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Down memory lane: End of an era as Hilton shuts its doors

 Hilton Hotel in Nairobi. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

A little over 100 years ago, the open plain that came to be Nairobi City was nothing more than a grazing and watering point for Maasai cattle. That was even before the arrival of the Uganda Railway, or more derisively, the 'Lunatic Express'.

Fast forward to 70 years later and Nairobi had become a global metropolis, with the tallest buildings in East and Central Africa dotting the skyline.

Among these is the Hilton Hotel that was opened by first President Jomo Kenyatta in 1969. It was the tallest building in Kenya at the time.

Smack right in the middle of the city, Hilton, together with Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC), has commanded attention from every direction.

The news that the hotel will close shop this December after operating for 53 years will be nostalgic to the older members of society who not only saw its construction but used it as a beacon in the bewildering maze that Nairobi has become.

While Covid-19 may have played a part in disrupting the hotel's business, its current address may have been untenable, what with the cacophony of the public transport system right outside the lobby!

Musila Musembi was a student at Shimo La Tewa School near Voi during the time of construction in the late 1960s. After completing his studies and coming to Nairobi, he would meet his friends at the Hilton grounds "as there were few open places where you could sit down and relax in the city centre".

Later on, he became the chief archivist, and, with his office at the Kenya National Archives, Hilton Hotel was always in his view.

"It represented the best of Kenya. Whenever we saw tour vehicles around Hilton, we knew the country was doing well. It was a key indicator of Kenya's economic prospects. It is sad that we are reading about the closure of the business in the newspapers. I wish the government that had some stake in the business would have looked for investors to take it over," says Musembi, now retired.

But Hilton, according to Musembi, is more than an economic barometer. It carries the pride of a nation.

"The building itself is a significant landmark, not just for Nairobi but the whole of Africa. If Kenya was a body, the closure of the hotel would mean Kenya is sickly. This is not good for our image. It is like a patient who gets so sick and instead of treating him, we let him go," he says.

Musembi remembers visiting Accra in 1975 and was surprised there was no structure that tall, not even close. In early 1990s, he travelled to Kuala Lumpur, and among the places he visited was the country's tallest structure, Petronas Towers.

"I told myself, we too are in the same level. We have the Hilton...and KICC. I was proud that I came from a country with the tallest structures in the region. Hilton is part of our story," he says.

Hilton has hosted US actor Sydney Poitier, the sixth UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, famous Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, and musician Sean Paul.

It was the first hotel in Kenya to sponsor a leading sportsman in the renowned safari rally driver Patrick Njiru. Njiru would park his Subaru car at the lobby to the excitement of guests during the Easter weekend.

It was the first hotel to create a leading pastry shop, the "Hilton la Patisserie" located at the Hilton Arcade.

All that will now remain in the hotel's historical records.

The Hilton found David Mutiso practising architecture in Nairobi. Mutiso was Architectural Association of Kenya member Number 005. The other four were Europeans. He was the first African Chief Architect at the Public Works ministry between 1967 and 1974.

As the main government architect behind the construction of KICC, Mutiso is averse to tagging some buildings, including the Hilton as 'iconic'.

"We were architects in Kenya when the Hilton came up. To me, it is just a circular building with many bedrooms," he says when asked about the closure of Hilton Hotel, a building with a model close to that of KICC.

"Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. There are much simpler buildings valuable to our community such as those within the United Nations compound in Nairobi that serve the whole humanity."

Nairobi residents will eagerly await the fate of the building once the global hotel chain closes its doors on one of the most remarkable buildings in Africa. Will the rooms be turned into business stalls, as has happened to other buildings? We wait to see.

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