The Biltmore is getting a facelift. The iconic Providence hotel opens June 1 with a new name and a new look. But the old stories that make up its legacy are still there too.
The Biltmore first opened in 1922, in the age of big band and symphonic jazz, elegant balls, and economic prosperity. Over the years, it’s become known as a meeting and gathering space, the hotel of choice for celebrities passing through Providence, an upscale spot for dining and drinks, and just a place to experience the city’s unique culture.
The Biltmore fell on hard times and closed in 1975. The hotel was going to be demolished. But then-newly-elected mayor Cianci stepped in, and its reopening in 1976 marked the beginning of Providence’s famed renaissance.
Longtime Providence Journal columnist Bob Kerr would often find himself in the Biltmore lobby, or in its old bars and restaurants, where he sometimes conducted his interviews.
“I think when people come to Providence, they first think of here. They first think of the Biltmore, and that’s the way it ought to be. It’s just a fine, good, elegant old hotel,” Kerr said.
It was there that Kerr had the pleasure of meeting psychedelic rock legend Grace Slick, former Kinks frontman Ray Davies, and Broadway star Carol Channing.
“She was going to get a special award from Buddy Cianci. She was up at [the Providence Performing Arts Center], doing Hello Dolly, and Buddy had a backstage run-in with her manager or one of her people, which involved a gay slur. And she ended up saying, ‘I don’t want to be onstage with this man anymore.’ But, it happened here. This is where I talked to the people involved. They called me at the paper, and we came over to the Biltmore.” Kerr said, “It was just where things happened.”
This took place in 1995, during Cianci’s second mayoral run.
Now, big changes are happening again. The new owners, young boutique company Graduate Hotels first purchased the building back in 2017, and began renovations last month. Scott Williams, General Manager of Graduate Providence, said the company wanted to revitalize the Biltmore to give it more of a contemporary aesthetic, but they also recognize the importance of preserving the hotel’s illustrious history.“Everything’s done with the best intention of the building at heart, and really bringing it back to life, fixing what’s been neglected over the years, enhancing the beauty to really kind of bring it back and make it that vibrant space again that it once was back when it first opened 97 years ago,” Williams said.
As an early introduction to the city, the company invited people to come and paint on the hotel’s interior walls before they were repapered. This was an opportunity for Providence residents to leave a permanent – if concealed - mark on the building.
Elise Fort, a Cumberland resident, was among the amateur and professional painters who contributed to the massive art project. She’s now retired, and has been using her free time to focus on her passion for art. She hoped to see at least some of the Biltmore’s distinguishing features preserved.
“As long as they keep the historic aesthetic—I mean, look at the beautiful ceiling there—and as long as they keep, I guess what you would call the bones of the building, and when we walk in, we still can feel the essence of the historic nature,” Fort said.
The hotel will officially reopen as the Graduate Providence on June 1st, but the big red sign on top of the hotel that says the Biltmore? That’s staying.
Editor's Note: Renovations did not begin last month; rather, the Graduate team was putting the final touches on the hotel as it entered a new era.