You may not have thought that dialing up room service or raiding the minibar was striking a blow against communism. But after World War II, when the cold war was being fought on every conceivable front, even luxuriating in a hotel tub could be considered a triumph for democracy.
At least that is the kind of logic that Annabel Jane Wharton documents in her new book, “Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture” (University of Chicago Press). “Each of our hotels is a little America,” said the hotel king Conrad Hilton, built “to show the countries most exposed to communism the other side of the coin.”
Ms. Wharton, a professor of art history at Duke University, says that in the initial postwar decades, these oases of comfort and architectural swank that sprang up throughout Europe and the Middle East embodied American utopia. The United States government was so convinced that Hiltons could bolster economic and political stability amid fears of Soviet expansion that in some cases it actually financed the hotels’ construction through the Marshall Plan. Conrad Hilton recounted in his 1957 autobiography that the Departments of State and Commerce encouraged Hilton International to push its plan for a chain of hotels circling the globe.
Similar to the grand 19th-century hotels constructed by such Western travel agents as Thomas Cook, Hiltons occupied the most prestigious sites in foreign capitals. But new Hiltons in cities like Istanbul, Cairo, Havana and Athens were carefully composed showcases of capitalism, extraordinary in their scale and modernity, Ms. Wharton writes.
Hilton compounds often resembled American suburbs, complete with lawn, shrubbery, swimming pools and tennis courts. Cheeseburgers were served and ice water was available on tap in every room. (In 1954, a hotel in Dijon, France, one-upped this peculiarly American amenity by piping Burgundy wines into its guest rooms.)
When Hilton opened a hotel in Berlin’s western sector in 1958, he proclaimed that by building the dramatic new structure “we have hit upon a new weapon with which to fight communism.” Ms. Wharton argues that Hilton wasn’t simply exploiting the political situation for personal profit (although he got loads of that as well); he was a true believer. She terms the hotels a physical expression of America’s belief in the truth and righteousness of its economic and moral values.
“Politics are embodied in the built environment just as they are in texts and movies,” she writes, but architecture, like legislative action, has an impact even when viewers shift their gaze.
The building of new Hiltons abroad coincided with a vast State Department embassy construction program meant to assert America’s presence as a superpower through architectural modernism. The hotels’ sleek designs — featuring low-slung ceilings, plenty of plate glass and abstract decorative panels — were essential to their allure. Gordon Bunshaft, the celebrated modernist architect who designed the Lever House on Park Avenue in Manhattan, also created the Istanbul Hilton with a Turkish architect, Sedad Eldem. It was perhaps the most aesthetically successful of the projects, deemed a “modern classic” by the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable. In Athens, by contrast, the Hilton so dominated the view from the Parthenon that the architectural historian Vincent Scully Jr. denounced it as an act of vandalism after its opening in 1963.
Many of the hotels were at first embraced by national and local governments who helped with their financing and considered a Hilton in their capital an emblem of prestige on the order of operating a national airline. The Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was such a frequent guest that a former employee of the Nile Hilton Cairo told Ms. Wharton that Nasser had essentially used the hotel as his presidential palace.
Not all the hotels were exempt from local opposition, however. In Italy, for example, communist city council members repeatedly delayed construction of the Rome Hilton, while fears that a 200-room Hilton would blemish the rolling hills outside Florence led wealthy foreign villa owners to block it altogether.
Even before the cold war ended, Hilton hotels had stopped broadcasting a clear-cut political message within a globalizing economy. In 1988, a year before the Berlin Wall’s collapse, Hilton International Hotels was sold to the Ladbroke Group of Britain. The company is now just another worldwide chain, Ms. Wharton writes. The architecture itself has mutated, with most Hilton interiors undergoing drastic redesigns to keep pace with fashion. Often, this means the clean lines that once encapsulated 20th-century American style are obscured by ornate postmodern elements.
But the hotels’ economic survival at least keeps faith with Conrad Hilton’s capitalist zeal, even if the buildings no longer loom as the democratic emblems he originally had in mind.