Then & Now: Arizona Biltmore, A Waldorf Astoria Resort

Architectural Photography by Michael Baxter, Baxter Imaging LLC

The Grande Dame & Grander

Cottage Suite

‘If I have played the midwife in bringing this child into the world, I am content.’

Albert Chase McArthur, codesigner, Arizona Biltmore

A little more than two years ago, the Arizona Biltmore, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, completed a 15-month restoration project that triumphantly reimagined the landmark 703-room Phoenix hotel — maintaining a nearly century-old legacy while elevating the property to today’s luxury standards. Since the May 2021 reopening, visitors have praised the refresh, which celebrates the new “Jewel of the Desert” with eloquence and glamour.

The $150-million project revamped interior and exterior spaces, reaffirming the Biltmore’s connection with the surrounding desert and rethinking the hotel with handmade craftsmanship, an open-plan layout, custom facades and materials such as fine porcelain, ornate stained glass and glass mosaics.

New areas include the adults-only Saguaro Pool, finished with Bisazza pebbles; the Paradise family pool that incorporates a 65-foot-high triple water slide; dining venues; and renovated cottages, where family nannies originally watched the children as the adults played in the Valley’s first world-class resort, which opened in 1929. 

“We also decided to bring back the original floor plan that was done for the opening of the hotel in 1929 and to celebrate and give a nod back to the past as to how the guest was entertained in that era,” says Therese Virserius, principal of her eponymous studio.

Debuting this year was the 25,000-square-foot, Forbes Four-Star-rated Tierra Luna Spa — a holistic wellness experience themed to the cosmos and Earth’s four elements. The Citrus Club Lounge was also added — a concierge-level experience available with select suites and club-level room types. 

To accomplish this campuswide reimagining, the ownership group, Blackstone Real Estate, also retained PHX Architecture, Serving the Nation Inc., Burton Studio and Wimberly Interiors. 

Brian Kaufman, Blackstone’s managing director, says: “It was important to us that this renovation maintain the historic elements that make the Arizona Biltmore unique while also ensuring guests can enjoy modern enhancements and a best-in-class experience.”

Sacred Space

Sit in the Biltmore lobby; the space embraces you. You aren’t visiting it; it visits you. Past and present equally inspire; your eyes move from detail to detail, fellow visitor to visitor. Sunlight fills the room in elegant, restrained measure. The hotel’s defining element, 250,000 textured Biltmore blocks, in 34 configurations, beckon you to touch them.

Frank Lloyd Wright had designed the “textile” blocks in three California homes a few years before the hotel opened, and his former student, Albert Chase McArthur, reconfigured them from square to rectangular form for the hotel, while also adding a musicological design component, explains John Jordan, the hotel historian. He regularly leads tours of the campus, including the magnificently preserved Mystery Room, with its intoxicating speakeasy past. The original blocks, made on property from desert silt, were restored.

Mystery Room

Wright and McArthur codesigned the building, Jordan argues, even though McArthur is still officially credited alone, with an assist to the great architect. Wright’s genius is omnipresent, though: the massing, reminiscent of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which was razed in the 1960s; the signature geometric details and colors; the original Midway Gardens sprites at the Biltmore Estates Drive gateway and the exacting copies on the lawn outside the entrance. Harvard-trained as an engineer, McArthur was acute enough to heed the master’s artistry, not try to improve it.

Texture is everywhere; natural and artificial light is everywhere. The stained glass in the vestibule welcomes you as you enter from the porte-cochere; it was gifted by Wright’s widow, Olgivanna, after his death; the colorful artwork is based on a rejected magazine cover from the 1920s.

Even the blocks have artificially lit glass elements. You are enveloped; your stay, for a week, a weekend or a few hours at one of the redecorated restaurants, the Latin-inspired Renata’s Hearth or McArthur’s, will also be sacred (and flavorful).

On the floor are the new carpets with signature Wrightian designs. “We wanted to bring in that old world bohemian feel, the way it was in the 1930s, where the guests were very well traveled, so bringing back the worn Persian rugs was part of bringing back the history to the present time,” says Virserius. 

At the far end of the lobby, next to Renata’s Hearth, the focal-point Wright Bar sets new color against the desert-toned Biltmore Blocks. Materials are rich and lush in both coloration and saturation, gemlike, she explains. Luxurious teal and midnight blue peacock feather tiles magnificently recall a design element popular during the Art Deco and the Art Nouveau eras. The bar’s Art Deco geometric patterns use opulent tones to create additional depth and layering, with details such as hand-picked stones and custom leather-wrapped handrails.

“Some fabric has delicate embroidery of birds on the back of the chairs, and some fabrics are hand painted to again create that eclectic-bohemian style that had a very strong presence in the design at that time,” she says.

Once again, the tiles exude tactility; touch them, then, to celebrate, stir the hotel version of the Tequila Sunrise, which hotel mixmaster Gene Sulit may have created in the property’s gold-ceilinged Aztec Room during the 1940s. 

Neatly placed in the adjacent lobby corridor are modular sofas strategically positioned to encourage socialization. One adjacent bar-stool nook has historical images, which adds a warm domestic touch. “It’s eclectic, rich and unique. All aspects of the Wright Bar are bespoke,” says Virserius.

Wright Bar

Steps from the lobby bar is the alfresco Spire Bar and Event Lawn, showcasing views of Piestewa Peak; it’s canopied by a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired structure, with a spire at the center. 

A colorful Spanish mosaic wraps the bar, topped with a ramada decorated in a geometric flower in backlit glass. As the sun sets on the spire, a light show appears, and the adjacent trees’ glow changes from red to purple. Curved banquettes distinguished by custom tiles and fire pits are complemented by the “Luxe Twist,” an art installation with multicolored lights created by New York-based artist Rob de Oude.

People’s spirits are here, too, in the lobby and throughout the 39-acre campus: Leonard Bernstein; Prince, now King Charles; John Kennedy; Billie Jean King; Clark Gable; Randolph Scott; Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who honeymooned here; and Frank Sinatra, who, a lobby legend goes, one evening spontaneously sang with Sammy Davis Jr. At the resort’s original pool, the Catalina, Irving Berlin supposedly composed “White Christmas,” and Marilyn Monroe offered holiday cheer every time she visited.

In less than six years, the Arizona Biltmore will replicate the Feb. 23, 1929 party that was held for the opening of one of the finest hotels of Hollywood’s Golden Age; the Great Depression was just eight months away. Prospective attendees received 600 invitations, with hotel management estimating a one-third response, but so many responded that the gala event in the Gold Room was extended to three days. Among the guests, reported in The Arizona Republic, were the Wrights.

Historic social gathering

“We wanted to bring ‘the grande dame’ into today’s world with a little bit of flash and fun,” says Michael B. Hoffmann, the hotel’s managing director. “The Arizona Biltmore is not your grandparents’ hotel. This update speaks to a new audience, a new generation.”

Virserius adds, “Honor the past but to look into the future: We were very sensitive in how we recreated a new story in a new era — while still paying attention to the past.”

To learn more, please visit, follow on Facebook and Instagram or call 602.955.6600.

This story appeared in the AZ Foothills Innovators 2023 issue. Read the full issue here.

Photos courtesy Arizona Biltmore, A Waldorf Astoria Resort

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