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WILLIAM TABLER AND THE NEW YORK HILTON

posted by Christopher Howard — Jan 18, 2011

The following text by Benjamin Lima, assistant professor of art history at the University of Texas at Arlington, was originally published on February 13, 2007, as part of the CAA Conference Blog. At the time of writing, Lima was a PhD candidate in the history of art at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

The Hilton New York in 2011 (photograph by Christopher Howard)

For as long as I’ve known, when CAA meets in New York, it meets at the Hilton. In spite of its familiarity, however, the hotel itself has been something of a mystery to me. In honor of the 2007 Conference Blog, I wanted to find out what the internet could disclose about the Annual Conference’s triennial home.

The 1963 hotel was designed by William Tabler (1914–2004), a highly prolific midcentury hotel designer, who nonetheless doesn’t make it into most capsule histories of the period. The AIA New York guide credits Tabler with a few entries, not including the Hilton. Neither Kerr Houston’s review of Annabel Jane Wharton’s book on Hilton International hotels and modern architecture, nor Wharton’s article on Hilton in the New Statesman, mention Tabler, although his firm seems to have done a lot of international work.

The firm’s website has a period press photograph [no longer extant] of the New York Hilton, with the building’s base looking a lot cleaner than it does today. (It’s hard to tell if that’s an artifact of the photograph). At the online City Review, Carter B. Horsley calls the low-rise base “not at all attractive,” although he praises the tower.

Great Gridlock reports on works by three artists which have adorned the hotel: Philip Pavia’s bronze sculpture Ides of March in the driveway (although the work hasn’t been there since 1988); Ibram Lassaw’s fifteen-foot Elysian Fields in the promenade; and James Metcalf’s sculpture in the lobby. This is a reminder of upper midtown’s heyday as a gallery district; around this time, Lassaw showed at Kootz, and Metcalf at Loeb.

James Metcalf sculpture in the Hilton lobby (photograph by Christopher Howard)

The free archives of Time Inc. reveal some striking period touches in similar hotels. For instance, at Tabler’s San Francisco Hilton, guests would enter via the garage, “get their room keys by pneumatic tube from the main lobby, zoom up the spiral ramp, and start looking for their room number when the floor beneath the car matches the color of the key tab.” In New York, Tabler “fitted out a service elevator as a speedy, efficient pantry for Continental breakfasts: one man, instead of the usual three, takes an order on the telephone, warms rolls and pours coffee while the elevator moves, then delivers it to the proper floor.” (The same article notes that “Few Tabler hotels win design prizes….”)

In keeping with the no-nonsense persona that emerges from the limited number of sources examined so far, the only Time article written by Tabler himself is entitled “Why U.S. Housing Costs Too Much,” and a short profile of the “balding, cherubic” Tabler is called “Hotels: With a View of the Dollar,” which vividly relates Tabler’s genius for parsimony. This inspired a Swiftian letter from S. W. Burnett of Chicago, who began: “Hotel Designer William Benjamin Tabler and his moneysaving ideas [Aug. 6] intrigued me. Permit me to suggest a few more such economies. Instead of a bed, supply a cot 3 ft. by 6 ft. suspended from the wall. The room need then be only one foot wider and longer than the cot….”

In conclusion, nominations are invited for the most appropriate actor to play William Tabler, who surely deserves at least a small part in the epic film version of CAA’s history.

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