Biltmore celebrating 90 years ahead of renovation

AP News
Posted: Jun 20, 2012 2:25 PM

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The Biltmore Hotel, whose red neon sign lights up the modest Providence skyline, is celebrating its 90th anniversary as a new owner undertakes a $10 million top-to-bottom renovation.

The iconic downtown building got a new lease on life last month when it was purchased for $16 million by a Boston firm, a sale that brought the property out from under the control of a state receiver.

The new owner, Finard Coventry Hotel Management, plans to update just about everything, including all 292 rooms, the lobby and the ballrooms. The hotel will remain open during the renovation, which is expected to be done in phases over two years.

"The historic feel to this property, it's about a bygone era when travel was special," said Todd Finard, a partner with the management group. "You dressed up to get on a train or a plane and you arrived at your hotel. The Biltmore evokes a lot of that sensibility."

Finard said the renovation of the property, which is on the National Preservation Register, will blend historic preservation with modernization.

The Biltmore opened in 1922 with a lavish ball and banquet that The Providence Journal described at the time as the "most elaborate social event ever to be held in the city," according to the hotel. Over 1,000 people attended.

The hotel had 600 rooms then — much smaller than today's suites — along with six restaurants, rooftop gardens and chicken coops, an upholstery shop and drugstore, even a photo lab.

In later years, the hotel featured in its Bacchante Room waitresses known as the "Bacchante Girls," who wore fancy dresses with a black bodice and sheer flowing bottom — so their legs would show. The birthday celebration on Wednesday night is to feature servers in replicas of that dress. Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras are scheduled to attend the celebration.

The hotel closed in the mid-1970s for a few years, then reopened in 1979. For a time, during his second stint as mayor, Buddy Cianci set up residence in its presidential suite; when he emerged from the hotel's ornate lobby, it was like seeing a movie star.

In case there's any doubt, the red sign on the roof is staying, according to Finard, though he does intend to explore more energy-efficient lighting.

"I think it is the ideal beacon for the Biltmore," he said. "It tells you that you are uniquely in Providence when you see that sign."