Downtown icon Westward Ho a faded memory of a different Phoenix

Westward Ho (10-01-08)
Erling Eaton, a Westward Ho resident who serves as a historian and tour guide, shows a picture of Margaret Truman, daughter of President Harry S. Truman, among the artifacts from the hotel’s history. Closed in 1979, the hotel now serves as low-income housing. (Maria Konopken/Cronkite News Service)
Cronkite News Service:
Maria Konopken
Published On:
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
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The Westward Ho’s pool, shimmering outside Reynaldo Torres’ door, once was a place where Marilyn Monroe swam 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 U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater and Valley socialites heading to events.

“The hotel was always really busy,” 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. But the rich and famous have long since left, and now Torres is one of about 300 low-income senior citizens who call it home.

The Westward Ho, with its 268-foot television tower, which no longer is used, is an iconic part of the downtown skyline. And it remains a place of memories for many Arizonans who came here before it 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, its room rate was $2; most of its competitors charged 25 cents.

The hotel’s stature and star-studded clientele have led to legends and ghost stories. Trimble said he doubts a claim that Al Capone’s car was buried by a cave-in in the Westward Ho’s now-closed underground parking garage. Another legend, Trimble said, has Monroe making 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 Valley.

“People didn’t want to be downtown so much anymore; the action wasn’t downtown,” Trimble said.

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

Gone are the gold lining to the pillars and ceiling in the lobby and the imported tile in 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.

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.

“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; I cleaned these rooms, but here I am,” Torres said. “It’s hard to believe.”