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Westward Ho a faded memory of a different Phoenix

Icon now home to about 300 low-income residents

The Westward Ho in downtown Phoenix once was among the most elegant hotels in the West, drawing movie stars and national politicians. Closed in 1979, it now serves as low-income housing.

The Westward Ho in downtown Phoenix once was among the most elegant hotels in the West, drawing movie stars and national politicians. Closed in 1979, it now serves as low-income housing.

PHOENIX – The Westward Ho’s pool, shimmering outside Reynaldo Torres’ door, once was a place where Marilyn Monroe swam, Elizabeth Taylor sunbathed and Paul Newman filmed a scene heaving a television from a balcony.

The lobby of the former hotel still has grand touches, including tiled pillars supporting a soaring ceiling, from the days when Torres would see then-U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater and area socialites heading to events, dinners or drinks.

“The hotel was always really busy with people coming in and out,” Torres said. “You never knew who was staying here; that was the exciting part.”

Torres saw the Westward Ho’s former glory from his position as a janitor here during the 1960s.

The rich and famous have long since left, and now Torres is one of about 300 low-income older people who call the building home.

The Westward Ho, with its 268-foot television tower, which no longer is used, is an iconic part of the downtown skyline.

It remains a place of memories for many Arizonans who came here for wedding receptions, fine meals and entertainment before the hotel closed in 1979.

“It was full of character, rich in history and rife with personality,” said Marshall Trimble, Arizona’s state historian. “It is where the rich and the famous came to play.”

At 16 stories, the Westward Ho was the tallest hotel in Phoenix when it opened in 1928. At the time, it boasted a room rate of $2; most of its competitors charged 25 cents a night.

The hotel’s stature and star-studded clientele have led to legends and ghost stories. Trimble said he doubts a claim made by some that Al Capone’s car was buried by a cave-in in the Westward Ho’s now-closed underground parking garage and is still down there. Another legend, Trimble said, has Monroe taking late-night swims without a bathing suit.

Like other establishments downtown, the Westward Ho suffered as residents and visitors were attracted to other places in the area.

“People didn’t want to be downtown so much anymore; the action wasn’t downtown,” Trimble said. “You had golf courses and all of these things on these resorts. There was just more to do.”

In 1981, the Westward Ho reopened as federal government housing.

Gone are the gold lining to the pillars and ceiling in the lobby and the imported tile in the common areas. The Normandy Room, a meeting space once graced with shields bearing inlaid designs, is now a computer room. The Turquoise Room, a popular location for wedding receptions, is now a recreation room with a ping-pong table.

But the building retains many of its finer touches, including a lobby drinking fountain covered with multi-colored tile and stained glass in the lobby depicting the legend of the Lost Dutchman and other Old West scenes.

Other reminders of the hotel’s heyday are found in an office operated by Erling Eaton, a resident who serves as the Westward Ho’s historian. He said he started collecting artifacts due to his curiosity about whether Monroe had once stayed in his room.

Some of the memories include photographs of John F. Kennedy giving a speech outside the hotel and Margaret Truman, the president’s daughter, sitting in the Kida Club. Among many other items, Eaton has preserved an embroidered bedspread, an original wood-frame bedroom mirror, schedules of events, an elevator control board and a dress worn by an employee who worked in the Concho Room.

“It started as just a hobby, but now I want to share it and make it known to people,” Eaton said.

Today, the halls still echo with the Westward Ho’s history, of a guest register that once included Clark Gable and Lady Bird Johnson and that now includes Torres, the former janitor. “I couldn’t have imagined one day living at this place,” he said.

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HOTEL FACTS

Here are quick facts about the Westward Ho, an iconic part of the downtown Phoenix skyline.

• Opened in 1928; closed in 1979.

• Now used by the government for low-income housing.

• At 16 stories, it was the tallest hotel in Phoenix until 1960.

• Approximate nightly rate for a room in the hotel’s early years: $2.

• Amenities included convention halls, swimming pool and penthouse suites.

• Notable guests included Marilyn Monroe, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.

• The 268-foot television tower, which is no longer used, brings the total height to nearly 500 feet.

• Many people mistakenly assume the Westward Ho is shown at the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” because a shot shows a broadcast antenna. A remake of “Psycho” made in 1998 does show it.

• A remodeling project in 2004 cost $8 million.

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