Anti-communist propaganda or American imperialism? The London Hilton Hotel

Barbara Czyzewska explores the controversial early history of the London Hilton Hotel and looks at why its owner’s greatest dream was to build a Hilton Hotel in Red Square, Moscow at the height of the Cold War.

On 29 October 1962 The Daily Telegraph reported that Her Majesty the Queen had ordered young, 12ft trees to be planted in the Royal Gardens. The press in Britain widely discussed the potential intrusion on the Royal Family’s privacy. The reason for these news stories was the controversial 35-storey building which was being constructed on Park Lane, just around the corner from Buckingham Palace. This building was to be the London Hilton Hotel, the first property of this already iconic company in Britain.

Construction of the London Hilton. Photo courtesy of The Hilton on Park Lane.

The hotel was not due to open until 1963, but the press reported on its building plans as early as 1957. This was the year when a public inquiry into the construction of the London Hilton Hotel was announced. The proposal faced strong opposition both from the press and from the Royal Fine Art Commission. It was said that the proposed tower was bold and utterly inappropriate as it would ruin the London skyline and, more importantly, would allow “American tourists to look down upon the Queen” from the top–floor restaurant. Arguably, for the price of $7, together with the cost of a meal, tourists could ‘buy’ the privilege of having a sneak-peek into Buckingham Palace.

Lord Blackford was reported saying: “To the east we have a lovely structure symbolising the Almighty God, to the west a massive structure symbolising the almighty dollar”, while a representative of the local community lamented: “If this building is allowed it will represent hereafter a symbol of the supremacy in 1957 of a dollar-earning machine over values of greater importance and lasting quality”. Hilton was by no means the only establishment marking America’s presence in 1960s London. Just a few years before, the monolithic American Embassy had transformed the traditional English ambience of Grosvenor Square. The Embassy building was overwhelming, but its most prominent feature was the American Eagle, which seemed to have the ability to watch over the square from the top of the building.

Selection of newspaper clippings commenting on the planned development of the London Hilton.

What was the reason for these controversies? Why was London so terrified of American influence especially right in the middle of the ‘Swinging London’ movement, a period that celebrated youth, energy and optimism? Did the special Anglo-American relationship not assert mutual understanding and friendship? Apparently not to the extent proposed by Conrad Hilton.

Conrad Hilton never planned to become an hotelier. He wanted to be a banker and prove to his father that he could achieve success without his help and supervision. However, when the owner of a bank in Cisco, Texas suddenly raised the price of his bank, Conrad decided to buy instead the Mobley, a shabby hotel he was staying in at the time. 1919 was the year Conrad Hilton became a hotelier and he never looked back. The Hilton empire grew quickly. By 1937 Hilton was the first chain to own hotels from coast to coast, and in 1946 it entered the New York Stock Exchange. The time had come for international expansion.

Conrad Hilton. Photo courtesy of the Hilton Hospitality Archives, University of Houston.
Conrad Hilton. Photo courtesy of the Hilton Hospitality Archives, University of Houston.

Starting with Puerto Rico, by 1963 Hilton was present on all continents. Mere expansion was not, however, Conrad’s only goal. He aimed to “fill the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality”. Conrad, a devoted catholic and American citizen, strongly believed that it was his role to contribute to the struggle against communism through the promotion of international travel. He considered his hotels around the world to be havens of democracy and freedom. In his autobiography Conrad stated: Each of our hotels is a ‘little America’, not as a symbol of bristling power, but as a friendly centre where men of many nations and of good will may speak the language of peace”. Some of the future Hilton’s developments confirmed how the company ensured that its hotels were strategically positioned to highlight their attitude towards their hosts and the countries behind the Iron Curtain. Unfortunately for Conrad, his most daring dream to build “a Hilton hotel in Red Square Moscow, right across the corner from a crowded church” never came to fruition.

Istanbul Hilton. Photo courtesy of the Hilton Hospitality Archives.

When the Istanbul Hilton opened, the proximity of the USSR was highlighted by Conrad in his opening speech. Similarly, as in the case of the Berlin Hilton, which was located just on the border between East and West Berlin, Conrad seemed to give the impression that he wanted to have a glance over the Iron Curtain and, almost, wave at the Communists from his American oasis. The view from the hotels was indeed what seemed to matter most in their designs and locations. Hiltons, as opposed to the traditional grand hotels, focused on the view from the hotel, rather than drawing people’s attention to the interior. All Hilton hotels built in the 1950s and 1960s were designed so that every room offered a view over the host city whether from a private balcony or a large window, even if this meant ruining the landscape, as in the case of the Hilton in Athens. The buildings themselves were monumental, grey and disruptive.

The Berlin Hilton. Photo courtesy of the Hilton Hospitality Archives.
The Berlin Hilton. Photo courtesy of the Hilton Hospitality Archives.

The monolithic design, which arguably was to convey the modernity and advancements of American capitalism, proved to act as a double-edged sword. It gave Hilton hotels the attention they sought and it marked their presence in the host countries. However, in the majority of European locations, including Athens, Rome, Florence and London, there were hostile responses to the development of Hilton hotels. When the controversial tower in London finally opened on 17 April 1963 it was heavily criticised for its aesthetic impact. Although despite the criticism, the hotel was fully booked for many months after it opened and soon became the most profitable international hotel in the Hilton portfolio. Guests wrote to Conrad saying that they visited this hotel just to “see what it was like” because they knew the brand from other locations.

Advertisement announcing the opening of the London Hilton. Photo courtesy of The Hilton on Park Lane.
Advertisement announcing the opening of the London Hilton. Photo courtesy of The Hilton on Park Lane.

The opening was celebrated with a lavish party, which was attended by key figures from the film, business and political circles of the time. The ribbon was ceremonially cut by Mrs Maudling, the wife of the Chancellor of Exchequer and Conrad Hilton danced the first dance of the evening with one of the celebrity guests, as he traditionally did in all the opening celebrations. In London, as opposed to Berlin or Istanbul, there was no anti-communist agenda. A private investor, instead of the local government, was involved in the development of the hotel and his aim was clear: profit. There is no evidence to suggest that Hilton wanted to threaten any higher values or traditions. But sometimes an image can be stronger than the reality.

The Athens Hilton. Photo courtesy of the Hilton Hospitality Archives, University of Houston.
The Athens Hilton. Photo courtesy of the Hilton Hospitality Archives.

With time and changes to the global political scene, Hilton’s symbolical position has diminished. They are no longer seen as emblems of American modernity or democracy, but still provide comfortable accommodation to travellers from around the world. The Athens, Istanbul and London hotels are all still in operation, proudly bearing the name ‘Hilton’ despite their colossal designs. Many more American hotels and other businesses have opened in London since 1963 and St Paul’s Cathedral is now surrounded by skyscrapers made of glass and steel. There are guests who prefer to stay at London’s smaller, more elaborately decorated upmarket hotels, but there are still plenty who enjoy the Hilton on Park Lane and the views it offers across the city. It seems that Hilton did not manage to ruin London’s skyline or, indeed, its British character. Nonetheless, Her Majesty the Queen did not pay a visit until the year 2002.

Barbara would like to thank the Hilton Hospitality Archives and the Hilton on Park Lane for access to archival material.

Further reading: Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture (University of Chicago Press) 

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