Why did the £12m hotel cross the road? To make way for the Syracuse Hotel

As Syracuse’s population and attractions exploded 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 Syracuse Hotel.

But there was a big problem: a small hotel was already occupying the space where they wanted to build.

Rather than raze this hotel, engineers and planners undertook one of the most amazing engineering feats in Syracuse’s history: they scooped up the 12 million pound, or 6,200 ton, building and moved across the street. And they did it without even breaking a window or even turning off the lights.

Here’s how.

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This Herald diagram from March 5, 1922 illustrates the plan for moving the four-story, 6,200-ton Truax Hotel across Harrison Street. After lifting and cutting it from its foundation, it was turned and pulled over 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 many standing in the way of the new Syracuse Hotel project.

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

It would be moved across the street.

Buildings like this had been moved before. What made this project different was that the planners wanted to keep the hotel’s frontage on Harrison Street, which meant it couldn’t just be pulled across the road.

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

It has been estimated that it would have cost around $5,000 to just shave the Truax, or around $86,000 in today’s money. It would be much more expensive — $68,124, or about $1,172,000 today — to move it.

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

(The winning bid came from a Pittsburgh firm, John Eichleay & Company, which would work with three local construction companies — Dawson, Delany and Taylor — to complete the project.)

Hotel Truax

“Save the Truax” was the battle cry of the members of the Hotel Syracuse Corporation. Moving the 126-room hotel was much more expensive than tearing it down, but it was cheaper than constructing 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 nearly impossible to lift a hotel from its foundation, transform it, and then pull the 6,200-ton structure into its new position.

“It’s a business that would have strained the imagination of another generation,” the Herald said on April 16, 1922.

Overseeing the project would be a native of Auburn, NY, Allen Clymer Austinwho was already known to hold patents on several inventions, including a mechanical cotton picker and a garment press.

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

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

During the hotel’s move, its brick foundation would be dismantled and rebuilt in its new home.

Incredibly, all of this work would be done while business was going on inside the hotel.

Guests stayed at the hotel as he moved slowly. The shops on the ground floor remained open, including the hair salon.

Rubber pipes were used instead of gas, water and sewage pipes, electrical wires were lengthened and a large water heater was fixed under the floor with hooks.

Austin predicted it would take 90 days to complete the project once it started in the spring.

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

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

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

The “portable” hotel in Syracuse began its journey on June 16.

“Two teams of horses launched the Truax Hotel on its whirlwind course through 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 it was ‘unverified’ that there was a man in Syracuse ‘who made no criticism of the engineering methods used to move the Truax Hotel’. Courtesy of World ArchivesCourtesy of World Archives

Work was slow.

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

It seemed like everyone wanted to see the action.

‘Business in the barber shop and most of the first floor shops was reportedly busier than usual, due to crowds gathering to watch the operations,’ the Herald reported on June 25.

It was the topic of conversation around Syracuse that summer.

“Of course, the Truax hotel could be moved quickly by asking part of the large committee of spectators to pull the ropes,” quipped an editorial in the newspaper.

Another wondered why a visiting circus’ herd of elephants couldn’t be hired to help with the move.

A little cartoon joked on June 20:

“Unverified is the report that there is a man in Syracuse who made no criticism of the engineering methods used to move the Truax Hotel.”

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

Taking pity on the horses struggling in the heat of the day, the performers took control of the windlass and attempted to push the hotel on their own.

“How much does that damned thing weigh?” Helen asked, after the hotel hadn’t moved.

“Only £12,400,000,” replied engineer Emil Dauenhauer, who, according to the Herald, “looked nicer than the previous 18,957 times he’d answered the same question.”

Hotel Truax

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

Besides the occasional visit from showgirls, the rain was the only thing that got in the way of work. Severe storms, which flooded parts of the city this summer, slowed progress for days.

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

Less than two weeks later, the hotel was to be lowered to its new foundations.

Slowly lowered over a period of days, it took 20 men to do the job.

“This work is necessarily very slow,” said the Herald, “great care must be exercised so as not to crack the walls.”

The work was completed at the end of August, almost exactly 90 days as Austin had promised.

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

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

Almost exactly two years later, on August 16, 1924, the magnificent new 12-story Syracuse Hotel opened its doors.

“Syracuse is proud of its new hotel”, a Post-Standard editorial after its gala opening, “imposing, beautiful, adequate, finished and furnished as attractively and comfortably furnished as craftsmanship knows how.”

Workers with bulldozers and a crane will return to the Truax Hotel on July 25, 1968 to finally demolish it.

“The shaving for an as yet unspecified reason by owner Dr. Robert B. Bersani brought back memories to area residents of when the hotel was relocated,” 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 Truax Hotel was finally demolished. The Syracuse Hotel is labeled with a “5” in the image. The Truax is in the upper left corner, under the “1”. You can barely make out a “2” written in black ink on its roof. The 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 part of CNY Nostalgia, a section on www.syracuse.com. Send your ideas and curiosities to Johnathan Croyle at [email protected] or call 315-427-3958.

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