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Kitchenettes and High Jinks Made Stoneleigh Hotel
 a Dallas Landmark

By Alan Peppard, The Dallas Morning NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

March 2, 2008 - The peculiar alchemy that made the Stoneleigh Hotel a quirky favorite of famous actors, eccentric artists and low-profile power brokers since 1923 appears to have survived a $36 million roof-to-bowels renovation.

When the doors are unlocked for business on Monday, guests will see a sparkling cathedral of art deco, but Stoneleigh habitues will find comforting touches such as the hopelessly cramped front desk, original terrazzo tile on the staircase and the glamorous 7,200-square-foot penthouse that still features 500-year-old oak paneling from London's Charterhouse School obtained in the 1930s via William Randolph Hearst.

And while the cocoonlike Lion's Den pub, where supermodel Jerry Hall's sister Rosie Hall once waited tables, is gone, the new lobby bar has a similar three-martini vibe.

After making his bones restoring Austin's 1886-vintage Driskill Hotel, former Mansion on Turtle Creek manager Jeff Trigger and his company, La Corsha, have worked the same clock-reversing magic on the Stoneleigh.

Before World War II, downtown's Adolphus and Baker hotels had more glamour, but the Stoneleigh had street cred -- an X factor it maintained right through the second gilded age of the '80s when the TV Ewings (Larry Hagman, Victoria Principal and Linda Gray) were living large in suites at the new Mansion.

Eschewing glitz, director Oliver Stone moved into the Stoneleigh to shoot Born on the Fourth of July, winning his third Oscar, and JFK. Andy Warhol made the Stoneleigh his HQ while visiting art patrons Patsy and Raymond Nasher, and rocker Joe Walsh splayed out on the table in the penthouse's oval dining room as the guest of Hard Rock Cafe founder Isaac Tigrett.

Searching for the same ask-me-no-questions reception that attracted movie stars and rock stars was a revolving door of adulterous rich men who'd been demoted from their mansions to the Stoneleigh once they'd been busted in flagrante delicto.

Banal though it may seem, the main attractions for many were rooms with "kitchenettes" that were available for long-term lease.

"If you were getting a divorce, you could have a kitchenette with a proper refrigerator, but you could go down to the Lion's Den or go across the street to the Stoneleigh P to drown your sorrows," says Jud Pankey, CEO of Prescott Realty, which co-owns the hotel in partnership with Apollo Realty Advisors in New York.

Briefly staggered by the 1929 crash, the Stoneleigh became officially glamorous after it was purchased in 1934 by Houston entrepreneur Col. Harry Ewing Stewart, who promptly relocated to Dallas. His Stewart Company was a distributor for Ford tractors. ("The title of 'colonel' was purely an honorific," says his grandson Alan Stewart.)

At the height of the Depression, Mr. Stewart spent more than $100,000 turning the 11th floor into his private penthouse home with decor by Dorothy Draper.

"I was going to prep school at Culver Military Academy," says Mr. Stewart's 87-year-old son, Dallas civic leader Peter Stewart. "I came back from school to the completed penthouse. My stepbrother, Pete Lewis, and I, we were in that northern section. My brother, Waldo, had the apartment on the south end beyond the library. I had lived in the Warwick [Hotel] in Houston when Dad first moved to Dallas. So, in a sense, it was familiar."

As for the penthouse's infamous "secret passageways," many were utilitarian servants' entrances into public rooms. "The other ones I think are mostly fiction," says Mr. Stewart. "Somebody wanted to be romantic and kind of dolled that story up."

Nonetheless, there is a passage in the master closet. "I've climbed through an access panel in the back of his father's closet," says Mr. Pankey. "You used to come out in the kitchen. That part of the closet is now a common corridor to the new fire escape."

On Monday, the first guests to be received at the Stoneleigh will be Mr. Stewart and his children.

Back in 1928, the Dallas Little Theater opened a block away at Maple and Carlisle.

"All of the artists who came to work in that theater throughout the years, they stayed here so they could walk to the theater," says Mr. Pankey. "George Bernard Shaw was here. Within the hotel you had several rehearsal studios, music studios and offices for agents."

Theater visionary Margo Jones lived in an apartment at the Stoneleigh at the height of her powers beginning in 1948. In January 1955, she staged the world premiere of Inherit the Wind in Dallas. Based on the Scopes "monkey" trial, the play, which eight Broadway producers had rejected, was a slap at McCarthyism. Six months later, Ms. Jones fell asleep on the floor of her Stoneleigh apartment. She unknowingly inhaled poison carbon tetrachloride fumes from the recently cleaned carpet and died 12 days later at age 43.

In 1941, KSKY-AM began broadcasting Big Band music from its 11th-floor studio adjacent to Col. Stewart's apartment via an antenna on the hotel roof. Stars such as Bob Hope, Judy Garland and Elvis Presley would pass through, and every spring beginning in 1939, the Metropolitan Opera's touring company would check in.

In 1943, Dallas real estate titan Leo Corrigan bought the Stoneleigh and it stayed in his family for 50 years. The Corrigans' laissez-faire ownership suited the regulars who treated the hotel as their own time capsule.

During Friday afternoon happy hour, sports columnist Blackie Sherrod would hold court in the Lion's Den. Regulars included Centex chairman Frank Crossen, dapper oilman and former Marlboro Man model R.J. Smith, as well as Gayle Fogelson, son of oilman E.E. "Buddy" Fogelson and stepson of actress Greer Garson.

"I ate lunch there every Wednesday because they had chicken and dumplings and they were the best in town," says businessman Ward Lay, son of Frito-Lay co-founder Herman Lay.

A group of regulars including Mr. Lay recently sponsored a plaque to be installed in the hotel to honor Minnie Moss, the waitress who looked after them for 37 years until her death in 2006.

In the mid-'80s, Mr. Tigrett and his significant other, Maureen Starkey, ex-wife of Ringo Starr, took a four-year lease on Col. Stewart's former penthouse and the rock 'n' roll court he established on the 11th floor rivaled anything seen at the Hotel Chelsea in New York or the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood.

The walls of the oval dining room were covered with gold records, a bust of Keith Richards sat inside the fireplace with a perpetual cigarette hanging out of its mouth, and the much-photographed love seat on which John Lennon and Yoko One used to cuddle sat in the library.

One evening in 1986, Mr. Tigrett showed off Jimi Hendrix's Gibson Flying V guitar to Stevie Ray Vaughan and the bluesman wandered the penthouse clutching his idol's guitar like a sacred talisman. When Stevie Ray headed for the exit still holding the Gibson, it was Mr. Tigrett's buddy Dan Aykroyd who blocked the door.

The penthouse is still in the middle of restoration to its 1937 glory overseen by Dorothy Draper & Co. owner Carlton Varney. All of the hotel's kitchenettes have been removed except inside two second-floor "historic suites" that still feature vintage Vent-A-Hoods and the original bathroom fixtures.

Other attempts at preservation have been less successful. Back in 1923, every room featured a water tap marked "Chilled" that dispensed refrigerated drinking water.

"There was still one 'Chilled' tap left on the 11th floor," says Mr. Pankey. "We tried to save it, but it fell apart."

The 11th-floor ballroom, similar to the St. Regis rooftop in Manhattan, has been restored. Chef David Bull and his Bolla eatery have taken the place of the Lion's Den. But those craving a drink in the dark can still walk across Maple Avenue to the Stoneleigh P, site of the old Stoneleigh Pharmacy, which burned in 1958. (After the fire, Stoneleigh P was all that was left of the sign, hence the name.)

From the P, there is a great view across Maple at the retro sign spelling "The Stoneleigh" over the front door and you can almost hear Minnie Moss asking, "You want me to bring you some more chicken and dumplings?"

The Stoneleigh Hotel opens for business Monday. It's located at 2927 Maple Ave. 1-800-921-8498 or 214-871-7111; www.stoneleighhotel.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Dallas Morning News

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