May 20, 2024

Alex o'Loughlin

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Why did the 12 million lb. hotel cross the road? To make way for the Hotel Syracuse

As Syracuse’s population and attractions boomed in the 1920s, developers made plans for an opulent, $5 million, 600-room hotel at the intersection of Warren, Harrison and Onondaga. They would call it the Hotel Syracuse.

But there was one big problem: A smaller hotel already occupied the space where they wanted to build.

Rather than raze that hotel, engineers and planners undertook one of the most amazing engineering achievements in Syracuse history: They picked up the 12-million-pound building, that’s 6,200 tons, and moved it across the street. And they did it without so much as breaking a window or even turning off the lights.

Here’s how.


Hotel Truax

This diagram from the March 5, 1922 Herald illustrates the plan to move the four-story 6,200-ton Hotel Truax across Harrison Street. After lifting it and cutting it off its foundation, it would be turned and pulled on steel rollers by a team of horses. Courtesy of World ArchivesCourtesy of World Archives

The Hotel Truax was built in 1915.

The four-story brick building — about 144 feet long with 126 rooms — was one of several that stood in the way of the new Hotel Syracuse project.

While the others were demolished, the Syracuse Hotel Corporation had something different in mind for the Truax.

It would be moved across the street.

Buildings like this one had been moved before. What made this project different was that planners wanted to keep the front of the hotel on Harrison Street, which meant it could not simply be pulled across the road.

The entire hotel, left intact, would have to be turned 180 degrees before it could be moved.

It was estimated it would have cost about $5,000 to simply raze the Truax, about $86,000 in today’s money. It would be far more expensive — $68,124, approximately $1,172,000 today — to move it.

But the building could then be used for retail, offices, and quarters for Hotel Syracuse personnel. It was cheaper to move the Truax than to build a new building.

(The winning bid was from a Pittsburgh firm, John Eichleay & Company, who would work with three local construction companies – Dawson, Delany and Taylor – to finish the project.)

Hotel Truax

“Save the Truax” was the battle cry for members of the Hotel Syracuse Corporation. Moving the 126 room hotel was far more expensive then just demolishing it, but was cheaper than building a new building. Courtesy of World ArchivesCourtesy of World Archives

“How are they going to do it?” was the question on many Syracuse minds in 1922. It seemed almost impossible to lift a hotel off its foundation, turn it, and then pull the 6,200-ton structure into its new position.

“This is an undertaking which would have taxed the imagination of another generation,” the Herald said on April 16, 1922.

Supervising the project would be a native of Auburn, N.Y., Allen Clymer Austin, who was already known for holding patents on several inventions, including a mechanical cotton picker and garment presser.

Austin said moving the hotel was simple, like moving a frame house, only “on a larger scale.”

The Truax would be cut from its foundation with air chisels, jacked up and placed on steel rollers on rails, and then turned and pulled by a team of horses across Harrison Street.

While the hotel was being moved, its brick foundation would be dismantled and rebuilt at its new home.

Incredibly, this work would all be done while business continued inside the hotel.

Guests remained in the hotel as it slowly moved. Stores on the ground level remained open, including the barber shop.

Rubber hoses were used in place of gas, water, and sewer pipes, electric wires were lengthened, and a large hot water heater was attached under the floor by hooks.

Austin predicted it would take 90 says to finish the project once it started in the spring.

“It’s just like moving a birdhouse,” he said, promising to move it “without breaking an egg in it.”

To make sure nothing happened to the Truax’s structure as it moved, two Syracuse Hotel Corporation workers, Grace Marr and Ruby Reed, were given the tedious task of counting cracks in the hotel’s plaster and walls for eight long hours on May 23 to compare when the project was finished.

By June 6, the structure had been lifted eight feet and was ready to be placed on the steel rollers.

Syracuse’s “portable” hotel began its journey on June 16.

“Two teams of horses started the Truax hotel on its whirligig course across Harrison Street this morning,” the Herald reported. “A large crowd gathered to watch the unusual proceedings.”

Hotel Truax

Humorous cartoon from the June 20, 1922 Herald which said that it was “unverified” that there was a man in Syracuse “who has made no criticism of the engineering methods used in moving the Truax hotel.” Courtesy of World ArchivesCourtesy of World Archives

Work was slow.

By the afternoon, the hotel had moved only a few feet. Horses could only pull for a minute at a time and progress was measured in inches.

It seemed everyone wanted to see the action.

“Business in the barber shop and most of the stores on the first floor is reported to have been more brisk than usual, owing to the crowds which gather to watch operations,” the Herald reported on June 25.

It was the topic of conversation around Syracuse that summer.

“Of course, the Truax hotel might be moved quickly by having some of the large committee of spectators give a pull at the ropes,” a newspaper editorial quipped.

Another wondered why a visiting circus’ herd of elephants could not be rented to help with the move.

A small cartoon joked on June 20:

“Unverified is the report that there is a man in Syracuse who has made no criticism of the engineering methods used in moving the Truax hotel.”

Work came to a halt on June 22 when the site was visited by a group of showgirls, performing at “The Son Dodger” at the nearby Keith’s Theater.

Taking pity on the horses who were toiling on the warm day, the performers took control of the windlass and tried to push the hotel along themselves.

“How much does that darned thing weigh,” asked Helen, after the hotel did not budge.

“Just 12,400,000 pounds,” answered engineer Emil Dauenhauer, who the Herald said was “looking pleasanter than the previous 18,957 times he answered the same question.”

Hotel Truax

Visiting showgirls from a show at Syracuse’s Keith’s Theater made an appearance on June 22, 1922 at the Hotel Truax work site. They attempted to budge the brick building but were unsuccessful. But they did get their photos in the newspaper. Courtesy of World ArchivesCourtesy of World Archives

Besides the occasional visit from showgirls, rain was the only thing that hampered the work. Heavy storms, which flooded some parts of the city during that summer, slowed progress for days.

By July 1, the Truax had been completely turned and was ready to be pushed into its final position.

Less than two weeks later, the hotel was set to be lowered onto its new foundation.

Lowered slowly over a period of days, it took 20 men to do the work.

“This work is necessarily very slow,” the Herald said, “great care having to be exercised in order not to crack the walls.”

Work was finished by the end of August, almost exactly 90 days like Austin had promised.

Engineers and trade journals from around the world were interested and astounded by the achievement.

It was the largest building of its kind to be moved intact up to that time. And the fact that it had to be completely turned while still being open for business makes the accomplishment even greater.

Almost exactly two years later, on Aug. 16, 1924, the beautiful new 12-story Hotel Syracuse opened.

“Syracuse has pride in its new hotel,” a Post-Standard editorial after its gala opening, “imposing, handsome, adequate, finished and furnished as attractively and comfortably as craftsmanship knows how to do it.”

Workers with bulldozers and a crane would return to the Truax Hotel on July 25, 1968, to finally tear it down.

“The razing for an as yet unspecified reason by owner Dr. Robert B. Bersani brought back memories to area residents of the time the hotel was moved,” The Post-Standard said.

The space would be used as a parking lot.

Hotel Truax

This is downtown Syracuse in the summer of 1963, about five years before the Hotel Truax was finally demolished. The Hotel Syracuse is labeled with a “5” in the image. The Truax is at the top left corner, beneath the “1.” You can barely make out a “2” written in black ink on its roof. Photo was taken by Arthur J. Cornelius, the Herald-Journal’s chief photographer in a plane piloted by Red Lyons.Syracuse Post-Standard

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This feature is a part of CNY Nostalgia, a section on Send your ideas and curiosities to Johnathan Croyle at [email protected] or call 315-427-3958.