Shuttered former Macon Hilton a long-crumblng facade for all to see

jkovac@macon.comAugust 4, 2012 

In summer 1967, when word came that a $7.5-million, 307-room Hilton was in the works for downtown, architect Morris Lapidus, who designed Miami Beach’s iconic Fontainebleau and Eden Roc hotels, declared his Macon creation “a central focus for the citizens of a growing city.”

Nearly half a century later, it is perhaps the emptiest building in town.

Once a gleaming landmark where Elvis spent the night, the now-deserted high-rise is home to a live-in caretaker, her dog Lucy and 16 floors of shadows.

The hotel closed early last year and, by then on its fifth name, the Ramada Plaza was put up for sale. For the past 18 months, there at the foot of First Street, it has served as a towering reminder of a downtown struggling to find its bearing. Or, more precisely, for visitors to find it.

The hotel has been shuttered four months longer than the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, which sits a few blocks away down Walnut Street. But the hotel’s failed presence, at least for now a glaring “Vacancy” sign in the skyline, looms larger.

Its in-limbo fate should come as no surprise. The Ramada Plaza and its previous incarnations have faced bouts of financial turmoil from the start.

Two years after it opened in December 1970 -- with a ribbon-cutting attended by Conrad Hilton’s son, Eric -- the local investment partnership that had sold stock to fund its construction filed for bankruptcy after a $1.5-million cost overrun.

A Baltimore company bought the hotel in 1972. But even then it wasn’t attracting the number of guests it needed. The Maryland owners went bust in 1978.

A front-page headline in The Telegraph that June read: “Hilton Headaches ... Hotel Struggling To Fulfill Promise.”

The accompanying article mentioned “a mudbath of ... mismanagement, dirty facilities and poor service” and an occupancy rate “of just 50 percent.” A spokesman for another hotel chain at the time said, “The minimum acceptable good occupancy rate is 85 percent.”

Prostitution was cited as another problem. A Hilton security guard told a Telegraph reporter, “If you go in there now, you’ll probably see two” prostitutes.

The story quoted then-Mayor Buckner F. Melton, who called the hotel “an absolutely huge factor in Macon’s economic growth and the establishment of stability in the downtown area.”

Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., which held a $3.5 million mortgage on the hotel in 1978, took over and oversaw an $8-million renovation from 1982 to 1984. Rooms were gutted and most of the hotel’s white stucco facade, peeling and exposing the concrete block underneath, was masked with gravel-laden resin panels. Though the panels remain intact today, they boast all the aesthetic charm of chewed gum.

Chris Sheridan, whose Macon construction company gave the hotel its early ’80s face-lift, said recently, “Having it vacant is certainly a sad situation. It would be good for everybody ... if that hotel were flourishing.”

Its current owners, an Alabama group, didn’t respond to e-mails asking about plans for the hotel, which is now valued at less than $2 million.

Asked what might become of the place, whether it might find new life as something other than a hotel, Sheridan, a structural engineer, said, “I never want to discount the creativity of someone to adapt something,” but the building’s framework is so geared for lodging that turning it into anything else doesn’t seem feasible.

Indian-born businessman P.S. Prasad, through his North Carolina-based Zurich Corp., bought the Hilton for $5.8 million in 1989, roughly half of what Metropolitan Life had invested in the hotel.

Prasad financed the deal through a $7.5 million loan from the Bank of Credit and Commerce International -- BCCI, which would soon emerge as the scandal-ridden backbone of what officials then called the largest banking scam in history. Regulators would later reveal that the extra $2 million loaned for the Hilton purchase was earmarked for repairs and upgrades, but the spruce-ups were never made.

Hilton dumped the hotel as a franchise in April 1991. The hotel was $141,000 in arrears on property tax payments and its roof was so leaky that employees joked that when it rained, they went outside to stay dry. A month later, after it was renamed Macon’s Downtown Hotel, a Texas businesswoman was raped and murdered in her ninth-floor room by a hotel worker.

That July, the state of New York Banking Department seized the hotel and other assets of its then-owner Zurich Corp.

Government officials said the owners had used the hotel as “a pawn” in a “complex and massive fraud” that involved BCCI, which was later said to have orchestrated a vast money-laundering scheme that, among other things, helped Saddam Hussein hide Iraqi oil profits and backed Oliver North’s arms deals with Iran.

A 1992 Telegraph article noted allegations that Zurich Corp. had “siphoned profits out of the hotel and let it run down.”

A longtime Hilton manager told the paper that the hotel had been making money until Zurich Corp. took over, “took every penny generated” and “fired a very competent staff.”

The manager said the hotel needed more conventions to stay afloat, that interstate travelers passing through couldn’t sustain it.

After the seizure, Prasad reportedly returned to India and disappeared.

The hotel was then sold at auction and became a Radisson franchise.

Two decades later, the banks of mirrored windows that climb the hotel’s easterly and westerly walls echo little of the charm Lapidus, its architect, spoke of when he drew it up to combine “the gracious hospitality of Georgia and the South with the needs of a modern hotel.”

Lapidus said that in conceiving the Hilton he set out to avoid “the ubiquitous metal and glass exterior found in so many motel buildings.” It was no doubt by design what a visitor gazing up at its sparkling 16 stories was supposed to see shining back: the sky, possibilities.

A look inside

But what remains now may just as well be a full-length mirror reflecting a fractured past.

A sign taped to a chained door reads: “No Rooms Available.”

“No Trespassing While Hotel Is Closed,” says another.

On a recent afternoon, live-in caretaker Pat Geiger hiked toward the penthouse.

The 16-flight trek took her more than 10 minutes. She stopped to catch her breath and tour some of the floors.

The elevators don’t work. The electricity has been shut off. So has the water. In one of the rooms, there’s an HBO guide from January 2011.

Geiger, a concierge of the quiet, said, “Don’t wait on the bellhop.”

She and her fiance, Mike, the hotel’s former maintenance man who was asked to stay on and keep an eye on the place after it closed in February 2011, live in what used to be a limo service office near the hotel’s parking garage.

The Ramada Plaza’s current owners, who Geiger says are looking to sell the place, pay them every two weeks.

Before Geiger moved in two Aprils ago, there were several break-ins, vandals mostly.

Since then, Geiger and her fiance have curtailed prowlers with motion detectors and security cameras, which they monitor while watching TV.

When they make their rounds at night, their Maltese-mix Lucy sometimes roams the empty corridors with them.

Geiger, a master barber by trade, totes a samurai sword for protection.

“I’m gonna carry something,” she said.

On the way to the top floor the other day, Geiger, 48, a former Olive Garden waitress who grew up in the Bloomfield neighborhood and graduated from Southwest High, said the creepiest thing is the sounds the hotel makes after dark.

“It’s got so much glass and metal, during the heat of the day it kind of expands, and it night it starts retracting,” she said. “It makes all kinds of racket. Sometimes it sounds like people walking or talking. ... You’ll swear somebody’s behind you. ... You don’t get used to it. You’re always looking over your shoulder.”

The interior isn’t haunted house eerie with sheets covering everything. It looks more like someone hung a big “Do Not Disturb” tag on the front door and that housekeeping has yet to come knocking.

Some beds are made. Doors to many guest rooms are always open so the hallways aren’t too dark. Chandeliers still hang in the main ballroom, the aptly named Preservation Hall.

Geiger sometimes sees handprints in the dust on tables in guest rooms, prints she knows she didn’t leave.

One time she found the furniture in a top floor room mysteriously rearranged.

The room lies at the opposite end of the hall from the suite Elvis Presley slept in when he was in town for a concert in the mid-’70s.

From the roof, Geiger has watched fireworks on the Fourth of July and on New Year’s.

“Macon is a pretty city,” she said. “It looks prettier from up here.”

She takes pride in tending to the hotel, plucking weeds outside, sweeping, keeping the place presentable.

“I don’t want it to look like a total disaster if I’m staying here,” Geiger said. “In a way, it’s kind of like a home. And I love Macon. It’s kind of a boring little town, but yet it’s a home.”

In the year and a half since the hotel closed, Geiger has found left-behind eyeglasses, cellphone chargers, earrings, necklaces, a couple of wallets and one shoe.

Only once has someone tried to slip in and take up residence -- a homeless woman who claimed the underground garage was her house.

The woman was kindly shown the door.

It was, you might say, checkout time.

And exactly when is that?

“If you could check in,” Geiger said, “whenever you want.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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