Sean Kirst: To best restore Hotel Niagara, an architect needs your help - The Buffalo News

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Sean Kirst: To best restore Hotel Niagara, an architect needs your help

In a way, the Hotel Niagara as it appeared in its heyday still exists. Talk to Deb Sticht, or Paul Verciglio, or Carolyn Mancuso, and they can close their eyes and take you through it as it was, step by step.

Follow their memories, push through the revolving door, and you are greeted by a doorman named John, a slender, genial guy in white gloves and a long red coat. To the left is the Indian Room, its barroom décor inspired by the Six Nations, masks on the wall forged by an Italian immigrant, grandfather to Sticht and Mancuso.

Move across the lobby and a grand stairway carries you to the mezzanine with its smaller meeting rooms and the ballroom, at one point the absolute social center for Niagara Falls. Long before the influx of the chain hotels, this was a magnet for high school proms, holiday parties, wedding receptions, business gatherings and any events of consequence for a community named for a great natural wonder.

The hotel, rooms long empty, is finally on the brink of restoration. For much of its history, it was the rare building that had meaning to residents from every walk of life, whether you went there for a fashion show or whether your mom or dad went there to work.

"It was the place to go around the city, one of our precious jewels," said Paul Gromosiak, a longtime historian in Niagara Falls.

A Syracuse company is redeveloping the Hotel Niagara in Niagara Falls. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

Jamie Williams, of Holmes King Kallquist Associates, hopes to capture the beauty those witnesses remember. He is the project architect for Ed Riley and Brine Wells Development of Syracuse, chosen by the state-operated USA Niagara Development to handle the $42 million restoration of the hotel, one of the few significant landmarks that outlasted Urban Renewal in the downtown business district of Niagara Falls.

The 12-floor hotel has been shuttered for a decade, its elite years vanished long before it closed its doors. Two years ago, Riley put together the stunning $70 million restoration of the old Hotel Syracuse, now the Marriott Downtown Syracuse, taking a closed and crumbling hotel that many thought could not be saved and bringing it back to full historic splendor.

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Williams said he knows that failed efforts to restore the Hotel Niagara have fueled skepticism in Niagara Falls, a community all too accustomed to big dreams that never happen.

A final development agreement on the Hotel Niagara is now being negotiated. Work is expected to be finished in 2019, according to Rob Sozanski, associate project manager for USA Niagara. If you doubt it will occur, Williams suggests taking a ride to see what Riley did with the Hotel Syracuse.

"This guy is actually going to get it done," Williams said of civic hopes for the Hotel Niagara.

To do it right, Williams said, Riley needs your help.

The once-grand lobby of the Hotel Niagara, which a Syracuse company is set to redevelop. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

The goal is reproducing the building as it was historically, at least as closely as possible, a strategy that had spectacular results in Syracuse. That project was aided by a treasure trove of architectural documents and photographs, Williams said, including the original drawings by George B. Post and Sons, the New York City architectural firm that in the 1920s handled the Syracuse design.

Little of that paperwork exists with the Hotel Niagara, which opened more than 90 years ago. It was designed by Esenwein & Johnson, Williams said, the same Buffalo firm that designed Lafayette High School and the Electric Tower.

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In his research in both Niagara Falls and Buffalo, Williams has been unable to find the original drawings. The next best hope becomes photographs of the building's interior in its glory years, but even those – in museums and libraries - are in short supply, he said.

"It's almost unbelievable," he said. "It's like the building almost doesn't exist in history, except for the actual structure in Niagara Falls."

So he is hoping the community can help. He is hoping that Western New Yorkers who read this piece, people who attended proms or weddings at the Hotel Niagara, might be able to share old family photographs. He is hoping the children or grandchildren of some of the hotel's many owners and managers might have old architectural or electrical plans packed away in some folder.

Williams said he is also looking for lighting fixtures, wall ornaments, door handles and other small structural details once used in the hotel. Even if he could photograph them, he said, it would help in recreating the original design.

If you can help, email Williams at jwilliams@hkkarchitects.com or call him at (315) 476-8371. I'd also like to hear those stories and see those images, at skirst@buffnews.com, and I'll build another column from whatever you send in.

It is even possible, as Riley did in Syracuse, that some of the historic images might end up on the hotel wall.

Paul Verciglio, now retired, understands what Riley and Williams hope to capture. Born in Niagara Falls, he spent an adult lifetime in the hotel business, eventually rising to serve as general manager of the prestigious Park Hyatt Toronto.

His career began as a teenage busboy, making 63 cents an hour at the Hotel Niagara.

"I know the feeling of those kind of hotels, and what they can portray," Verciglio said. "When I was there, there were no international chains. In Niagara Falls, the Hotel Niagara was the place to go and the place to be seen."

He remembers four bellmen in the lobby and white tablecloths on the tables, every morning. He remembers the elevator operators who took guests to their rooms. He remembers an artist on a stepladder painting a mural of the falls on a wall in the grand ballroom, a mural "that may still be behind the drywall there," distinct from a separate  mural hanging in the Indian Room.

"There was always something happening," said Verciglio, whose vision of a full-service hotel was shaped by those early years at the Hotel Niagara.

Ed Riley, developer of the restored Marriott Syracuse Downtown, and Paul McNeil, Marriott's general manager, in the lobby of what used to be the Hotel Syracuse. Riley is hoping for similar results in Niagara Falls. (Sean Kirst/Buffalo News)

Neil Sloat, a former director of hotel maintenance, said one perk of the job was the chance to take in a sweeping view from the roof, a spot with a stunning view of the region, a place where Riley wants to build a lounge.

Deb Sticht, of East Aurora, has an especially powerful reason for appreciating that landmark. Her parents met at the Hotel Niagara. Her dad, Edward Golemb, managed the Indian Room. Her mom, Carolyn Long, was a cocktail waitress. While they eventually divorced, the hotel plays a central role in many of Sticht's childhood memories.

She and her cousin, Carolyn Mancuso of Niagara Falls, both speak of the backlit masks, crafted by their grandfather in a forge at Frontier Bronze, that hung on the wall of the Indian Room. He was an immigrant whose name had been changed at Ellis Island from Gaspare Cazzorla to Caspar Long as he entered this country.

Sticht and Mancuso have been close since childhood. Sticht's father and Mancuso's stepfather worked together at the Indian Room. Sticht remembers playing in the empty ballroom with her brother on the mornings when their father was busy preparing for guests.

$42 million project to restore Hotel Niagara to its 1920s-style elegance

Mancuso, who was named Miss Niagara Falls in the early 1960s, said she had a chance to meet film star Buster Keaton during an event at the hotel after she won that title.

Vercigilio recalls bringing room service to Bobby Kennedy when he spoke to a big crowd at the hotel during his 1964 U.S. Senate campaign.

Mancuso has an Indian Room menu, passed down through the years, that carries the autographs of boxers Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott, as well as big band leader Stan Kenton – a tiny sampling of the celebrities who passed through the building.

Riley and Williams want to rekindle the atmosphere of those years, as best they can. To do it right, they're looking for documents, photographs, even detailed memories. The goal is creating a kind of experience for visitors that hasn't existed in Niagara Falls for many years.

Most important, as Riley did in Syracuse, he wants to restore something lost to the larger community.

"It was such a majestic place, my favorite place in the city," Carolyn Mancuso said. "I think it would bring me to tears if I could walk in and see it that way again."

Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Buffalo News, at skirst@buffnews.com, who's hoping to hear some of your stories of the Hotel Niagara. You can read more of his work in this archive.

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