In the hotel business, Ed Riley said, there’s an old expression: Every city has a hotel similar to a pair of well-loved slippers. They fit exactly right, and you’ve worn them at moments that matter throughout your life, and a new pair can never feel as perfect on your feet.
Certainly, Riley said, he saw that perfect fit in the Hotel Syracuse. The building had been crumbling since it closed its doors in 2004. Many in Central New York despaired about ever seeing it restored. At one point, Onondaga County supported the idea of a new hotel, with full convention status, that would have all but condemned the old one, at least for hotel use.
Those priorities changed, mainly due to Riley. He found a way to bring back the Hotel Syracuse. While he lives in Camillus, a suburb of Syracuse, he’d served as a senior vice president of the Pyramid Hotel Group in Boston. Over the last few years, he helped piece together a $70 million restoration of the once-endangered Syracuse landmark that has been true to the smallest historic details.
With its gleaming lobby and spectacular ballrooms, the 12-story hotel reopened this month as the Marriott Syracuse Downtown, with 261 rooms. The reaction has been emotional, almost spiritual, in Syracuse. Over almost a century, countless thousands of Central New Yorkers held wedding receptions or anniversary parties or other memorable events in the building. They doubted they would ever see it brought back to the glory they remembered.
Now Riley is looking with curiosity toward Buffalo, and Niagara Falls.
The USA Niagara Development Corp., an arm of the state, has taken control of the iconic but troubled Hotel Niagara, another 12-story 1920s landmark you see as a skyline backdrop in almost any photograph of Niagara Falls. The hotel has been closed for nine years. USA Niagara is asking for proposals, and it will hold an information meeting Wednesday, followed by tours of the hotel.
Riley intends to be there. He expects that he will eventually submit a restoration proposal, and he is also hoping to stop in Buffalo and shake the hand of the owner of a Buffalo landmark Riley describes as “the big brother” of the Hotel Syracuse: The old Statler Towers, on Niagara Circle. It opened in 1923, only a year earlier than the hotel in Syracuse. It used the same architect, the famed George B. Post and Sons, the firm that also designed the New York Stock Exchange.
Paul McNeil, Marriott’s general manager at the restored property in Syracuse, spent much of his childhood in Buffalo. He remembers how his Aunt Miranda would take him to lunch at the Statler when it had a kind of lush, majestic appeal. The physical parallels to the Marriott Syracuse Downtown, McNeil said, are startling. Both buildings have three towers. The facades were built with strikingly similar design.
And both went through periods of glory – then neglect.
“If someone dropped you off outside the Statler,” McNeil said, “you’d think you were here.”
The Statler was built in 1923 as a 19-story hotel, with 1,100 rooms and grand ballroom space. By 1983, as the region absorbed economic body blows, the building was finished as a hotel. It went through a long period of struggle until 2013, when developer Mark Croce bought it out of bankruptcy and the shadow of potential demolition.
With the support of Mayor Byron W. Brown and his “City by City” program, Croce invested millions in restoring the lower three floors for banquet and entertainment space – especially weddings.
“I love this building,” Croce said. “It’s one of Buffalo’s most iconic structures. It preceded City Hall, and there’s so much embedded here: Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis and JFK, they all stayed here.”
His dream for the Statler is different than what Riley envisioned in Syracuse. Croce speaks of hundreds of residential units on the empty upper floors, with perhaps a small overnight stay opportunity on weekends, for wedding parties. But he would like to meet with Riley, just to talk about “how you find the wherewithal and connections to subsidize it, and find a way to bring it back to life,” Croce said.
That is the real miracle of what happened in Syracuse.
Central New York has had more than its share of political combat in recent years. While Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, both Democrats, have often collided, Cuomo remains close to Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney. It is a strained and contentious triangle, yet the state, city and county all came to the table for the hotel. Other efforts, over the years, had sputtered or collapsed.
“This was it,” Riley said. “It was a last chance. If you didn’t do it and do it right, you were going to have a pile of bricks.”
The critical moment: M & T Bank agreed to provide the bulk of almost $70 million in financing. On the night of that decision, Riley went to Kitty Hoynes, a local tavern, with Al Gough and Kay Frizzell of his staff, with Richard Engel, Riley’s longtime lawyer, and with Ben Walsh, a city economic development official at the time who’d been Riley’s first contact in local government.
They raised a toast, as Riley put it, to “bringing the old girl back.”
A year later, the hotel has already booked more than 120 weddings. Brides and grooms dancing in the grand ballroom can look out at a view of the Onondaga Valley and look up at a domed ceiling hand-painted to resemble a blue sky, speckled with clouds. About 260 rooms are available for guests, one restaurant is already open and the standard room rate is $189 – an attempt to keep it reasonable for travelers.
The hotel, Riley said, is one of those rare landmarks that touched generations of everyday lives. People loved it, yet despaired of ever seeing it revived – a feeling not so different than the one evoked by, say, the Hotel Niagara.
Then it actually happened. McNeil said guests at some of last weekend’s weddings were so moved by the restoration they broke into tears.
“With any of these hotels, if you get aggressive and get the right people together and you get the right resources, you can get it done,” Riley said. He speaks of simple civic cohesion almost as a kind of technology. Bringing back well-loved landmarks once seen as doomed can be a "lightning rod for doing a lot of other things," Riley said. Every employee of the hotel in Syracuse wears a pin shaped like a piece of a puzzle ....
The idea being that everyone has a piece in the revival.
Last week, as Riley ate dinner at some outdoor seating, downtown workers walking along the street – including one woman just finished with a cleaning shift at a nearby building - occasionally stopped and said to him:
“Thank you. This is beautiful.”
The restored hotel is creating about 300 jobs, and Riley has hired about 100 workers from the city neighborhoods surrounding the hotel. The emotional power of the project, in Syracuse, might be compared to the way people in Buffalo would feel if the Central Terminal suddenly underwent a complete and thorough restoration.
“What strikes me about Ed Riley is the passion he feels for these buildings, the way he wants to make these things succeed,” said Tom Young, a former mayor of Syracuse whose wedding reception was at the hotel’s Persian Terrace. “He’s a pioneer, but a pioneer who frames what was great about the past and then tries to build a future from it.”
It’s the same philosophy that’s become an Upstate growth industry, in Buffalo.
Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist for The Buffalo News. To join in the conversation, email him at email@example.com or leave a comment below.
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