Where the Twenties are still roaring
Marriott Syracuse Downtown is a giant among historic hotels
Many Rochestarians have preconceptions about Syracuse. It’s the place we get up early to haul the kids to for the New York State Fair. It’s our favorite basketball team. It’s got a gigantic mall. It’s where our sleep-deprived spouses have to pick us up after our flight is rerouted. Beyond this, what does Syracuse have to offer that we don’t have here at home? A hotel like the Marriott Syracuse Downtown is one of many things. After one look inside, you’ll want to spend the night—even if it’s just eighty-seven miles away.
Designed by the legendary skyscraper pioneers at George B. Post and Sons, the original Hotel Syracuse rose from a triangular lot during the height of the Jazz Age. When the grand lobby opened in 1924, its owners declared that the hotel’s public spaces would be community resources—and promptly made good on the promise with frequent concerts and other events beneath the glittering lobby chandelier.
This business approach worked. The hotel sailed through the Great Depression with hardly a bump. The Disney-like grand ballroom, with its trompe l’oeil cloud ceiling, became an elegant setting for weddings and bar mitzvahs. The big suites hosted presidents and entertainers. In 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent a week in one. Ringo Starr joined them on John’s birthday and made a bootleg video you can find on YouTube.
But the aging belle couldn’t keep up with the competition and closed after a 2004 bankruptcy. Ten years later, developer Ed Riley had a choice between preserving the hotel’s former glory or creating a modern experience to rival the steel-and-glass competitors along the interstate. He chose both. He knocked out walls, reducing the hotel’s rooms from 600 to 261. As he installed flat-screen TVs and sunflower shower heads, he also restored the hollow “coffin doors” which once allowed guests to store dirty laundry for staff to clean. You can see the original floor numbers as the elevator doors open.
The two restaurants offer contrasting experiences. Eleven Waters, named after the Finger Lakes, is an elegant, minimalist space with an adjacent cocktail bar where the hotel’s barbershop used to be. You can sit alongside exposed plumbing fixtures that used to lead into salon sinks as you order cocktails like the Mullet, the Undercut, or the Rachel. Nearby is Shaughnessy’s, a pub named after the owner’s Irish Setter. The theme is basketball, but the interior designers haven’t settled for typical sports bar kitsch. The floors are made from salvaged Syracuse Nationals gymnasium wood with historical Syracuse University artifacts proudly displayed in cases.
True to its history as a community space, the hotel continues to host public events. Gatsby balls, jazz in the lobby lounge, and outdoor summer concerts blur the lines between locals and out-of-towners.
It’s a short drive to Syracuse, and, sure, you can still make it home from the game at a decent hour, but the Marriott Syracuse Downtown is a New York landmark you should take some time to explore. If you don’t have time to book a room, you’re welcome to be nosy and walk around the lobby and Persian Terrace. Be sure to take some time to linger over the forty-foot mural depicting the city’s history. This hotel is proof that beautiful architecture has staying power and will permanently raise your expectations for staying over anywhere else.
100 East Onondaga St., Syracuse
Mark Gillespie is an avid fan of the region’s food, culture, and great outdoors.
More to do in and around Syracuse:
Of course, the State Fair
If you haven’t been to the Great New York State Fair, what’s the matter with you? This annual celebration of food, crafts, and livestock happens this summer from August 22 to September 3. Come for the wine slushies and stay for the cheese sculpture. Admission is surprisingly cheap, especially on $3 Thursdays. You will be endlessly surprised at the variety of things that can be breaded and put in a deep fryer. Your kids will want to linger in the midway rides area that is at least a bazillion times bigger than your county carnival. nysfair.ny.gov
In case you haven’t heard, Syracuse has a decent basketball team. They play football pretty well too. Rochester loves its Amerks and Red Wings, but this is sports on a bigger scale. You can even scream your head off in the climate-controlled Carrier Dome without worrying about losing your fingers to frostbite at a Bills game. cuse.com
Dress for the theater
If you’re enjoying the Syracuse Marriott Downtown, complete the throwback experience with a smart suit or slit dress at the Landmark Theater. This is where a special Wurlitzer organ accompanied silent movies with dramatic music and sound effects. Today, audiences enjoy Broadway touring acts and performers. The 2018–19 season includes Dirty Dancing, Fiddler on the Roof, and Jerry Seinfeld. landmarktheatre.org
Shop and eat at Armory Square
While East Avenue and the High Falls District show potential, Rochester really doesn’t have anything quite like Armory Square. This circular pocket neighborhood is anchored by the old Jefferson Street Armory, now the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology. Within an easy walk are the city’s better restaurants, breweries, shops, and other attractions. armorysq.org
Okay, it’s just a mall, but it’s a really big mall—like huge! There were once plans to make it the largest in the country, but being number six isn’t shabby at all. Inside are big department stores, outlet stores, high-end chain dining, and an entertainment center with a three-story rope course for the kids. destinyusa.com
Park the car at the mall and pick up the Onondaga Creekwalk, a walking and biking trail that goes from the southern shore of Onondaga Lake to Armory Square.
Take a walking tour
Syracuse has a nice, compact downtown with stunning architecture and a resurgent economy aided by adjacent universities and medical center. There’s a great online walking tour that takes you past seventy-one landmarks. syracusetour.herokuapp.com