The Heart of Phoenix: Three Iterations of the Hotel Adams
By Douglas Towne
Great hotel nicknames are usually the result of innovative marketing campaigns or are obvious, such as San Diego's Hotel del Coronado, known as "the Del." But one Downtown Phoenix building branded itself. As the soaring rooftop sign atop the Hotel Adams flickered to life one evening in the 1950s, four letters malfunctioned and remained dark. The crimson neon spelled out, “HOT DAM.”
The phrase sums up the love affair between Arizona and three iterations of the hotel, which have provided upscale hospitality for more than 120 years at the northeast corner of Central Avenue and Adams Street. Twice, the Adams has been destroyed only to rise from its ashes. No other building better embodies the spirit of Phoenix, the city that sprouted from the ruins of the Hohokam civilization and continues to flourish despite hellish heat, brackish politics, and wily haboobs.
Arizona was still a territory, and Phoenix was but a hardscrabble community of 5,000 residents, when J.C. Adams arrived from Chicago in 1894. Adams was a lawyer who had wealthy, Windy City clients such as Marshall Field, of department store fame.
Unimpressed by Phoenix’s rudimentary accommodations, Adams nevertheless recognized the community’s potential. Using his financial connections, he built the city's first luxury hotel. The elegant Adams Hotel was a 200-room, four-story, wooden building that brought immediate respectability to the dusty frontier city. “It’s a handsome structure of complete equipment and lavish appointments,” proclaimed TheArizona Republican in 1896.
Original Adams Hotel is destroyed by fire, 1910.
The Queen Anne-style building extended over the sidewalks to form a colonnade, while the top three floors featured balconies. Many rooms included private bathrooms, an extravagance at the time. Fireplaces provided heating, and a primitive cooling system used electric fans to blow air over 300-pound blocks of ice in the lobby.
The stylish hotel was the site of presidential visits, elegant social events, political deals, and business meetings before its premature demise in 1910, succumbing to a blaze called the city's most spectacular fire. The inferno that was probably caused by a chemical combustion in the basement could have been much worse. "The firemen were favored by the absence of wind. If the conflagration had occurred five hours later, it would have swept the entire town," noted the Republican.
All that remained of the building were two rickety-looking chimneys. Adams, worried they would collapse on onlookers, took up a miner’s offer to remove the hazards for $75. The miner purchased $2 worth of dynamite and brought the stacks straight down without further damage. The miner, reportedly, headed off to a bar with his unexpectedly easy earnings.
Adams started construction on a new hotel on the site but halted work before a potentially ruinous vote on Prohibition in 1911. In a full-page ad in the Republican, Adams claimed that hotels in dry states didn't make a profit and warned he might not complete the hotel if the law passed. The legislation failed, though Arizona would vote to go dry in 1915.
Second Hotel Adams, 1920s.
The new hostelry, now named Hotel Adams, opened 18 months after the fire, in time for the statehood celebration in 1912. The five-story Mission Revival-style building was constructed of fireproof, reinforced concrete. The lobby again became the city's meeting place and featured the state’s first commercial radio station. The station closed when the hotel sold the radio equipment to the U.S. Navy for use in World War I.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Jan/Feb 2021 issue, Vol. 10, No. 1.