|By Kenneth R. Gosselin, The Hartford Courant, Conn.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
June 16, 2004 - Don't call the top-to-bottom makeover of the Hilton hotel in downtown Hartford a renovation. Perish the thought.
It's a transformation.
That was the message at a press conference in the stripped-down lobby of the hotel Tuesday, where interior designs for the 392-room hotel were unveiled and a tentative March 1 opening date was revealed.
Mayor Eddie A. Perez, who attended Tuesday's event, said the makeover of the Hilton was another sign that downtown Hartford was on the move and attracting top-notch developer investment.
"It shows the momentum and potential that continues to grow in downtown Hartford," Perez said.
Perez was key to the signing of the Waterford Group as developers of the Trumbull Street hotel, built in the 1970s. He used the city's ownership of the land beneath the hotel as leverage to block the sale to a buyer that didn't want to rehire the Hilton's union workers.
Waterford, also building the 409-room Marriott at the downtown convention center, guaranteed the union workers their jobs when the hotel reopens.
Some of those workers attended Tuesday's event, and said they looked forward to coming back as employees of the new Hilton.
Juan Ramos, who set up rooms for banquets and meetings for five years, said he hasn't found another job since the hotel closed in January for the start of renovations. He has been collecting unemployment and hopes to find another job in the meantime.
"But even if I did find another job, I would come back here," Ramos said.
Ramos, who toured the model guest rooms with the press, said the atmosphere now is a lot brighter. Room colors are in the cream and beige family, a contrast to the darker reds and mauves of the old decor.
Guest rooms are expected to run between $179 and $200 a night for double occupancy.
Mark Wolman, president of Waterford's construction operations, said the biggest challenge has been working with the tight redevelopment time frame.
Waterford's agreement with the city calls for a construction deadline of Dec. 31 or the developer faces fines of $1,000 a day for the first 30 days, then $2,000 a day thereafter, city officials have said.
Wolman said Waterford expects to meet the deadline, but does not believe the hotel will be open until March 1. Some renovation work is more extensive than originally expected, pushing back dates for the shipment of furniture and other equipment.
Originally, it was hoped that the hotel would reopen Dec. 31.
The project's cost, including purchase, also has risen from an initial estimate of $28.4 million to $31 million, Wolman said.
The hotel had fallen into such a state of disrepair under former owner MeriStar Hospitality that Hilton had threaten to pull its name if extensive renovations were not made. Tuesday, a Hilton representative heartily endorsed the work now underway.
Wolman said the aging, 33-year-old hotel -- maintained only with patchwork renovations in recent years -- needs far more rewiring than originally anticipated and a more extensive revamping of the heating and air conditioning systems.
Individual heating and cooling units in each room are being replaced with a duct system that more resembles central air. Guests will still be able to control the temperature levels in each room.
One major change in plans that came after work began was a decision to rip out the escalators that now lead from the lobby to the banquet and meeting rooms. They will be replaced by new elevators and a "grand staircase."
Another was the choice to expand the ground-floor restaurant closer to Trumbull Street and give it a separate entrance from the street. That, combined with a new revolving door and glass-and-steel canopy, will give the front entrance a new look, said Ariane Steinbeck, senior vice president at interior designer The Gettys Group.
The Hilton's lobby had long been just a space to pass through. Now the entrance and lobby will become a focal point of the new Hilton. In the lobby, bookshelves will flank a large fireplace, traditional touches that will be rendered in the contemporary style of the renovated hotel.
Marble and porcelain tiles will invite guests and those attending events to linger instead, Steinbeck said.
Those tiles will stand in sharp contrast to the original gray, polished brick that has been revealed under flooring removed in the lobby.
"We want this to be Hartford's living room," Steinbeck said. "A place to see and be seen."
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