The year was 1922. F. Scott Fitzgerald spun tales of beautiful flappers and dashing aristocrats. Crowds danced to the hot licks of cool jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong. Secret Speakeasies and backyard stills sprung up in the wake of Prohibition. Women swooned at the images of Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks on the silver screen. The discovery of King Tut’s tomb gave the public a glimpse of the awesome riches of ancient Egypt.
In Rhode Island, the opening of the Providence Biltmore Hotel epitomized this year of glitter and glamour. A front-page story in the June 6, 1922, edition of the Providence Journal reported on the banquet and ball that would officially open the Biltmore, predicting that it would be “the most elaborate social event ever to be held in the city.” Over 1,000 people attended the party, including local officials and several prominent New York City hoteliers. For the occasion, the buildingwas illuminated from top to bottom with more than 25,000 lights.
The original owners, New York entrepreneurs John Bowman and Louis Wallick, envisioned the Biltmore as a state-of-the-art luxury hotel. It was designed by New York architects Warren and Wetmore, whose other commissions included Grand Central Station. The building’s unique V-shaped design afforded all guests an outside room.
The 600-room hotel included a drugstore, printing shop, carpentry and upholstery shop, and a photo lab. The Biltmore of the 1920s also featured rooftop gardens and chicken coops. Guests were offered a choice of six different restaurants.
Shortly after its opening, the Journal hailed it as the “new tourist and social center of Providence.” The Hotel continued to be Providence’s hot spot during the Big Band era of the 1930s and 40s. The Biltmore’s Garden Room swung to the sounds of such famous orchestra leaders as Benny Goodman and Jimmy Dorsey. The dance floor was once turned into an aquarium, complete with live fish, for a performance by Esther Williams. For Sonia Henie’s ice show, the floor was frozen solid.
It was also the era of the Biltmore’s famous Bacchante Girls. Known throughout the country for their beauty and poise, these were the waitresses in the Biltmore’s hip Bacchante Room. The dining area was very intimate, with dimmed lights and mirrored walls. Seating sections were called “banquettes,” which were designed to hold between two and eight people. When one wanted to be served, one pushed a button to summon a Bacchante Girl. She would appear in her costume, which featured a diaphanous, see-through skirt. The bar area had a glass floor which was under lit with pink lighting, a feature which showcased the girls’ beautiful legs.
The stately building has weathered the worst of the notorious New England weather. It has survived numerous hurricanes, including the famous storms of 1938 and 1954. The 1938 hurricane flooded the building, with water pouring down into the elevator shafts. Couches floated through the Falstaff Room, drifted out into the lobby and just stopped short of the revolving doors. A plaque, high up on the lobby columns, commemorates the high water mark.
The Biltmore closed in 1974, only to be reopened in 1979 after undergoing a $7.5 million renovation project, which included adding two new floors of luxury suites and high level, elegant boardrooms. Since that time, the hotel has undergone several additional renovations, restoring it to its 1922 charm.
Now under new ownership and management, the Providence Biltmore, an iconic landmark hotel with an illustrious past, enters an exciting next chapter – destined to become its best yet – as the hotel reinterprets its legacy of gracious hospitality and authentic character for today’s discerning business and leisure travelers.
The Providence Biltmore is the most architecturally significant hotel in the city, and is a member of the program Historic Hotels of America under the National Trust for Historic Preservation.