These days April 21 has negative associations for many Greeks because it was on that date in 1967 that the colonels’ coup took place. But four years earlier, April 21 had been a day of celebration for Athenians. The inauguration of the Athens Hilton was heralded as the premier social event of the year, attended by magnate Conrad Hilton himself, who hailed the building as “the most beautiful Hilton hotel in the world.”
There were those, however, who were none too pleased about the opening of the establishment in Athens. Some smelled a whiff of scandal in the construction of the hotel while others lamented its size, saying that it overshadowed the Acropolis.
But seven years later, another modern landmark was added to the cityscape: the Athens Tower, which rivaled all else in sheer size. The city’s first skyscraper was designed by Ioannis Vikelas and Ioannis Kybritis, and what is less known is that Vikelas had worked on the Hilton’s construction for a year beside architect Emmanouil Vourekas, one of the four that designed the building. The others were Prokopis Vassiliadis, Spyros Staikos and Antonis Georgiades.
“[The Hilton] was certainly a project that went beyond everything familiar in the broader Athens area in terms of scale at the time. There is always, you know, a price to pay,” Vikelas told Kathimerini. “It was a project of great magnitude and quality. Vourekas imbued it with elements of ‘Greekness,’ but beyond these there is an obvious sense of nobility and elegance to be seen in the details as well as in the more general forms.”
The architect explains how the construction of the hotel prompted a barrage of reactions, which he attributes to the “innate conservatism of Greek society but also of the architectural community.”
“Over time, though, the building earned acceptance and appreciation,” Vikelas said.
As far as the simple folk of the city were concerned, “the Athenians saw the Hilton as something of a weird alien object. It wasn’t a matter of taste so much as bewilderment,” Vikelas commented.
Maro Kardamitsi-Adam, an authority on Greek architecture, agrees with Vikelas.
“It wasn’t something that you liked or didn’t like. To be honest, I like it a lot more now than I did then,” she said.
“As young people, we were dying to go to the Galaxy [rooftop bar]. It played American music. Also, the Hilton had a kind of luxury that we had never seen before,” said the researcher. “One thing few people know is that it was originally meant to be built near the Byzantine-era steam baths in Thiseio. That, of course, never happened.”
Architecture Professor Emeritus Dionysis Zervos of the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA), a young architect at the time of the hotel’s unveiling, describes the Hilton as “a bold and ambitious move by the political leadership, obviously aimed at boosting the country’s profile as a tourism destination.”
“Yes, it was a controversial building,” Zervos told Kathimerini, “but it eventually became accepted by the public. Athens society flocked to its lounges and the Vyzantino [restaurant] was fully booked every day.”
In contrast, Constantinos Doxiadis (1913-1975), an influential Greek architect and town planner, appears to have belonged to the category of Athenians who never grew to love the Hilton.
“I can’t remember much, but I know he hated it,” his son, writer and mathematician Apostolos Doxiadis, said. “However, he did admire the artwork on the facade by [Yiannis] Moralis. We used to go up Mount Lycabettus together a lot, but after the Hilton was built he did not like to look in that direction. When he did, I remember him sighing and mumbling, ‘It’s a crime, a crime.’”
Panayiotis Tournikiotis, who also teaches at the NTUA, was 8 years old when the Hilton was built.
“I can say that I grew up with the Hilton, even though I’m a little older than it is,” he said. “For me it’s like it’s always been there: self-explanatory, imposing, almost monumental, with all its services, which were open to the people of the city and touched many facets of Athenian life.
“With its particular architectural style, its size and its cosmopolitan air, the Hilton soon became a landmark of the eastern part of the city center,” said Tournikiotis.