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The Fascinating History of Hotel Valley Ho, Scottsdale’s Illustrious Retro-Chic Gem

The hotel’s porte cochere highlights the precast concrete accent echoed throughout the property.

Scottsdale’s retro-chic gem celebrates its 65th birthday this year.

In the 1950s, the town of Scottsdale encompassed only one square mile. The desert sprawled to the north and citrus groves stretched westward. It was here, at Indian School Road and 68th Street, that hotelier John B. Mills decided to build an exclusive, out-of-town retreat.

“Hotel Valley Ho was definitely a desert escape,” says Jesse Thompson, area director of sales and marketing for the property. “Back then, Scottsdale was in the middle of orange fields.”

Mills also owned Westward Ho, the downtown Phoenix landmark built in 1928. He, along with business partners Robert and Evelyn Foehl, hoped to draw Hollywood’s elite to a new destination, a resort-style getaway far from the gossip circles and camera clicks of Los Angeles.

This wasn’t a far-fetched dream. Robert and Evelyn were seasoned hospitality experts. Robert had managed the Biltmore Hotel in L.A., the San Marcos Resort (now The Crown Plaza) in Chandler and Jokake Inn (now The Phoenician); his wife, Evelyn, had operated Tucson’s Hacienda Del Sol Resort Hotel. They were also well-connected and well-liked socialites of the Hollywood scene.

If anyone could lure the glitterati to rural Scottsdale, it would be Robert and Evelyn. But first, they needed to build accommodations. Enter Edward L. Varney Associates, AIA.

1. The swimming pool, located in the resort’s center, was expanded to include a bar and grille. 2. The lobby, circa late 1950s, looks much as it does today. 3. Bing Crosby was one of many Hollywood A-listers to escape Los Angeles for our desert sanctuary during the 1950s and ’60s.

If anyone could lure the glitterati to rural Scottsdale, it would be Robert and Evelyn. But first, they needed to build accommodations. Enter Edward L. Varney Associates, AIA.

Phoenix architect Ed Varney founded his firm in 1941 and had worked on notable projects such as the Paradise Valley Country Club and the nearby Motorola plant. Varney was tapped as the lead architect on the new venture.

“Varney had a great eye for architecture,” says Doug B. Sydnor, FAIA, architect and former member of the Scottsdale Historic Preservation Commission. “He knew what worked.”

According to Sydnor, in addition to Varney, other key people involved in the project were Dean Rendahl, a former New York City theater stage designer; architect Don K. Taylor; and Reginald “Reg” Sydnor, an architect at Varney’s firm. Reg was also Doug Sydnor’s father.

The first phase of Hotel Valley Ho was built by Kitchell-Phillips Contractors and completed in 1956. Two years later, construction by TGK concluded on two guest wings north of the main complex. Reg Sydnor served in a lead capacity to manage that addition. Rendahl focused on design and interiors. And Taylor was credited with creating what might be the most character-defining feature of the hotel—the precast concrete railing detail.

“Anyone can bring in a hotel that’s shiny and new. But we’ve got the bones and the history. The Hotel Valley Ho is a staple in the Scottsdale community.”

–Jesse Thompson, Hotel Valley Ho 

A well-appointed guest room in the 1950s
After Ramada took ownership in the 1970s, the company remodeled the interiors, including the guest rooms. Pictured is a poolside room in the late 1980s or early ’90s.

“That railing is one of the most innovative, creatively crafted, sculptural pieces that I know of in architecture,” says Sydnor. “It is faceted and angular. Typically, railings such as these are solid from edge to edge. But that isn’t the case here. Openings are cast through it. The upper edge also has a broken, geometric profile. It’s not squared off. It’s a very iconic, artistic touch, and that’s rarely seen in commercial buildings.”

As Sydnor notes, this precast concrete detail sets the tone for the entire hotel. Its theme is carried throughout the exteriors as a continuous railing and echoed as a fascia detail over the porte cochere at the resort’s entrance.

Other impressive architectural elements include the open-celled masonry grillwork on the south face of the tower at the entry, full-height glazing in the lobby, steel rail detailings at the stairs and an at-grade transparency that frames views to the outside. The interior design was the vision of Thelma Hawkins of now defunct Los Angeles-based furniture retailer Barker Bros.

Hotel Valley Ho officially opened in 1956. By 1957, the VIP haven was hosting a roster of famous guests, including actors Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, plus Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, who chose the venue for their wedding reception. The destination was also a favorite of baseball players in town for spring training.

1. Hotel Valley Ho’s restaurant was often abuzz with the clink of glasses, lively conversation and the possibility of live music by Jimmy Durante, who was known to play a set or two in the lounge. 2. Robert and Evelyn Foehl at the 1957 wedding of actors  Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner.

“Robert and Evelyn Foehl were the reason the L.A. crowd came to Hotel Valley Ho,” says Ace Bailey, owner of Ultimate Art & Cultural Tours and current resident historian at the Ho. “They were the quintessential host and hostess. When Hollywood found out they were the property managers of a high-end resort in Scottsdale, they decided to stop going to Palm Springs and start coming here.”

The hotel’s arrival on the scene coincided with the opening of the Kiva Craft Center, where American Indian artists displayed and sold one-of-a-kind pieces. (Today the building houses shops and FnB gastropub.) Hotel Valley Ho’s revolving door of A-list stars and the Kiva Craft Center’s draw of arts patrons helped small-town Scottsdale burgeon into a sophisticated national arts and culture hub.

But while the city of Scottsdale flourished, Hotel Valley Ho was not without challenges. After Robert Foehl’s death in 1973, Evelyn sold the property and Ramada took over management. Over the course of almost three decades, the property slowly fell into disrepair. By 2001, it was up for auction.

Local developer Westroc Hospitality—which also owns Sanctuary Resort and Spa and Mountain Shadows Resort Scottsdale—won the bid to buy the property. Interestingly, Scott Lyon, founder and managing partner of Westroc, was not the highest bidder; the company won out over the competition because their bid came with a promise to rehabilitate Hotel Valley Ho—not tear it down.

“The place was a shadow of its former self,” Thompson says. “The glass was broken, drapes weren’t attached, there were stucco and drywall issues. But the property was built well. The original bones were intact.”

Along with Phoenix architecture and design firm Allen+Philp, Lyon’s team tackled an $80 million restoration from 2001 to 2005. Renovation included exposing the precast concrete columns in the lobby, expanding room sizes, adding terrace suites on the two historic wings’ end caps and refurbishing the main tower’s original grillwork, which Ramada had covered up.

“Allen+Philp were very respectful,” notes Sydnor. “Wherever they encountered what was an original detail, they worked hard to retain, repair and celebrate it.”

Perhaps the most impressive feat of the renovation was the vertical build-out of the seven-story tower that sits on top of the lobby. As the team began to conceptualize it, they found Varney’s original plans and never-expired city permits for the tower, plus a structural surprise in the basement.

“When the hotel was built in ’56, Varney had the foresight to know that eventually he would create an upward expansion,” explains Thompson. “So Kitchell-Phillips Contractors built it with the supports already in place.”

The newly refurbished Hotel Valley Ho debuted on Dec. 20, 2005, 49 years to the day of its original opening. The thought and care put into the restoration was so well executed that today the property tops many lists of important icons of midcentury architecture.

Renowned architect and author Alan Hess has been quoted as saying the Valley Ho is the best example of preserved midcentury hotel architecture in the United States.

“I won’t claim to know about all of the resort hotels from the mid-’50s across the country,” says Sydnor. “But I do bow to Mr. Hess because he knows a great deal. I couldn’t be more in agreement with his statement.”

Not only did the renovation allow the original architecture to shine, but it also returned the Valley Ho to its rightful place in history, continuing the dream that Robert and Evelyn Foehl had in 1956.

“Anyone can bring in a hotel that’s shiny and new,” Thompson says. “But we’ve got the bones and the history. The Hotel Valley Ho is a staple in the Scottsdale community.”

For more information, see Sources.

MOMENTS IN TIME

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