Thomas Ashford remembers the grandeur that once defined the Hotel Niagara.
"It was a gorgeous hotel, the atmosphere of the place," said Ashford, 86, who has lived in Niagara Falls since 1950 and recalls attending galas there with fellow Masonic lodge members. "It was a high-class hotel in the 1950s and '60s."
But in recent years, he's seen the closed hotel's crumbling masonry fall onto the grounds of the next-door St. Peter's Episcopal Church, where he was once warden.
"We have had some problems with that hotel," Ashford said.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo -- who announced Tuesday a $42 million plan to restore the 12-story landmark hotel -- called the Hotel Niagara a metaphor for the city.
"The Hotel Niagara was a beautiful place, representing the beauty and the grandeur and the strength of Niagara Falls," Cuomo said during his visit to the hotel. "And then it fell into disrepair, and it sat. And now it's coming back to life. And it's coming back to life in a modern version, but with all the beauty of that history.
"The Hotel Niagara is a beautiful metaphor for all of us," Cuomo said. "It is a monument to what was, to the grandeur of what was when Niagara was in its heyday. Connected to the community, a destination hotel, not just a hotel for out-of-town visitors, but a hotel for the community. That's where you wanted to get married, that's where you wanted to go to your prom, that's where you wanted to go on a first date."
Once a symbol of a city's decay, the hotel promises to beckon a younger generation that never saw it shine like Ashford once did.
"The way your parents honeymooned at Hotel Niagara, now your children will honeymoon at Hotel Niagara," Cuomo told those at the announcement.
A 'magnificent' track record
State development officials chose Ed Riley, CEO of Brine Wells Development of Syracuse, as the preferred developer.
He said he intends to reopen the 93-year-old hotel with 130 rooms in time for the 2019 tourist season.
The governor as well as tourism officials predict he'll succeed.
"I have seen this movie before, because I have seen what Ed Riley did to the Hotel Syracuse," Cuomo said.
That hotel, similar to Hotel Niagara in age and size, reopened as the Marriott Syracuse last August after Brine Wells' $75 million makeover.
Cuomo said Riley "did a magnificent, magnificent job at the Hotel Syracuse, and that's why we're so excited he's taken on this project."
John H. Percy Jr. has stayed at the Hotel Syracuse.
"He did not miss one attention to detail," said Percy, president of Destination Niagara USA, the Niagara County tourism promotion agency. "He did a phenomenal job, and I welcome him as the preferred developer, because out of all the people that have been talked about before, I believe Mr. Riley will get this project done."
Surviving Urban Renewal
Using money from the state's Buffalo Billion economic development program, the state bought out former owner Harry Stinson for $4.4 million in March 2016. And then it sought proposals from other developers.
The state will sell the hotel to Brine Wells for $1. Brine Wells is expected to receive $3.5 million in direct incentives, and will seek state and federal historic preservation tax credits. Hotel Niagara was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, the year after it closed.
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster contrasted the state's investment this time with the federal Urban Renewal program of the 1960s and 1970s marked by the "demolition of what today are regarded as great historic assets that we never can create again. We wish we could."
"We tore down almost every single building in 13 square blocks of our downtown area, and when we did that, we ripped the heart not just out of our infrastructure, but out of our city," Dyster said.
But the Hotel Niagara survived.
"This building is one of the few remaining structures that predates Urban Renewal-related demolition activities in downtown Niagara Falls," said Christopher J. Schoepflin, president of the state's USA Niagara Development Corp.
Plan for the hotel
The revived hotel will be "'upper-upscale,' on a quality level equivalent to a full-service Hyatt, Hilton or Marriott," according to a memorandum to the USA Niagara board of directors.
The project involves returning the lobby, main ballroom and mezzanine to their 1924 condition, consistent with the original design by the Buffalo architectural firm of Esenwein & Johnson.
"We intend to do our research and homework," Riley said. "We're not looking to cut corners. We really want a quality restoration. We feel that drives business, makes it a destination in and of itself and brings business back to downtown."
The refurbished hotel will include a restaurant serving lunch and dinner, a rooftop lounge affording sweeping views of Niagara Falls, and a sidewalk patio for outdoor dining.
The 130 guest rooms will be new.
"Most of those floors have been gutted anyway, so it does require a totally new buildout."
Riley said he's talking to two national chains about possibly putting their "flag" on the Hotel Niagara.
"It'll be nice to see that property brought back to life," said Francine Delmonte, the former Assembly member who chairs the USA Niagara board. "There's a lot of people who remember it in its heyday and people who have seen it lay dormant for so many years."