In 1958 the Boulevard Room at the swanky Conrad Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago offered delicious steaks, a lavish stage show, and a curious peek at the future.
At the front of the grand hall was what was billed as the “largest hotel ice rink in the country,” on which troops of tutu-wearing girls danced for the crowds of diners. It was here, in the summer heat of August that black-tie wearing customers were given the first teaser of a legend that survives to this day: Hilton Hotels was going to the Moon.
On stage, the final scene for the dancers was called “out of this world.” Although details of the performance are scarce, a Chicago-area newspaper called the Suburbanite Economist wrote that it was set in a “plush” hotel called the Lunar Hilton. The lavish show caught the writers’ imagination and he took it to its logical conclusion. As the August 27, 1958 edition put it: “this could mean that the Hilton chain is dickering with the idea of opening the first hotel on the Moon.”
Fast forward to 2009 and an episode of the popular TV series Mad Men features the louche Don Draper and his team creating a fictional ad campaign for a Hilton Hotel on the Moon. “I want a Hilton on the Moon; that’s where we are headed,” says “Connie” Hilton at one point. Although the series is fiction, it got me wondering: had Hilton hotels ever really planned to go into space?
When the writers of Mad Men were researching the program, their go-to man was Dr. Mark Young, who oversees the hotel founder’s archive at the University of Houston. He seemed like an obvious person to shed light on the story.
According to Dr. Young, there’s no evidence that Conrad Hilton was behind the vision of a hotel on the Moon. “[The writers of Mad Men] contacted me to learn about Conrad Hilton so I talked with them, but when I watched it this Moon thing came out of nowhere and I thought, ‘wait a minute, that’s not Conrad Hilton at all’.”
In fact, he says, it was one of Conrad Hilton’s sons, Barron Hilton, who appears to have been the true evangelist for a Hilton on the Moon. “He, like everyone else was very captivated by the space age,” says Dr Young.
Barron was elected as vice-president of Hilton Hotels in 1954, serving behind his father. Just four years later the Suburbanite Economist article appeared – the earliest reference to the idea I can find. I expect it will be difficult to find anything much earlier. That was the beginning of space fever in the United States, as the Russians had launched Sputnik in October of 1957, kicking off the Space Age - a period of tremendous fear and wide-eyed hope for what was to come.
Throughout later years, the idea appears again and again in popular culture. In the October 28, 1962 episode of The Jetsons, The Good Little Scouts, George brings Elroy’s scout troop to the Moon and in a quick, fleeting shot we see the Moonhattan Tilton, a clear reference to the Manhattan Hilton hotel. And in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey there is an office marked “Hilton Space Station 5” on the glass exterior, where people could presumably make reservations for the Hilton hotel on the film’s orbiting space station.
Though it wasn’t Conrad’s idea he certainly didn’t discourage the idea of a hotel on the Moon. The March 1963 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine ran a long and glowing profile on Conrad Hilton as the hard-nosed businessman who understood what people wanted and would stop at nothing to give it to them. Though not a quote from “Connie” himself, the article nonetheless ends with a space age promise from the writer: “it won’t be very long before our astronauts land on the Moon and immediately behind them will be Connie Hilton with his plans for his Lunar Hilton Hotel.”
Those plans began to take off in 1967. Barron, who was then president of Hilton, told the Wall Street Journal that he was planning to cut the ribbon at an opening ceremony for a Lunar Hilton hotel within his lifetime. He described the Lunar Hilton as a 100-room hotel that would be built below the surface. Guests would gather around a piano bar in an observation dome that allowed them to gaze back at earth.
Barron’s desire to build a Hilton on the Moon - whether it was merely clever PR or something more sincere - struck a chord with people all over the world. The hotel group even printed promotional “reservations cards” for customers to reserve a hotel room on the Moon. “In the [Hilton] archive we’ve got hundreds, if not thousands, of letters of people writing in to him,” says Dr. Young. “They’d seen the picture of the reservation form and they wanted to get their name on there.
“You read the letters, from all around the world - I always remember the one from Pakistan for some reason it stands out in my mind — but people really wanted to know that sometime in [their] lifetime we’ll have hotels on the Moon.”
The archive that Dr. Young oversees in Texas also contains promotional Lunar Hilton hotel keys which were distributed as promotional item in hotels. “The idea that we’d have a plastic key card like we do today was - I guess - just way too far out for ‘67, ‘68. And so [the Lunar Hilton key] looks like an old fashioned hotel room key, except it’s sleek,” Dr. Young said.
Just days before the first Moon landings in 1969, the Hilton lunar vision reappeared. Never one to miss an opportunity to sell the idea (or at least the hotel chain), Barron addressed the American Astronomical Society where he once again pressed that Hilton would soon be on the Moon. “I firmly believe that we are going to have hotels in outer space, perhaps even soon enough for me to officiate at the formal opening of the first,” he told the assembled crowd.
With the world gripped by Moon fever, it was an obvious story for newspapers recorded every twist and turn of the space race. For example, an article in the July 15th Lowell Sun in Lowell, Massachusetts picked up on the speech and painted a picture of the hotel of the future. Their story relies heavily on images of food and alcohol pills, an idea we examined here a few months back.
“Imagine yourself in the Galaxy Lounge of the Lunar Hilton - the first hotel on the Moon. In place of a ceiling, a transparent dome allows you to view the heavens as you never could see them from beneath the thick atmosphere covering Earth, Mars looks bigger and redder, the star do not twinkle, and you are just in time to watch an Earth-set,” it reads. “You order a martini. The bartender pushes a button and out comes a pre-measured, pre-cooled mixture of pure ethyl alcohol and distilled water — 80 proof. Into the mixture he droops a gin and vermouth tablet. As you sip the result, the huge bright-blue Earth slips below the stark, brown horizon and you begin to think about a freeze-dried steak for dinner.”
Clearly, Barron’s vision has yet come to pass, but the idea has never fully gone away. In the late 1990s, the firm backed plans for a private orbiting space station whilst in a separate plan, British architect Peter Inston was commissioned to draw up a plan for a 5,000-room domed structure on the Moon for the hotel chain. As the plans were shown off, the then president of the firm – Peter George – reportedly repeated the hotel’s maxim: “One day soon, there will be hotels on the Moon. The Hilton wants to be the first.”
It’s difficult to know whether successive Hilton bosses actually believe this message or whether, as is perhaps more likely, they have simply hit on perhaps one of the longest and most imaginative marketing campaigns in history. Certainly, Conrad Hilton’s grandson, Steve Hilton, has suggested that it was an idea that was never meant to be taken seriously. Instead, he said in a 2009 interview following the Mad Men episode, that he thought it was meant to be “symbolic”.
Certainly the idea seems to have disappeared in recent years. But the recent surge of commercial activity in space means that perhaps it could soon return. If, and when it does, Hilton may have to compete with another hotelier in the race to the Moon.
In 2006, Robert Bigelow, the former owner of the Budget Suites of America chain, launched an inflatable habitat capsule into space. In 2007 another followed, and his company – Bigelow aerospace – has begun working on a full scale capsule which could, he has said, form the basis of a Moon habitat.
Whether the plan is anything more than an idea worthy of Don Draper, only time will tell.
A version of this post originally appeared at BBC Future.
Image: This marketing prop likely coincided with the debut of 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Copyright: The Hospitality Industry Archives, Conrad Hilton College, University of Houston)