The Inside Story of InterContinental Hotels’ Quest to Export 1960s American Glamor to the World


Francesca Street, CNN

Whenever InterContinental Hotel interior designer Neal Prince stepped off a Pan American plane to a new destination, he headed straight for downtown for inspiration.

Prince would walk in and out of local galleries, shops and markets, befriending local collectors and artists, looking for items, art, and ideas to incorporate into the InterContinental outpost. of this city.

Born in Texas, Prince was Director of Interior Design and Graphic Design at InterContinental from 1961 to 1985. Responsible for imagining the interiors of more than 135 hotels around the world, Prince wanted every hotel, in every destination, to come together. feels specific, beautiful and evocative.

At a time before hotel brands like Hilton and Sheraton began to look beyond US borders, InterContinental was “the first international hotel chain,” Huhne, author of “Pan Am: History, Design,” told CNN Travel. and Identity ”.

The InterContinental Hotel brand was created 75 years ago by Juan Trippe, founder of Pan American Airways, at the request of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his book, Huhne explains that Roosevelt wanted to increase business with Latin American countries after the war, and that commercial housing was needed.

Trippe, meanwhile, wanted to make sure its aircrews and passengers had a luxury hotel waiting for them wherever they went, especially as Pan Am introduced new destinations into its global flight schedule.

Local culture and American luxury

There was no universal model for the interiors of the InterContinental hotel. Instead, hotel rooms and bars varied depending on their surroundings – and that’s where Neal Prince stepped in.

Prince’s rejection of standardization of hotel interiors was what set InterContinental apart as the jet age took off in the 1960s and 1970s, Huhne says.

“Neal Prince and his team found a way to combine local elements, make it economical and make it look good,” he says.

“When you woke up from jet lag, you felt like you were in Paris, Geneva, Brazil or Colombia,” a representative from the Neal Prince Trust, who has kept the designer’s work alive since his death, told CNN. in 2017. Traveling. “It was his trademark.”

The hotel’s interiors blend local culture with American luxury. Prince is said to have drawn inspiration from his theatrical experience to make hotel rooms spectacular, without spending millions of dollars. Carefully chosen mirrors and paint colors were used to create space and depth.

These chic rooms were then strewn across magazines and travel brochures, prompting travelers to book a Pan Am ticket to an exciting place.

Many of these marketing photos were taken by New York photographer Arie deZanger. A fashion photographer who had photographed the top fashion houses in Paris, Arie worked closely with his wife, Wilma, who had studied fashion design.

Wilma told CNN Travel that she would travel with her husband on his intercontinental assignments, coordinate productions, dress sets, help with the wardrobe, find models and sometimes become a model herself.

Their work took them to destinations across the world for months, from Monrovia to Bali. “We photograph at least three different hotels while we were away,” Wilma says today.

Wilma calls Arie “an expert in lighting,” describing how he often sought to capture interior and exterior landscapes, as in a photograph of a bedroom at the Tahara’a InterContinental in Pape’été, Tahiti, French Polynesia, which highlights evident the rich blue furnishings inside and the deep blue sky and ocean as seen from the adjoining balcony.

The Tahara’a InterContinental, which opened in 1968, was built on the side of a cliff.

It was known as the ‘upside down’ hotel, Wilma recalls, because of its unusual layout.

“When you walked into the hotel you were going to the top of the cliff in the lobby and the restaurants and bars and stuff, and then the hotel rooms came down from the cliff,” she says.

Photographing the exterior of this hotel was a challenge for Arie, Wilma recalls. She describes how he took the image of a small plane with the door down and no seat belt.

Huhne says the Tahara’a InterContinental – which is now closed – “reflects the kind of romantic getaway hotel of the 1960s.”

The hotel had a superb swimming pool, almost a predecessor to the modern infinity pool, with its views of the ocean below, as well as an outdoor bar.

The New York School of Design, in the online archives of its 2013 exhibition “Designing The Luxury Hotel: Neal Prince And The Inter-Continental Brand”, states that Prince’s designs for the Tahara’a met “an American fantasy of the South Pacific, formed by films like “Blue Hawaii” and the tiki bars of the 1960s. “

Huhne also notes that while Prince would use local artists and incorporate local culture into his interior design, his team would also reflect what Americans hoped to see while on vacation abroad.

“A time in history”

Arie and Wilma deZanger always arrived at an InterContinental hotel knowing what they wanted to capture in the photographs – “the luxury, the service, the atmosphere, the wonderful food, the comfort,” as Wilma puts it.

She said she was always amazed by Prince’s designs for each hotel: “His sense of color, his sense of the materials used, the choices were just amazing.

After making a list of the scenes they wanted to capture, Arie and Wilma would figure out how many models they needed, and then Wilma would start stalking people – often flight attendants and Pan Am pilots would step in, said. her, as well as the hotel of the employees.

Wilma would explain to models how she wanted them to be dressed – pool clothes, for example, or party outfits suited to a culinary scene – and ask them to bring four or five outfit options. An experienced food stylist, she also set up the catering shots.

For Wilma, the work was a joy, especially because it allowed the couple to travel a lot.

“I have always been so intrigued by the cultures of countries and people,” she says.

Looking back, Wilma believes the couple were working on the precipice of a new era in tourism.

“It was definitely a time in history – one of the points of change – with tourism, with travel.”

Living in a hotel

For travelers, the InterContinental would be their first introduction, after the airport, to their vacation or business destination, and a home away from home for a while.

For the former Pan Am flight attendant Alice Dear, an InterContinental hotel was her home for an entire year.

Dear started working for Pan Am after graduating from Howard University in 1969.

“Others were leaving for IBM or college and doing what they considered to be more serious stuff,” she told CNN Travel. “But I thought traveling would expand me in a way that nothing else would.”

When Dear started flying with Pan Am in the summer of 1969, she was one of the airline’s first black flight attendants and flew with the airline until 1977.

During her Pan-American career, Dear became a flight attendant, taught at the Pan Am training center in Miami, and worked for a year in the Congo, then called Zaire, during which she lived at the InterContinental Kinshasa.

Dear was based at the hotel with other Pan Am flight service specialists – they trained the flight crew on the Boeing 747 for Air Zaire, which was then operated by Pan Am.

“You had a large group of expats living in the hotel at the time,” Dear recalls. “So the practical part, of course, is that everything is done for us – it was a very nice hotel, and we ate our meals there and developed a social life around interacting with Pan’s group. Am. “

The group hung out at the hotel, she said, and headed for the nightclubs.

The main downside, Dear says, was the lack of privacy and living in a small room – plus a misunderstanding that once resulted from the fact that she and other Pan Am employees were young women living alone in a hotel.

“It was humorous, because it was so ridiculous, but it was also very insulting that we couldn’t have our identity other than then we have to be there as a prostitute,” she said.

While at the InterContinental Kinshasa, Dear became interested in collecting local art. Her purchases quickly lined the wall of her tiny hotel room and sparked a passion that continues to this day.

“Before, I had been more exposed to the art of the airport, I’ll call it, as I traveled. But during my time in Zaire, I was able to really begin to appreciate African art – and one of the richest arts, I think, on the continent is in this region, ”she says.

As one of Black Pan Am’s first flight attendants, Dear has encountered racism at times.

She remembers often being the only black flight attendant on a flight and other white Pan Am flight attendants trying to avoid sharing a room with her at the InterContinental in Paris.

“If there were an odd number of flight attendants, if you were the last, you would have a single room. So I wasn’t offended, I just stayed behind. And that’s how I got my single rooms at the Intercontinental de Paris, ”she says.

Later in her career, Dear became a banker and ambassador, nominated by President Bill Clinton, a role for which she says her Pan American career prepared her. After Pan-Am, she continued to enjoy staying at InterContinental hotels while on business trips.

InterContinental today

While Pan Am stopped flying 30 years ago, the InterContinental brand has endured, although you’ll be hard pressed to spot Prince’s designs in hotels today.

Still, a recent influence towards mid-20th-century modern interior design could rekindle interest in Prince’s interiors, as the recently reopened TWA Hotel in New York City proves it’s possible to recreate the era. of the jet through our modern filter.

The InterContinental brand claims that it is largely forward-looking, while taking the time to celebrate its long history as it turns 75.

Tom Roundtree, vice president of global luxury brands at InterContinental, says the brand continues to strive to find new destinations and new markets, as it did in the 20th century.

He adds that the “foundations” of InterContinental “remain the essence” of the brand today.

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