Remaking History

Investor/developer Ed Riley is redeveloping the historic Hotel Syracuse in Downtown Syracuse, N.Y. The complicated $70 million effort ranks among the country's largest hotel restoration projects. Flying the Marriott flag, the hotel is set to reopen in July 2016.

Ed Riley’s current project has been as personal as it has been professional. The longtime hotel and resort developer has worked on renovations of such renowned properties as the Arizona Biltmore Resort in Phoenix, the Claremont Resort in Berkeley, Calif., and the Fairfax at Embassy Row in Washington, D.C., and developed Marriott Resorts in Hawaii. But the native Upstate New Yorker found his latest opportunity a little closer to home. The Hotel Syracuse was something he grew up with—a place where everyone had their wedding, bar mitzvah, prom or other major event. With its 1920s grandiosity and location in the center of a major regional hub, it also hosted celebrities, politicians and other important figures, among them Presidents John Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower, Elvis Presley, Bob Hope, Charles Lindbergh and John Lennon.

Over the years, it had fallen into disrepair, shutting down entirely in 2004. Riley had a vision to bring it back to its former stature. “It’s quite a place,” he observed.

But it was no small feat. Seeing it as a way to give back to the city where he was raised but realizing it had to be financially sustainable in the long term, Riley repaired the roof and paid the utilities for two years before he got the deal closed. He purchased the hotel in 2014, lining up M&T Bank—a bank that had been burned in one of the many past failed efforts to reopen the hotel—as the lead financier. M&T will provide some $60 million, while the state awarded $13.9 million after the site was designated as the headquarters hotel for the Onondaga County Convention Center. Last year, Riley lined up Crescent Hotels & Resorts to manage the property and signed a licensing agreement with Marriott. Paul McNeil—most recently with the Boston Peabody Marriott and formerly with hotels including the San Antonio River Center, San Francisco Moscone Center and New York Marriott Marquis—has signed on as general manager.

Due to open in July, the Marriott Syracuse Downtown has been busily booking events while renovations continue. It is benefiting on both fronts from its history: “People return things to us,” Riley observed—from the cherubs now resting outside its main entrance to the plaque honoring its first president, which was donated by a grandchild. A general manager from the 1960s held four-foot-tall candlesticks that flanked the featured fireplace. The list goes on.

Meanwhile, art experts have been rebuilding decorative plaster and cleaning coal dust and tobacco stains off the giant murals covering the lobby ceiling and the wall behind the main desk in the lobby. The renovation team, led by general contractor Hayner Hoyt Construction Co., has also been uncovering some historic surprises, such as the balconies overlooking the lobby and a barbershop, both covered up by walls, as well as the original art-deco terrazzo floor of the Rainbow Lounge, covered up when the lounge became a sports bar in the 1990s. The barbershop will now be featured as a “bourbon barbershop” in the full-service restaurant. Other original features include the chandeliers in the lobby and the servidors on the guestroom doorways.

Riley is incorporating as much local flavor as possible, as well, purchasing Stickley furniture, Oneida Silver and Syracuse China, for instance. The coffee shop will not be a national brand; instead, Café Kubal Coffee Roaster, a local roaster with a number of coffee shops, is creating its own concept. There is also a steakhouse, a sports bar, a conference center and three ballrooms, along with 261 guestrooms and 18 suites.