On a recent rainy Monday morning, telephones buzzed, elevators dinged and dozens of guests mulled about under the warm glow of the antique crystal chandeliers in the lobby of the Hilton Savannah DeSoto.
The grand chandeliers, which once made their home in the old DeSoto hotel before its demolition in the mid-1960s, will soon shine over a new era for the iconic downtown hotel. Purchased by Sotherly Hotels in 2004, the company is ending its affiliation with the Hilton brand when the franchise agreement expires July 31. The hotel will re-emerge as the DeSoto, an independently branded hotel.
“That tradition of Southern hospitality — whether it was born here or not, it was certainly perfected here — and we’re returning the hotel to that one-on-one level of Southern hospitality,” said Managing Director Jeff Kmiec.
“The original DeSoto was a grand hotel, there’s no doubt about it, but what made it famous was the style of service inside. So for us recapturing that element in this more modern version is incredibly important.”
Kmiec, who began working at the hotel in February, brings more than three decades of experience to the job. He said the service will be much more focused on customer interaction and recognizing who the guest is, what they’re looking to do in Savannah, to tailor their experience to ensure their return to the city.
“There’s a whole shift in the hospitality industry where the traveler is looking for a unique experience. They want what Savannahians do. They want to go where the locals go to eat and drink and the inside scoop in the best park or best ice cream,” he said.
The original DeSoto
Kmiec said the new endeavor goes far beyond a name change and renovations: It’s a return to the splendor of the original DeSoto hotel, which opened in 1890, but was later demolished in the mid-1960s.
Savannah Morning News reports from 1890 show that the hotel’s board of directors considered many names for the hotel including Washington, Madison, Chatham and Savannah, but DeSoto was suggested by John Holbrook Estill, owner of the Savannah Morning News at the time.
The original hotel was designed by Boston architect William Gibbons Preston and opened with much fanfare on New Year’s Eve 1890, according to reports published in the Savannah Morning News, which described the building as splendid and superbly furnished.
“It is the chief ornament of the city. It is lacking in no convenience and has every improvement to be found in the most modern hotels in the world,” the article read.
The six-story hotel featured 300 guest rooms, nearly 9,000 square feet of verandas, a pool and miniature golf course. The hotel cost about $500,000 to build, which would be about $12.7 million by today’s standards.
The kitchen in the DeSoto was furnished with the most modern and costly furnishings available, including refrigerator rooms, which, according to news reports, were “well fitted up, and equaled by few in the country.”
The remainder of the hotel spared no expense when it came to luxury and comfort for the hotel’s many guests.
Guests at the hotel were greeted by a grand porch flanked by terra cotta and granite buttresses, inside more than 1,300 incandescent electric lights lit the hallways and rooms that featured mahogany chairs, tables and sideboards, and 15,000 pieces of silverware — each stamped with the hotel’s name and costing more than $12,000 — graced the dining tables.
Hundreds of people came to the opening dinner reception dining on oysters, terrapin soup, red snapper, pheasant and turkey. Reports show that the first guests to register at the new hotel were John C. Calhoun and James C. Calhoun of New York and Pat Calhoun of Atlanta.
Many celebrities and political figures visited the hotel during its first 75 years, including Gregory Peck, Katherine Hepburn, Ed Sullivan and Presidents William McKinley, William Taft, Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover.
During the last couple of years before the hotel closed, Savannahian Eli Karatassos spent his summers by the DeSoto’s pool as his brother Pano Karatassos served as the hotel’s last executive chef before it closed.
“It was the center of everything downtown. It was a great place to go … I took advantage of (Pano’s) position there by using the pool during the last couple of summers. It was a place that I spent a lot of time,” Karatassos said.
“… It’s such a shame that they tore down the old hotel because it had so much character, but what it did was cemented the hotel as the hospitality hub of Savannah. Everybody who had an annual meeting or everybody who had a ball, they were always at the Hilton.”
Before the doors closed for good in 1965, the hotel hosted a grand New Year’s Eve celebration just as it had 75 years before. Described as the “gayest of funerals,” scores of guests, many of them wearing flapper dresses and other period costumes, dined under gilded bird cages, which hung from the ballroom ceiling as red candles flickered from the dining tables.
“Tonight, Savannah bids farewell to an era as well as a building, but not without a tinge of regret and nostalgia. The DeSoto has ruled with grace and dignity, leaving an impressive record for her successor,” read a program distributed during the hotel’s final event.
The Hilton Savannah DeSoto
A ground-breaking for the new 15-story building, which was designed by Atlanta architect Richard Aeck, was held in August 1966 and the doors officially opened to the Hilton Savannah DeSoto in July 1968. A grand opening ceremony was held in August and Hilton Hotel founder Conrad Hilton watched as officials lit a small cannon that emitted a blast that cut the ribbon.
“The DeSoto was the place, it was the hotel. I think the loss of the old DeSoto were wounds that were still fresh, but had healed a bit to that the extent that the social activity had returned to Bull and Liberty streets,” said Ted Kleisner, who served as general manager of the hotel from 1973 to 1980.
A few of his most memorable moments include hosting President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalyn Carter before the president spoke at the Hibernian Society Dinner on St. Patrick’s Day in 1978. The president and first lady were served a special meal of salmon Wellington – the chef’s twist on beef Wellington.
“I remember what we served them because it was printed in the newspaper afterwards with the recipes,” he said.
Kleisner also received a necklace from Elvis Presley, who stayed at the hotel just months before his death in 1977, securing the entire top two floors during his visit.
A less savory moment came during Hurricane David in 1979 when a visiting reporter from Miami mistakenly wrote that guests who evacuated to the hotel dined on dolphin in a ball-like atmosphere amidst the destruction occurring across the city.
“I got more hate mail about the dolphin they thought we were eating, like we were eating Flipper or something,” laughed Kleisner.
Karatassos recalled the opening of the Chatham Club — a members-only dining and social club, which has called the 14th floor of the hotel home since 1968 — adding another level of distinction to the hotel.
“Having The Chatham Club in the building brought another level of respect to the building because it was such a big deal when it opened,” he said.
“It added, unfortunately at the time, just a businessman’s approach, but I think that’s changed.”
No matter how many hotels come to Savannah, Karatassos said the DeSoto has earned its place at the top of the hospitality industry.
“It’s earned its right to be the leading hotel in Savannah. And nothing has really changed. New hotels have come, but when it’s all said and done, the DeSoto hotel has always been a big part of Savannah’s history,” he said.
Since the 1980s the hotel has been sold several times, undergoing numerous renovations worth millions of dollars along the way. The current owner, Sotherly, acquired the hotel in 2004 and completed a $12 million renovation in 2008. The current $10 million renovation should wrap up in August.
The evolution of ownership that has occurred has to be the biggest change to the hotel, Kleisner said, but he’s certain the hotel has found a perfect fit with Kmiec and the Sotherly team.
“In the grand tradition of southern inn keeping, I think Jeffrey will suit Savannah to a T … Everything needs to be reinvented periodically and I think that someone put a great deal of thought into doing just that with the DeSoto,” he said.
“To most people, while it always had the Hilton flag on it, to everyone locally it was never anything other than the DeSoto.”
A new era at the DeSoto
While the name change won’t be official until the end of this month, the renovations have been ongoing for more than a year. All 246 guest rooms have been upgraded to feature hardwood floors, new furniture, all marble bathrooms and artwork reflecting the scenes of Savannah.
“It’s very clean, very contemporary design and it’s very appealing to the traveler,” Kmiec said of the new design.
All of the hotel’s public spaces have undergone changes as well. The lobby, which was a very traditional Hilton Hotel-style lobby, has been re-imagined as an art gallery. The ballrooms, meeting spaces and pool deck have also gotten upgrades.
The bar, formerly known as the Lion’s Den, has been transformed into Edgar’s Proof &Provision, where bottles of amber-colored bourbon line the outside walls and illuminate the speakeasy-style bar. The bar offers a wide selection of craft cocktails along with dishes created by chef Dusty Grove, who came there from Pacci.
The DeSoto Grille, which will reopen as the 1540 Room, will be led by Kyle Jacovino and will serve Southern-infused, Mediterranean-inspired dishes all sourced from local ingredients. Jacovino was recently the head chef at The Florence.
Kmiec said that both the Lion’s Den and the DeSoto Grille have gained a faithful following over the years and, while there was some apprehension about the changes from regulars, both spaces will continue to welcome and embrace locals.
“Tourists spend two or three days a year here, but the residents on Harris and Jones streets are here every day. It’s important that we reach out and offer an opportunity to come enjoy the property like it’s their guest house,” he said.
“When company comes to visit, you put them up in your guest house, which just happens to have 246 rooms.”
And although the demolition of the original DeSoto was a devastating loss, Kmiec said he believes the loss helped to cement the city’s commitment to preserving other historic structures through the Historic Savannah Foundation and the Historic Review Board and ensuring that Savannah kept its historical roots.
“I look at what the DeSoto represents and it’s really this awesome confluence of old Savannah and new Savannah. That’s what I think of when I think about the DeSoto,” he said.
“It’s a renovation, not just of the building and the amenities, but it’s also a renovation of the brand. And to go back to the Empress of the South distinction and provide true southern hospitality is what we’re focused on.”
About Sotherly Hotels
Williamsburg, Va.-based, Sotherly Hotels was founded by Edgar Sims in 1958. The company’s portfolio includes 12 hotels with more than 3,000 rooms, including The Georgian Terrace hotel in Atlanta. The company’s properties operate under the Preferred Hotels and Resorts, Hilton Worldwide, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, and InterContinental Hotels Group brands. For more information about the DeSoto, go to www.thedesotosavannah.com.