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.
“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.
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.”
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 YpsiNews.com 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 email@example.com.