In the Archives: Ypsilanti’s Waldorf-Astoria

And Michigan's most honest citizen

Editor’s note: “In the Archives” is a biweekly series on local area history. In the coming week, on Jan. 19-20, the city of Ann Arbor will interview proposers of different projects for the top of a new underground parking garage at the Library Lot – including some developers who would like to build a hotel there. In this installment of her historical look back, Laura Bien offers a vignette of life just east of Ann Arbor, in Ypsilanti’s Huron Hotel, just after it had opened.

Eula Beardsley and Gladys Huston exited the front door of their Ypsilanti rooming house at Adams and Pearl one late December day in 1924.

Huron Hotel

The hotel opened in 1923, the year that residents celebrated the city's centennial. At left is the Washington Street entrance to the coffee shop and at right is the main Pearl Street entrance. (Image links to higher resolution file.)

“Colder than I thought,” said Gladys. Eula pulled shut the front door. “You’ll warm up at that big lunch today.” The pair walked one block east on Pearl Street, passing shiny rows of black cars in the Wiedman auto dealership to their left.

They crossed Washington, headed towards the door of the elegant new Huron Hotel on the northeast corner of Pearl and Washington.

Two years earlier, the only accommodations the city could offer guests were at the old-fashioned Hawkins House on Michigan Avenue between Washington and Adams. Built in the 19th century, the place had a worn-out and rustic atmosphere. The Ypsilanti Board of Commerce decided the city needed a modern, attractive hotel. It sold shares of stock to city residents, raised $200,000, and built the hotel in eight months, adding two additional floors two years later.

With a restaurant on the first floor, a “sample room” in which gentlemen could select cigars, and neat, comfortable rooms upstairs, the hotel soon became the hub of downtown activity. Downtown workers met there for lunch, organizations booked the restaurant for banquets and awards ceremonies, and traveling businessmen kept the rooms full.

“Good morning, ladies,” said the doorman, dressed neatly in a military-style uniform. Forty-nine-year-old Howard Henson was one of the hotel’s two porters. He hauled luggage into and out of the hotel and ran occasional errands for guests. It was a demanding job, but considered a good one for a black man in 1920s Ypsilanti. Howard supported his wife Roxanna and his sons Walter and Howard. Roxanna could afford to stay at home with the boys, who eventually got a little sister Martha. In a few years, Howard would buy his own home.


Holiday shoppers could enjoy a meal in the coffee shop. (Image links to higher resolution file with additional promotional text.)

Eula and Gladys entered the empty coffee shop on the west side of the building, passing the front desk.

The clerk, 27-year-old Fay Zongker, looked up and gave them a wave. They walked past the shining black tables surrounded by walls painted black on their bottom third and then gold, up to a black frieze near the ceiling.

A savory scent of ham came from the kitchen on the north side of the hotel. The two women went into the kitchen and greeted their fellow waitresses: Alice Lyons, Gladys Douglas, and Flora Snyder. All of the hotel’s five waitresses were scheduled today, to handle the expected holiday-shopper crowd for the $1.25 lunch ($15 in today’s money). Three cooks busied themselves in back.

The women looked over the menu. Today’s appetizers were hearts of celery and queen olives, followed by a light consommé. Then diners could choose baked halibut, fried chicken, ham, steak, or prime rib for an entrée, which came with salad, wax beans, rolls, and mashed potatoes or candied yams. Desserts included pie, ice cream, or nesselrode pudding, a frozen chestnut custard with nuts and dried cherries.

A woman in a white apron came in the other end of the kitchen and greeted the waitresses. Emma Sparrow poured herself a cup of coffee and chatted with the women. She finished, put the cup in a sink, and went upstairs to see if she’d forgotten anything in room 35 before its scheduled guest arrived.

At 49, Emma was exhausted after each day of maid work, but she had no choice. She and her husband Benjaman had worked a farm in Superior Township. It wasn’t very lucrative, and they never did get enough money to buy it instead of just renting it. The farm work Emma had done there, helped by her only son Loyd, was as tiring as cleaning rooms – but it had seemed more “theirs.” When Benjaman died, Emma couldn’t handle the farm by herself. She moved to town and applied for work at the hotel to support herself.

Emma and two other maids, Essie Freeman and another widow, Nellie Walling, kept the hotel’s 60 rooms cleaned and made up. The manager, George Swanson, and the assistant manager, Richard MacFarlane, had been talking about adding two more floors to the hotel next year to create a total of 100 rooms; Emma hoped they’d add another maid or two as well.

Emma’s most time-consuming job was cleaning the 10 de luxe suites, which rented for $60 or $65 a week ($764 and $828 today). Next were the rooms with a private bathroom, at $2.50 and $3 per day ($32 and $38). Essie could zip through the cheaper rooms, at $1.50 and $1.75 ($19 and $22), which offered only access to a communal coin-operated lavatory down the hall.

Not two years later the staff would be startled to see those lavatories mentioned in no less a publication than H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury magazine. In the “Americana” section, a compilation of amusing tidbits culled from newspapers across the country, appeared one taken from an Ypsi paper:

“A resident of Mason, Mich. is the nominee of George Swanson, manager of the Huron Hotel here, as Michigan’s most honest citizen,” the item read. “Swanson has a letter in which the Masonite encloses 25 cents with the explanation that he cheated the pay lavatory in the hotel three times while stopping at the Huron two years ago. Since then he has ‘got the good old-fashioned religion,’ he explained, and so encloses enough to cover the debt, plus interest.”

Room 35 looked fine. Emma closed the door and headed for the stairs – just in time, as here came Lawrence, the new bell boy, with a suitcase, followed by a guest.

Lawrence Ollette’s friends envied him his job, a glamorous one for a 17-year-old. He lived on Prospect Street with his 37-year-old mother Cestia, his 40-year-old father Bert, his younger brothers Kenneth and Norvell and his older sisters, Muriel and Hazel. Lawrence liked his job –he thought it better than Hazel’s job as a stuffed toy stuffer in a toy factory – and the other bell boy, 18-year-old Edmund Blair.

Lawrence opened the door to 35 and set down the suitcase. The room seemed a little cold again this week. Perhaps he should tell Mr. Swanson to mention it to the hotel engineer, Alf LeCureux. Lawrence pointed out the room’s bathroom, told the guest to telephone downstairs if he needed anything, and smiled as he was handed a tip.

In addition to transient guests, the hotel also housed permanent lodgers. In 1930, it had 10, most of them single men. Edward Attyes was a 55-year-old traveling salesman for a motor oil company. The 26-year-old Terry Carney and the 27-year-old Ellis Benedict were traveling salesmen for a dry goods firm and for an investment company, respectively. The 25-year-old Clayton Briggs also worked for an insurance company. The 36-year-old World War I veteran Frank Schimel was a schoolteacher.

Also 36, the divorced Elsa Freeman worked as a salesperson for a magazine company. Two married men, the 28-year-old Neal Routson and the 39-year-old WWI veteran Robert Heine, worked as a mechanic for a bus company and as a civil engineer for a paving company. The last two lodgers were the sisters Ada and Gertrude Woodard. Seventy-four-year-old Ada was retired, and lived at the hotel until her death.

Fifty-nine-year-old Gertrude worked as a book indexer at the University of Michigan’s law library. She was known in town as the first woman driver in Washtenaw County. When she died, hotel staff found piles of yellowed papers reaching towards the ceiling of her quarters, with only narrow paths snaking in between.

After World War II, the hotel enjoyed a golden age, housing many air travelers who landed at Willow Run, then one of the nation’s busiest airports. The hotel was almost full much of the time, and Cleary College, Eastern Michigan University, and local organizations booked the dining rooms for formal events.

However, business began to decline in the early 1960s. The hotel’s reign as the town’s social hub ended in 1966, when six airlines were relocated from Willow Run Airport to Detroit Metro. The days of housing such guests as Truman’s vice president Alben Barkley, world-famous runner Paavo Nurmi, and world-renowned black opera singer Marian Anderson were gone. Not long thereafter, the building ceased to be a hotel and was converted to office space. A series of first-floor restaurants occupied the old coffee shop space, the latest one a Cajun chicken restaurant.

But in 1924, a modest crew of 19 ordinary men and women, from various walks of life, maintained the elegant heart of downtown that the papers admiringly called “Ypsilanti’s Waldorf-Astoria.”

Mystery Artifact

Mystery Artifact

This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact and try to deduce its function.

Last week’s Mystery Artifact generated many good guesses, ranging from fireplace tool holder to coal bin. As it turns out, both guesses, by Steve Bean and cmadler, are correct! The coal bin, with a rack for tools on its backside, stands in the “Tiffany Window” room in the Ypsilanti Historical Museum.

This week’s item is a small one. The string around the cream-colored item is just a museum tag, and not part of its function. Can you guess what it might be? Take your best guess in the comment section. Good luck!

“In the Archives” is a biweekly series written for The Ann Arbor Chronicle by Laura Bien. Her work can also be found in the Ypsilanti Citizen, the Ypsilanti Courier, and as well as the Ann Arbor Observer. She is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives,” to be published this winter. Bien also writes the historical blog “Dusty Diary” and may be contacted at


  1. By Chaely
    January 17, 2010 at 10:32 am | permalink

    It looks like a drawer pull on an old dresser that I’m dying to restore.

  2. January 17, 2010 at 10:43 am | permalink

    Sabra thinks it’s a tatting shuttle.

  3. By Cosmonican
    January 17, 2010 at 12:16 pm | permalink

    No argument about the tatting shuttle. What interests me is the modern style ramp to the sidewalk at the intersection, like a handicappers curb-cut. Was that to accommodate wheelchairs, or luggage carts?

  4. By Laura Bien
    January 17, 2010 at 2:46 pm | permalink

    Chaely: Now that you mention it, it looks very like an old drawer pull! However, the other side looks exactly the same; there is no hardware or other metal to attach this item to a drawer.

  5. By Laura Bien
    January 17, 2010 at 2:47 pm | permalink

    David Cahill: Another good guess! and there are lots of tatting tools on display in the Museum…but they are in another room, not the themed room in which this item appears. :)

  6. By Laura Bien
    January 17, 2010 at 2:52 pm | permalink

    Cosmonican: That’s an excellent question. I don’t know the answer, but luggage carts seems very likely, perhaps also for strollers in a downtown that was much more heavily populated and livelier? Sadly, I don’t think there were many if any accomodations for handicapped people back then, long before the 1990 ADA.

  7. January 17, 2010 at 3:53 pm | permalink

    Can you give us a sense of the scale? Approximately how long is this item?

  8. By Laura Bien
    January 17, 2010 at 4:32 pm | permalink

    cmadler: It’s about 9 inches long. Good question: I have to remember to include a ruler in future photos, thank you for the reminder. :)

  9. By Cosmonican
    January 17, 2010 at 5:32 pm | permalink

    Is there information for comparison regarding Ann Arbor hotels at the time? Not just downtown, I think there may have been an inn along Pontiac Trail, were the Bell Tower and Embassy operating, and others?

  10. By E. G. Penet
    January 17, 2010 at 6:23 pm | permalink

    Looks to me like a Vampire-killing stake.

  11. By Laura Bien
    January 17, 2010 at 6:36 pm | permalink

    cosmonican: In the 1922 directory, the following AA hotels are listed:

    The Allenel, southwest corner of E. Huron and 4th Ave. (now the senior apt. bldg.)

    Chamber of Commerce Inn, 200-206 N. 4th Ave. (old Wooden Spoon site + Dogma Catmantoo)

    Hotel American, 121-123 W. Washington (The Earle + Sweetwaters)

    Hotel Whitney, 117-127 N. Main (One North Main condo building)

    Jennings House, 1142 Catherine (near Taubman Medical Library)

    John H. Rainey, 303 E. Ann (near Detroit Observatory, hospital)

    St. James Hotel, 117-123 W. Huron (near Huron & South Main)

    If the Pontiac Trail inn were outside a municipality, it likely wouldn’t have been included in this directory. I don’t see any listings for the Bell Tower or Embassy Hotel.

  12. By Barbara Annis
    January 17, 2010 at 7:28 pm | permalink

    Great feature. How long has this been going on? Sorry to have missed previous articles.

  13. By Cosmonican
    January 17, 2010 at 7:35 pm | permalink

    Thanks for the info Laura. The Allenel, Whitney, and St. James ring a bell — probably read about them in an old history. I may have had the Pontiac Trail thought because of some old 30′s motor courts along there that are now apartments.

    It does show there were quite a few places to stay, not including the Michigan Union or the League, and whatever boarding houses there were.

  14. By Laura Bien
    January 17, 2010 at 8:13 pm | permalink

    Mr. Penet: (cough) what an innovative guess! In reading the old papers I’ve overlooked all the stories about vampires plaguing 19th-century Ypsilanti–I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I need to improve my research skills (blushes with shame).

  15. By Laura Bien
    January 17, 2010 at 8:15 pm | permalink

    Barbara Annis: Thank you for your very nice comment. This is story #2, and it’s a biweekly column; the next one will be up January 30. The first story should you like to read it is here: [Link] Thank you for the feedback!

  16. By Laura Bien
    January 17, 2010 at 8:17 pm | permalink

    Cosmonican: That’s true, that does not even count boarding houses; in Ypsi’s case at least, there were quite a few around this time, most of them run by widows.

  17. January 17, 2010 at 8:50 pm | permalink

    There appears to be hole drilled into one end of the object, which leads me to guess it may be a plumb bob.

  18. By Cosmonican
    January 17, 2010 at 9:13 pm | permalink

    Lest anyone think we’re crazy, I meant a hotel at the LOCATION of the Bell Tower, operating under another name of course. Burton Tower hadn’t been built yet.

  19. By Laura Bien
    January 17, 2010 at 9:17 pm | permalink

    Tom: That is a good observation, but I’m afraid the apparent hole is just a smudge or stain; there’s no real hole on the item (my apologies, though–I have to get a better camera!)

  20. By Laura Bien
    January 17, 2010 at 9:28 pm | permalink

    Cosmonican: I don’t have a complete set of directories at home, but I will be happy to check this for you next time I’m down at the Archives (probably Tues. or Wed.). I’ll post what I find here. A cursory look shows that it goes back to perhaps at least 1965.

  21. By Rod Johnson
    January 18, 2010 at 11:08 am | permalink

    As long as we’re talking archives… I’d like to find an Ann Arbor street map from before the freeways, say circa WWII or 1950. Anyone have any idea where such a thing could be found? I looked in the UM Libraries map room long ago, but no luck.

  22. By Laura Bien
    January 18, 2010 at 11:11 am | permalink

    Rod: It looks like the Bentley has quite a collection, the first one listed here being from the 1930s: [link]

  23. By George Hammond
    January 18, 2010 at 2:27 pm | permalink

    The Ann Arbor Distric Library has a great local history section. I bet they would have a map that would suit you.


  24. By Rod Johnson
    January 18, 2010 at 6:47 pm | permalink

    Great ideas–my thanks to you both!

  25. By Christopher
    January 19, 2010 at 2:40 pm | permalink

    Wonderful article, thank you so much. This series is going to be a must-read for me. Someday you’ll have to share how you get the information.

  26. By Laura Bien
    January 19, 2010 at 5:43 pm | permalink

    Cosmonican: re: Bell Tower Hotel: I’d thought the Ypsi Archives had directories going further back than 1982, but I found I was wrong. But I can tell you that the Bell Tower Hotel is indeed listed in the 1982 AA directory, though I’m sure it’s older. Next time I get into AA I can check that and will post what I find.

  27. By Laura Bien
    January 19, 2010 at 5:48 pm | permalink

    Christopher: That’s a lovely comment, thank you! The information is mostly from the Ypsi Archives, which is very nicely organized; it’s easy to find things. Also, old newspapers on microfilm at local libraries, old Ypsilanti directories, and my own files at home. I’d say half of my stories originate as a lucky find of some cool thing while looking for something else. :)

  28. By Cosmonican
    January 19, 2010 at 6:30 pm | permalink

    Thanks for the followup Laura. I can personally vouch that the Bell Tower Hotel was operating as such in 1957. Their promotional material states they are the oldest existing hotel in Ann Arbor, though there were many before them. Best guess would be that the existing hotel was built at the same time as Hill Auditorium in 1913, then renamed 23 years later when Burton Tower was built — but I don’t have anything to base that on.

    Regarding Pontiac Trail, there was a hotel there in the 1860′s named the Kusseth House, at the intersection of Summit (there is no Summit now, probably renamed later); which leads me to the question of whether any readers have information about that beautiful old civil war era hotel on Pontiac Trail in South Lyon. It features a wide porch with columns on both the 1st and 2nd floors wrapping around the building — which appear to be copied on some modern housing just to the north if it.

  29. By Dave
    January 20, 2010 at 1:42 pm | permalink


    It looks like the thing we used to hold our kite sting in our hands with as a child. String was tied in a loop and we wound the string around it as we realed in the kite.

  30. By Laura Bien
    January 21, 2010 at 7:49 am | permalink

    Dave: That is yet another good guess. I had a kite string winder like that as well, when I was a kid.

    Hint time: Despite a lot of thoughtful and creative guesses, I will say that thus far, the correct identity of this object has not yet been mentioned in the above comments. Also: this item may be found in the Ypsilanti Historical Museum’s second-floor “tool room,” in which may be found things like an old portable carpenter’s toolbox, sad irons, seed planters, old wrenches, &c. (one of my favorite rooms). :)

  31. By Mary Hirzel
    January 23, 2010 at 5:08 pm | permalink

    Is it a fingernail buffer (polisher)?

  32. By Laura Bien
    January 23, 2010 at 5:34 pm | permalink

    Mary, I’m afraid it is not–but yours is the closest guess yet!

  33. By John
    January 23, 2010 at 9:07 pm | permalink

    My guess for the mystery object is a sharpening stone for a tool like a scythe or ax.

  34. By Laura Bien
    January 23, 2010 at 9:18 pm | permalink

    (Enigmatically) John: My, that’s an interesting guess indeed. We’ll see come next Sunday!

  35. By RoadsideDinerLover
    January 24, 2010 at 1:21 am | permalink

    I love your articles Laura! I look forward to them alot. I highly reccommend to everyone to visit the Ypsilanti Historical Museum. I went there and it was fun looking at the colelction but even more interesting were the archives downstairs. The people there are very helpful. I have a question though. I am looking for photos of diners that used to be in Ann Arbor. Do you think the Bentley would have those? These are the ones I am looking for…

    Sperry’s Diner 210 5th Ave
    Fifth Ave Diner 210 5th Ave
    Swede’s Diner 210 5th Ave
    Ward’s Diner 210 5th Ave
    Dagwood Diner 300 S Ashley

    (these would be similar in looks to the Fleetwood~a prefabricated structure and from the 1930′s)

  36. By Laura Bien
    January 25, 2010 at 3:53 pm | permalink

    Roadsidedinerlover: That is great that you visited the Archives. And thank you for your nice comment.

    I searched the Bentley site via MIRLYN for “diner” and for each of the names of the diners, and the addresses, but, strangely, did not find anything. I did the same for the AADL photo database. The AADL had a few diners’ pictures, but not the ones you seek.

    Swede’s diner, with a cool interior photo, is covered in this website: [link] which is run by Jim Rees. Perhaps he can send you a copy of that photo; his email is jim.rees at the domain

    He also has a pic of the Dagwood (now Fleetwood as you know) here: [link] (scroll down)

    Rees also has a photo of a Dagwood Diner matchbook: [link]
    He also says that the current owners are George Fotiadis and Adi Demiri. Perhaps these folks can be contacted to see if they have additional Dagwood memorabilia.

    I did not find photos of any of the other diners. If it were me, my next step would be to find historic photos of the streets in question. However, a search for that section of 5th ave. in both the Bentley and AADL yielded no photo that includes the diners.
    A table including several of the diners you’re interested in appears here: [link]; no photos, but start/end dates & owners.

    Not terribly helpful, but I hope you find more info.