During his first visit to south central Arizona in 1928, Frank Lloyd Wright was smitten with what he called the “spiritual cathartic” of the desert. Less than a decade later, he bought 600 acres at the foothills of the McDowell Mountains, and on this rugged desert terrain in northeast Scottsdale, then a barely developed town, the 70-year old architect began the construction of Taliesin West. A complex of connected buildings that served as winter home, studio and school for apprentice architects, it would become one of his lasting masterpieces.
Through subsequent decades, as the Phoenix/Scottsdale area mushroomed (often with buildings that contradict the clean lines and regional references associated with the man many consider America’s greatest architect), Wright’s vision has remained the dominant aesthetic of the area. Taliesin West, now a historic house-museum that draws thousands of visitors yearly, helps keep that vision alive.
So does the Biltmore Hotel even though Wright was not its architect. That credit belongs to Albert Chase McArthur, a former student who commissioned his mentor to be consultant to the project. It turned out to be rife with strife; Wright left before the hotel was completed.
Still the straight-edged main building made with blocks molded from sand on the site — some etched with patterns resembling a palm tree’s trunk; the zig-zagged towers, the copper-lined porte cocheres, flat copper roof and spire-topped copper peak that repeats as an architectural theme throughout the property; the rectangular inserts of illuminated glass; the lobby’s great gold-leafed ceiling; the Arts and Crafts and mission-style décor; the gardens that come up against and embrace the desert environs merge into an image that, it would appear, could belong to no one else.
When the Biltmore opened to great fanfare and excitement in February 1929 (it was the first hotel in the region), the spark it released ignited a tourist industry that continues to explode. Phoenix grew up around the resort whose original entrance was on Camelback Road. It has since moved half a mile in from what has become the virtual Main Street of this modern metropolis — a multi-laned highway that connects a pair of Interstates and spans the width of a city of shopping malls, cinemas, restaurants, commercial and residential skyscrapers, and ever more hotels. An international airport, museums and stadiums, a symphony hall and convention center are but minutes from the Biltmore grounds.
Through it all, the resort has kept pace with modernity via extensive renovations and expansion projects. Today it spreads out across 39 orderly acres, incorporating desert and mountain vistas that make the urbanity beyond its doorstep seem as far off as a distant planet. Flower-bordered terra-cotta paths lead to low-rise complexes and villas housing 738 luxuriously appointed rooms and suites, six indoor and outdoor restaurants, a 22,000-square-foot full-service spa, eight swimming pools, seven tennis courts, two 18-hole golf courses, riding and hiking trails, ballroom and conference spaces, even a shaded shopping arcade that includes a branch of the Goldwater family’s department store and a Lily Pulitzer boutique. All expectations one might have of a high-end 21st century resort are easily met.
Yet in all of the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, the Biltmore stands alone. For not a building, facility, lounging area, fireplace in public or private room, piece of furniture, garden bed, or walkway – regardless of whether it was part of the original structure or added to in the more than 75 years since the resort first opened for business — fails to acknowledge and reflect the original design. It is all of a piece. And lest one forget, six strategically positioned statues serve as leitmotifs, gentle reminders of its inspiration.
Although six-feet tall, weighing 450 pounds, and of angular geometric design, each of the Biltmore Sprites conveys an aura of feminine mystery. You come upon them unaware: one stands at the head of an angular flower bed with a great fountain at the center and Squaw Peak rising up from the desert beyond, another emerges amidst a mass of purple pansies and red geraniums, still another silently observes the scene from the corner of a dining room. With head slightly bent, arms crossed, and hands nearly touching the opposite shoulder, these peaceful guardians of the Biltmore seem to be bestowing benedictions on the setting and its guests.
They are copies of originals created in 1914 for Wright’s Midway Gardens in Chicago. After the building was demolished in 1929, they disappeared only to reappear, in pieces, more than 20 years later in a field on a Wisconsin farm. Their long journey ended at Taleisin West where the Biltmore Sprites were cast.
This story, one of chance encounter and discovery, is a fitting chapter in the larger Biltmore legend. Within a year of its opening, ownership passed from architect McArthur and his brothers (they ran out of money in part due to such expensive Wright suggestions as gold-leafing the vast ceiling of the lobby — it has more gold leaf than any other structure in the world save the Taj Mahal) to William Wrigley, Jr.
Part of the deal included a bookcase that doubled as cabinet for bootleg whiskey, a McArthur leftover from the Roaring Twenties. But this was no more than a historical curiosity by the time the Biltmore’s second season (and Wrigley’s first ) got underway. Prohibition had been repealed, and the stock market had crashed. Only those wealthy and/or lucky enough to have survived economic devastation could afford a Biltmore vacation at that time. Their names remain at the head of a guest list of the rich and famous that would, through succeeding decades, be drawn to the “Jewel in the Desert.”
Among the more celebrated are Irving Berlin who wrote “White Christmas” during a summery December day in 1939, Clark Gable, who honeymooned here with Carole Lombard and lost his wedding ring on the golf course (it was found by a hotel employee), Nancy and Ronald Reagan – another honeymooning couple, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Elizabeth Taylor, Nicole Kidman, and every American president from Herbert Hoover on. A gallery off the lobby featuring photographs of the presidents includes one of FDR leaning against a horse, one of the few that picture him in a standing position.
Originally Wrigley’s accountants had tried to discourage the chewing gum magnate from investing in the hotel, and he later admitted “The lady was in the red.” But by the time he died in 1932, the enterprise was on a sound financial footing; his family would continue to operate the Biltmore for the next 41 years. During his tenure, Wrigley brought tiles from Catalina Island to line the Biltmore’s first swimming pool and Arabian stallions for a horse show on the premises that has since become an annual Scottsdale event.
And the past continues to inhabit the Biltmore present, particularly in the original Main Building where the Frank Lloyd Wright credo that one not come directly into a structure informs the very entry to the hotel. A choreography of space brings the visitor from a set of double doors into a small area with lowered ceiling. From there it is a few steps to the lobby proper and an effect of heart-stopping proportions. A deep, wide hall rimmed with a mezzanine rises two stories high. Walls and rectangular pillars are of the famed “Biltmore blocks.” On the mezzanine level, a pair of etched walls made of pink, green and gold-colored sand stand back-to-back separated by a pane of glass. When the Arizona sunlight spills through the etched openings, patterns of colored light stream onto the floor creating the effect of shimmering stained glass. Elsewhere, natural light from floor-to-ceiling windows is enhanced by illuminated glass blocks set into the pillars and square lanterns that protrude from the gold-leafed ceiling high above. Punctuated by intimate conversation recesses that soften its enormity, the long lobby ends at Wright’s, the Biltmore’s signature restaurant.
Among the resort’s six dining options, each of a different style and cuisine, are the cheerful, family-oriented indoor/outdoor Grill and Patio and the poolside Cabana Club where lunch is accompanied by the soothing sound of
waterfalls. And then there is Wright’s, the one place where the American/democratic ethos that characterizes the Biltmore’s look is accented with palatial touches. A gold-leafed ceiling soars above most of the room only to drop down over one section. Huge windows overlook beautiful gardens. The best tables are on the balcony that runs along the dining room’s far wall. From there, one can look down the depths of the lobby to its beginning, an image
unlikely to fade from memory.
For the past sixteen years, Wright’s has been holding monthly Winemakers Dinners through the season, popular events that draw a local crowd as much as hotel guests. A lively group gathered on an evening in March for a dinner featuring wines from Chateau Ste. Michelle of Woodinville, Washington. It began with a leisurely cocktail hour in the lobby where waiters passed glasses of Horse Heaven, a round and full Sauvignon Blanc with the taste of pear and citrus, and hors d’oeuvres of Thai cilantro ship and seared ahi wrapped in leek.
Then all repaired to the dining room and a five-course dinner guided by the young and ebullient winemaker Joshua Mahoney. “In California, when we think of old world, we think of Napa Valley,” he said. “But St. Michelle’s first vintage was in 1967, the year after Mondavi’s. Washington is the second largest winemaking state in the country after California, and we are the second largest producer of premium wines in the country.”
If the subtext of his presentation was “It’s not only Napa,” Joshua would prove his point by directing the assembled throng to “Sip the wine, take a bite of the food, and sip the wine again. It’s the second sip where the wine starts to change and enhances the food.” We sipped an Eroica Reisling (2004), tasted a first course of California halibut, a delicious apple fennel puree that had the consistency of mashed potatoes, and yellow tomato marmalade, and sipped again. And with that second sip, our feelings about Reisling had changed. The expected sweetness just wasn’t there; a development, according to Joshua, resulting from the sugar being balanced by sufficient acidity.
The second course was sautéed crab with Osetra caviar and a caper tarragon sauce. We sipped, ate, and sipped again, this time a Chardonnay – Canoe Ridge (2004), aged in oak barrels and with a buttery flavor and touch of apple and pear. Being long-time Chardonnay fans, this was a selection we found only too easy to love.
Course three: smoked duck breast married well with the deep and rich Reserve Syrah (2002) – “A perfect grape to grow in Washington,” according to Joshua. And to accompany course four: a New York strip loin with baby tomatoes and a delectable morel mushroom cream (made of dried morels that were marinated for three days) was a full-bodied Northstar Merlot Columbia Valley (2002). “Certain things happen to Merlot in Washington,” the winemaker said as the crowd sipped, ate, and sipped. “Most people think it is a simple, soft, fruity wine, but Washington Merlots can be powerhouses. This one exhibits it. Massive concentration of fruit in the nose, lots of black cherry and spice, a black licorice component.”
It was a superb dinner that concluded with a sparkling wine to accompany mango sorbet with a little tomato and basil – an unexpected but delightful contrast of flavors, a layered Napoleon made with cookie wafers – tall and lovely and far easier to cut than the traditional puff pastry, and an ethereal chocolate sauvignon mousse with rum raisin, cinnamon and crème Anglais. These sumptuous creations were dreamed up by Biltmore master pastry chef Thomas Huebner. A relative newcomer to the resort, he was born and raised in Austria. Which explained everything.
Chef de Cuisine Matt Aleshouse
In addition to Thomas, we met several other people who contribute to the Biltmore’s dining experience. The very young-looking Cleveland native Matt Alleshouse has been Chef de Cuisine for more than five years and oversees a staff of eight. “I try to do wine-friendly foods using local ingredients,” he told us. “Using what nature gives you is a big part of the job. All my produce comes from local growers or from southern California. I don’t try to twist things a lot. I like to blend things together and make them come out on their own, use different tomatoes, different cheeses. We had a rack of veal which you don’t see too often; it’s not the typical cut. We try to challenge ourselves and the diner, change items on the menu every month, have specials – we call them features — every night.”
He continued, “For me, the best part about this restaurant is that it combines two very unique things: design of the room and quality of the food. My goal? To have Phoenix lumped with New York, San Francisco, Chicago as a dining destination with the Biltmore leading the way.”
Wright’s manager Robert J. Volpe in the wine closet where ten can dine.
Executive Chef Michael Cairns, not only planned the excellent dinner we’d just had, but oversees all the Biltmore’s dining and catering operations. Of largely Italian origin — his appreciation for good food undoubtedly lies in the genes – he enjoys family oriented dining events. “We have great Thanksgiving dinners here,” he told us. “I look at good food as a way of life. You sit down with strangers over a meal and a glass of wine and you bond.”
And then there is Wright’s manager, Robert J. Volpe. His specialty had been opening restaurants; before coming to the Biltmore, he’d opened Phoenix’s Donovan’s – the popular steakhouse with branches in various cities. “This place has a fabulous reputation,” he said, “and people with reputations are invited to work here. It’s fine dining but at the same time, a casual/resort-type place. We’re user friendly, go out of our way to make single diners – male or female, comfortable. We cater to families on special occasions.
“Wright’s is only 28 years old,” he added. “That’s pretty new in terms of the hotel. It’s a place with a past but our direction is towards the future: smaller portions, lighter food, a contemporary ambience and a new look that will bring the next generation of guests. I transferred here, bought a house here. I do not want to leave. I wake up every day and say ‘This is great!’ You can’t replace and you can’t copy the Biltmore.
The Biltmore Resort & Spa 2400 East Missouri Phoenix AZ 85016
Photos by Harvey Frommer
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About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, and It Happened in Manhattan, they teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College in the MALS program where they are celebrating their 20th annivedrsary. They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. )
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