In one of the greatest tragedies in Thompson family history, officials at the Phoenician hotel apparently raised Mabel Thompson Filor’s historically significant Phoenix estate to make way for the Canyon Suites, a bland collection of luxury vacation cottages.
A Starwood Hotel website — Starwood bought the Phoenician about 10 years ago — attempts to put the best face on this abomination, claiming in breathless marketing-speak that the cottages somehow evoke “the grandeur and heritage of its predecessor.” Fat chance.
In fairness, Mabel didn’t build the lovely adobe structure that used to grace this spot at the foot of Camelback Mountain. She bought it more than likely from the family of Jessie Benton Evans. A painter, Evans originally bought a small frame house on the grounds and 40 surrounding acres in the early part of the last century.
After renovating the house, Evans gifted it and 12 acres of surrounding land to her son and daughter-in-law. The couple then built an adobe house in 1926 that was eventually expanded into a hotel, the Jokake Inn. It looks as though that was the building that Mabel bought, probably after she married Samuel Wilson in 1937. Wilson was from Phoenix. Mabel moved to Phoenix from the New York City area, where she owned a mansion overlooking the Hudson.
“Discreet and enchanting, the Jokake Inn welcomed vacationing Easterners, titled foreigners, industrial titans, and local friends from November through April,” reads the website for the Phoencian, which kept only a piece of the Inn. “Its signature entrance towers still stand on The Phoenician grounds today, harkening back to an uncomplicated era of gracious hospitality.”
The entrance towers may still stand, but the buildings don’t. Mabel’s estate was still there when the Phoenician first opened in 1988, before Starwood bought the hotel. Now it isn’t, this blogger learned on a recent visit. A concierge, when asked if pictures were kept on a wall somewhere in the hotel, got nervous. “No,” she said, “the only thing we have is about the construction of the hotel [the Phoenician]. We don’t have anything from before.”
The Starwood site might lead the uninformed to believe that Elizabeth Arden tore down the Jokake Inn. But she didn’t. It says that Arden was “similarly inspired by the Jokake Inn’s pristine location, purchasing the land and in 1946 opening the world-renowned Maine Chance Spa on the very spot where The Canyon Suites now stands.”
The Phoencian was built by Charley Keating, a wealthy banker who ran Lincoln Savings and Loan Association and was involved in the savings and loan scandal of the late 1980s. When Lincoln failed in 1989, about 23,000 customers were stuck with worthless bonds and the taxpayer with a tab of more than $3 billion. Keating, who attempted to curry favor with U.S. Senators for preferential treatment from regulators, served four and a half years in prison for fraud. Though his convictions were overturned in 1996, he subsequently pleaded guilty to a limited set of fraud counts. He was sentenced to time he had already served.
The Phoenician is described by one travel blog as a “homage” to Keating’s “wretchedly fabulous excess.” Construction of the hotel, which cost $300 million, was beset by last-minute design changes, many ordered by Keating’s wife, Mary Elaine, an interior designer. The couple named restaurants at the hotel after themselves.
Keating’s intent, according to marketing brochures, was not to make the hotel indigenous to its environment. Instead, he imported white marble from Italy, etched the lobby ceiling in 24-karat gold, and hired workers from the Island Kingdom of Tonga to create a “lush tropical landscape” in an environment that averages only about 8 inches of rainfall a year, compared to a U.S. average of 37.
The signature property has a long history of excess. Mabel sold her estate to the delusional cosmetics mogul Elizabeth Arden, who converted the building into the world-renowned Maine Chance Spa, which drew the self-important from around the world. Celebrities, royalty, and other rich people flocked to the spa to be lowered into a tub of hot wax, like bananas dipped in chocolate. The procedure allegedly moisturized the skin.
Thankfully, we still have pictures of the way Mabel’s estate used to look thanks to family historian Jack Synder, who also sent along postcards of the Maine Chance. The postcards provide photographic evidence that Mabel’s house became the Maine Chance. Double-click on the images to enlarge them.