Syracuse: Downtown Revitalization in the Salt City

The lobby of the Hotel Syracuse, now the Marriott Syracuse Downtown
The lobby of the Hotel Syracuse, now the Marriott Syracuse Downtown. Photos by Stephen Hartshorne.

Saving the Grande Dame of the Syracuse Skyline

By Stephen Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Associate Editor

The Marriott Syracuse Downtown
The Marriott Syracuse Downtown

I just returned from a delightful visit to Syracuse, New York, touring the city’s historic neighborhoods, visiting museums and galleries, sampling the fruits of local vineyards and orchards, and chowing down on some of the finest vittles I have ever eaten.

I sampled the apple vodka — and the apple gin — at Beak and Skiff’s Orchards, sipped vintages at Anyela’s Vineyards, climbed aboard a restored canal boat at the Erie Canal Museum, and had the best barbeque I’ve ever eaten at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, which started as a mobile concession at Harley Davidson rallies and now has eight locations all over the Northeast.

But the highlight of the trip was a chance to stay at the Marriott Syracuse Downtown, originally known as the Hotel Syracuse, which has been lovingly restored to its former grandeur after standing vacant for more than twelve years.

As many guests have pointed out, visiting this grand hotel is like stepping into another era.

The majestic lobby with its terrazzo floors, coffered ceilings and 20-foot columns has been painstakingly restored, along with the elegant 1924 chandeliers and the mural painted in 1949 by Carl Roters depicting the early years of Syracuse’s history.

The Grand Ballroom on the tenth floor — one of three at the hotel —  has a skyscape ceiling, ornate balconies, golden columns, and crystal chandeliers.

A Real Inspiration

As a longtime supporter of historic restoration, I find the story of the rescue of the Hotel Syracuse to be a real inspiration, a tribute to hard work, determination, and community spirit.

The grande dame of the city’s skyline was in tough shape: the roof was leaking, ceilings were falling down and there was a real danger of collapse. That’s when Ed Riley began mobilizing resources to save the historic structure.

The Grand Ballroom on the tenth floor
The Grand Ballroom on the tenth floor

A native of Syracuse with a degree in architecture from Syracuse University, Riley was uniquely qualified to take on the project. An architect and developer, he had spent the last 15 years restoring and developing hotel properties for Marriott International and Pyramid Hotel Group.

For Pyramid, Riley had overseen renovations at the Fairfax in Washington, D.C., the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix and the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley totaling more than 120 million dollars.

But the Hotel Syracuse was the biggest project of his career, and he had to undertake it on his own, leaving his job at Pyramid and setting up a storefront in the Hotel Syracuse.

Out-of-state lien-holders had been paying just enough in taxes to stave off foreclosure, so with the building at risk of demolition, the city seized the property by eminent domain and sold it to Riley for $1.6 million.

He put up $500,000 and was able to get grants to cover the rest. He had also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to patch leaks and make repairs to protect the integrity of the structure.

servidor in the hotel syracuse
The hotel’s famous ‘servidors’ allow staff to pick up clothes and shoes without disturbing the guests.

Over the next two years Riley cobbled together more than $76 million dollars in public and private financing to restore the historic structure, including grants, loans, and tax credits from city, county, and state governments and private investors.

Add to that the challenge of undertaking a restoration that balances historical authenticity with the needs of a modern luxury hotel, and you get an idea of the scope of the project.

A Community Hotel

The Hotel Syracuse was built in 1924 by a consortium of local businesspeople, and it has served as a center of the community, hosting weddings. proms, graduation parties, meetings and reunions for 80 years before it closed in 2004. So the community has become wholeheartedly involved in its restoration.

Ninety percent of the work is being performed by local contractors and provides jobs for city residents.

Local companies are proud to play a part in the restoration/rescue, including L. & J.G. Stickley Inc., which crafted all the furntiure in the hotel’s 261 guest rooms and did much of the interior design.

Stickley also restored the hotel’s famous ‘servidors’ — guest room doors with a compartment in them — which allow the staff to pick up clothing to be cleaned from the compartment without disturbing the guests.

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, which started as a mobile concession at Harley-Davidson rallies, now has six locations all over the Northeast.
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, which started as a mobile concession at Harley-Davidson rallies, now has six locations all over the Northeast.

Another local company, Harden Furniture, has restored hundreds of pieces of furniture, including the hotel’s original wine cabinet, which was found in pieces in a pile of rubble. President Gregory Harden says he has a personal connection to the Hotel Syracuse:

“My grandmother would take me there when I was a child once a year at Christmas.” he says. “This hotel is part of so many memories for me and for our community. It means so much to me and to our team to be part of this project.”

Pieces of the Puzzle

I found the same enthusiasm from the staff of the hotel, who are really excited to see the hotel open after twelve years of vacancy and two years of construction. They all wear pins on their lapels shaped like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, to signify that everyone plays a part in the hotel’s success.

The Marriott Syracuse Downtown, which opened this summer, now has 261 guest rooms and 41,000 square feet of meeting, wedding, and event space including high-tech meeting facilities with high-speed wireless internet and built-in video systems.

We dined at Eleven Waters, the first of three full-service restaurants opening at the hotel, where we had a magnificent repast of New York cheddar popovers, sausage Cavatelli, Faroe Island Salmon and merlot-braised short ribs.

Boating on the Erie Canal, back in the day.
Boating on the Erie Canal, back in the day.

Salt City

We took a tour of downtown Syracuse, a happening city of revitalized neighborhoods, lively nightlife and lots of historic architecture.

Originally a center of salt production, the city grew rapidly after 1825 with the opening of the Erie Canal, which went right through the center of town. It closed in 1917, was paved over, and became Erie Boulevard.

The Erie Canal Museum has many fascinating exhibits, including a canal boat, a weighing station, and many cultural artifacts illustrating life along the canal.

Syracuse was also an important stop on the Underground Railway. We saw the balcony of the Courier Building from which Secretary of State Daniel Webster gave a speech to the citizens of Syracuse informing them that they would have to abide by the Fugitive Slave Law and return escaped slaves to their owners, but the city openly defied him.

Later that year a crowd of Syracusans freed William “Jerry” Henry from federal marshals and helped him escape Canada. There’s a monument to the “Jerry rescue” in Clinton Square.

A gallery at WonderWorks at Destiny USA, New York's largest mall.
A gallery at WonderWorks at Destiny USA, New York’s largest mall.

Finger Lakes Region

We also had a chance to see the countryside around Syracuse, including the picturesque lakeside village of Skaneateles (pronounced ‘skinny-atlas’) where we dined at the historic Sherwood Inn, built in 1807.

The food is great, and the inn leaves vacant rooms open so visitors can look at the antique paintings and furniture.

We capped off the trip with a visit to Destiny USA, New York State’s largest mall. There are a lot of shops, of course, 2.4 million square feet of them, but it also features go-kart racing, laser tag, ‘opti-golf’, and the world’s largest indoor rope climbing course.

My favorite stop was at WonderWorks, a science and nature museum with all kinds of interactive exhibits for kids of all ages.

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Stephen Hartshorne
Stephen Hartshorne is the former associate editor of GoNOMAD.com. He writes a blog called ArmchairTravel about books he finds at flea markets and rummage sales. He teaches in local public schools in the Pioneer Valley and lives in Sunderland, Mass.