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  Issue Date: 9 / 2017  

Historic Hotels Tell America's story

Norman Sklarewitz

Photo courtesy of Historic Hotels of America. Click image to enlarge.

       In every corner of the U.S. these days, new hotels are going up, each, it seems, vying to offer the latest in modern design. At the same time, there's a hotel company whose properties are just the opposite – each is at least 50 years old and most are much much older. Actually, 100 years old or more.
        This is Historic Hotels of America. It's the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Many of its nearly 300 properties are listed in the National Registry of Historic Places or even have been designated by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior as National Historic Landmarks.
        While each is recognized for “preserving authenticity, sense of place and architectural integrity”, make no mistake. Each is completely modern inside and cater to families on vacation, men and women on business as well as groups holding meetings.
        But a close look at the history of most of these hotels will, however, reveal fascinating insights into the personalities and circumstances behind their coming into being so many years ago and their role in America's history. One element almost every one of the 300 properties has is its own special story.
        None of these Historic Hotels is the product of some major hotel corporation. For the most part, colorful individuals were behind many of these early properties. In many cases, they were wealthy local business executives who wanted to give their towns a show place to attract attention and visitors. In others, the motive to build a hotel was tied to their business.
        Take F.O. Stanley, the co-inventor of the Stanley Steamer, an automobile that ran, if you can believe it, on a steam engine instead of gasoline. Mr. Stanley wanted a way of promoting his car and so built the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, at the base of Rocky Mountain National Park. Designed in white Colonial Georgian Revival style, it opened on July 4, 1909 with 140 guest rooms, the same count as today.

Photo courtesy of Historic Hotels of America. Click image to enlarge.

        The Pacific Coast Borax Company built the Death Valley Railroad to get their product to market. But to lure in visitors to utilize the return trip they built The Inn at Furnace Creek that opened in 1927. Now located inside the Death Valley National Park, California, the Inn has just 60 rooms. They are, of course, air conditioned but given temperatures that rise well past 110 degrees fahrenheit, The Inn is only open from mid-October to May.
        The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in the early 1900s grew cotton on some 16,000 acres of land in, Arizona. In those days, cotton was an ingredient in making auto tires. Company executives coming out on business stayed in simple accommodations at the farm. In time, the company's president, Paul Litchfield saw the resort potential of the area and oversaw building The Wigwam at Litchfield Park, Arizona, that opened in 1929. Over time it has
       expanded to offer 331 guest rooms.
        To provide accommodations for immigrant workers at the Kohler Company in Kohler, Wisconsin, the company's president in 1918 built The American Club.
       The name was selected in the hope it would help instill a love of their new country.
        Some historic hotels came about through the conversion of private mansions, company retreats even a U.S. Post Office, a military barracks and a farmhouse. A few started life out as railroad stations. That's not surprising when you consider that when railroads were the country's main means for cross country travel, cities proudly built elaborate structures for their terminals.
        Tennessee actually has two of the more famous stations that took on a new life when airplanes replaced trains. Oldest of the two is what is now the Union Station Hotel Nashville. Originally built in 1900, it was a majestic structure featuring a soaring clock tower. Today it has 125 recently upgraded guest rooms.
        The other Tennessee property was built in 1909 in Chattanooga as the Terminal Station. It served most trains traveling south until 1970 when again jet planes mainly replaced the railroads. The station was closed in 1970 and faced demolition but was saved by a group of local investors. In 1973, they converted 24 original Pullman train cars into sleeping quarters and renamed the station -- guess what? The Chattanooga Choo Choo.
        Probably the oldest of these train stations that became a hotel is in Missouri and is the St. Louis Union Station. Built in elaborate Romanesque style in 1894 it featured a Grand Hall, gold leaf detailing, art glass windows, mosaics and sweeping archways. At the time, it was the largest rail terminal in the U.S. After a $30 million renovation, it now offers guests 539 rooms and suites.
        You wouldn't think that a college campus would be a likely location for a fine hotel, but a number of such properties are indeed located close by the classrooms to accommodate parents and other visitors. Steps from the University of California, Berkely, is the Hotel Durant – Berkely, built in 1928. In State College, Pennslvania, is The Nittany Lions Inn, built in 1931 and owned by the Pennvlvania State University. It's right on campus. Originally a woman's dormitory at the University of Arkansas in 1905 is the Inn at Carnal Hall. Wake Forest Univeristy in Winston-Salem, North Carollina, owns and operates The Graylyn Estate, originally built in 1925 as the 60-room home of Bowman Gray, then president of the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company. In Brea, Kentucky, is the Boone Tavern Hotel and Restaurant of Brea College. Built in 1909, the guest rooms feature furniture, baskets and art works made by the students. And in the heart of the Oklahoma State University campus in Stillwater is The Atherton Hotel, opened in 1950.

Norman Sklarewitz brings to travel a solid background in hard-news reporting. This includes staff positions as a Far East Correspondent for The Wall Street Journal based in Tokyo and L.A. Bureau Chief with U.S. News & World Report. As a foreign correspondent, he reported on major international events throughout Asia, including the Vietnam War.
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