all accounts Hilton hotels abroad are not too bad, in a brash American way, so why should we in particular be inflicted with such vulgar design?"

Wharton suggests that the objections to Park Lane were not entirely architectural, however, and that part of the resentment came from "the American supersession of Britain as the major power in the postcolonial world".

Beyond London, the great Hiltons in Cairo, Istanbul, Berlin and Jerusalem, among others, also receive the benefit of Wharton's intelligent analysis, which has a more piquant flavour as she admits in her introduction that she avoided the hotels in the past as she regarded them as examples of "institutionalised inauthenticity".

She is also good on the social effects of the Hiltons on the societies in which they placed themselves, mentioning in passing people like "Seham Abdul Khalek, the telephonist at the Nile Hilton who 20 years ago left her job as a teacher to become a waitress at the new hotel".

Hiltons were indeed the "architectural calling cards" of the US government, as an article in Arts and Architecture in 1953 memorably observed, and Wharton's book is an excellent treatment of this phenomenon. There is much in this book which will fascinate anybody interested in post-war hotels.

Building the Cold War - Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture by Annabel Jane Wharton, professor of art history at Duke University, is published on 15 September by the University of Chicago Press, price £28.50.

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