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Weekend Escape: Phoenix : Wright Place : He's Still Crazy for the Biltmore Inspired by That Architect

March 13, 1994|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Dean writes for The Times' View section

PHOENIX — I came here three decades ago when this was a swamp-cooled, one-horse city with a few yards of freeway and a decayed downtown. But we always had escapes to the Arizona Biltmore, a winter hangout for Eastern railroad money and a great oasis of lawns, luxury eating and Art Deco romance.

Today, Phoenix maintains an impeccable ascent as an NBA and NFL city of 1 million souls. Chefs speak French and the food is herb-rubbed and pan-seared. There's a strong cultural pulse to its renascent, refrigerated downtown of high-rise black glass and stainless steel. And the Arizona Biltmore keeps plugging along; a decorous monument to the good times of the '30s, our passages since, and now the economically reviving months of '93-'94.

Within these sandstone walls, Edna Ferber wrote novels. Here we celebrated my son's high school graduation--and the purchase of his first suit--with dinner in the Gold Room. And I brought my British parents to poolside brunch at the Biltmore. For once, their rarely timid son hesitated before a social challenge. So they walked over and introduced themselves to Bob Hope.

Most of Hollywood trysted here in the old days.

The lady in my life and I came here last month to hide from things that go bump at 4:31 a.m.

I also wanted to check the health of the Biltmore, my 65-year-old friend, which is emerging from the latest phase of a seemingly perennial restoration. I was helpless at her side in 1973 when a six-alarm fire barbecued the main building. I have worried as the Biltmore's 1,200 original acres shrank by subdivision into a 39-acre patch of landscaped desert where Phoenix's northeastern corner pokes into Paradise Valley.

In the past 20 years under several owners, wings have been added, pools dismantled, rooms renovated, old ballrooms closed, a conference center built, decor changed, tennis courts torn up, restaurants moved--noisy upheaval that at times forced the Biltmore's off-season, summer rates down to $80 a night.

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Under the old management of Westin Hotels and new ownership of Biltmore Hotel Properties since June, the latest refurbishing is almost done. And the base, on-season rate is back to exotic resort levels: $280 a night. The Biltmore, I'm happy to report, is buffed to better than new.

More than half of the 500 rooms--at a cost of $15,000 per boudoir--have been finished in a delightful advance to the past. Ours in the Valley Wing was a typical revival--beds and Stickley chairs crafted in dark oak, and replica bronze lamps with vellum shades and rawhide whipstitching. That's what was here when architect Albert Chase McArthur was designing the Biltmore, and mentor Frank Lloyd Wright was counseling him.

The interim trendiness of peach, green and other colors standard to the '60s and '70s has been replaced by beige with cream accents that will be fashionable forever. Five-star touches include voice mail in the room, a concierge who calls to vow absolute devotion, and door attendants who sneak peeks at incoming luggage tags to address arriving guests by name.

Afternoon tea is now being served at the Biltmore. But somewhat haughty waitresses weren't about to pour a pot when we showed up Friday, 15 minutes beyond close of brewing at 4:30 p.m. Nor were they impressed by my recitation of the gospel according to Fortnum & Mason: In England, tea doesn't even start until 4 p.m.

The old Art Deco pool, all gold and lapis and an original glory, has been kept. Two new pools have been added, one with a bar in the shallow end. And there's a three-story water slide that spits human projectiles through a waterfall into a chlorine lagoon. Surrounding this new area are 23 cabanas with bathrooms, showers, bars, television, butler service and Brown Jordan teak patio furniture.

And there was a red-tailed hawk, head ranging, that seemed aloft whenever I walked the grounds early.

Our first night, a Friday, merged Phoenix's two eras (old Wild West and new arts-center-style sophistication): cocktails with jazz trio backing in the Biltmore's elegant lobby bar, then a five-minute drive to raucous Richardson's.

Who knows what magic dust turns a small neighborhood tavern into an insider's place with enough raw energy and fun for David Letterman to enjoy when he is in town. Or so goes the management claim.

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The lure could be owner Richardson Brown himself; tall, blunt, with a shaved skull and a face that looks like it has paid a mercenary's dues. It could be the bar crowd, which is academic, cowboy, gay, old politicians with dead ideals, new tourists with too-bright Navajo jewelry, young marrieds, and most drinking Double Diamond ale on tap.

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