(C) Hotel Savoy
A Brief History of a Kansas City Landmark
by Valerie Lee
With Kansas City's building boom, population growth, and prosperity of the late 1800's, luxury hotels became very popular. The Hotel Savoy was built on the corner of Ninth and Central streets in 1888 by the Arbuckle Brothers of the Arbuckle Coffee Company. It offered turn-of-the-century elegance to political and stage personalities as well as cattlemen, grain merchants and travelers heading west. Architects for the building were S.E. Chamberlain and Van Brunt & Howe. The original east wing was constructed in 1888. In 1903, it was remodeled and the west wing was added along with The Savoy Grill dining room. Imported marble and tile, brass fixtures and stained glass are some of the original features of the hotel decor. Art Nouveau style stained glass in the skylight was designed in Kansas City by Frank Anderson for the hotel lobby.
At the turn of the century, The Savoy was the first hotel seen by travelers as they came from the old Union Depot. It was a luxury hotel, with a rooftop garden, ballroom, Italian tile floors, marble walls, a stained glass skylight and carved oak woodwork. During those early years, The Hotel Savoy served such celebrities as Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Marie Dressler, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Lillian Russell, Sara Bernhardt, and John D. Rockefeller.
In 1903, The Savoy Grill dining room opened, with an exclusive Men's Grill that did not serve women. That restriction was soon changed. In the early years, The Savoy's clientele dined on such delicacies as prairie chicken and buffalo steak. After the dinner hour, tables were pushed aside for music and dancing late into the evening.
Over the years, The Hotel Savoy's most enduring feature has been The Savoy Grill restaurant. Dating from 1903, it is the oldest restaurant in Kansas City, with stained glass windows, high beamed ceilings, lanterns that were once gaslights, and an enormous carved oak bar. Booth No. 4, known as the presidents' booth, has been host to Warren Harding, Harry S. Truman, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.
The original Grill Room is surrounded by The Savoy Murals, painted by Edward Holslag in 1903 when he was in his early thirties. Those murals depict the pioneers' departure from Westport Landing and their journey along the Santa Fe Trail. Holslag, who was a pupil of The National Academy of Design and John LaFarge, is represented at the Congressional Library in Washington, D.C. The Savoy Grill Murals have been included in the Smithsonian Institution's "Bicentennial Inventory of American Paintings."
The Hotel Savoy and its well-known dining room enjoyed the fruits of Kansas City's buisness boom through the late 1890's and into the turn of the century. With the depression era of the 1930's, and later the trend toward suburban living, came hard times for The Savoy. The hotel was in a serious decline by 1960 when Don Lee, a 27 year old member of a vetern restaurant family, purchased The Savoy Grill restaurant. In 1965, Lee became convinced that The Hotel Savoy had economic potential and purchased it from Jack Fox, an investor and member of a family active in the downtown garment industry. When Lee bought the hotel, in part to safeguard his restaurant lease, The Savoy was in bad condition. It was using only approximately 80 of its 200 rooms, mostly for transient guests.
By the 1970's, The Savoy Grill was experiencing good business and The Hotel Savoy had become a residential hotel. On December 30, 1974, The Hotel Savoy and The Savoy Grill were entered in the National Register of Historic Places, indicating that The Savoy was considered worthy of preservation. In the mid 1980's, the area along Ninth Street was revived. Investors began developing older buildings into residential and entertainment centers.
In 1985, Don Lee began renovating The Hotel Savoy, turning existing rooms into luxurious Bed and Breakfast suites. Each room is finished in Victorian turn-of-the-century style, uniquely decorated and filled with antiques from within the hotel. Because of The Savoy's historical appeal, recent movies such as "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" and "Cross of Fire" have filmed scenes here.
During renovation of the hotel, old letters and artifacts have been found. These items narrate The Savoy's legacy. For example, a paper decribed how the famed magician, Harry Houdini, was locked in a Savoy phone booth by a clever traveling salesman. A 1938 recording of "Stompin' at the Savoy," by Bennie Goodman and Count Basie, was located and now hangs in The Savoy's Bed and Breakfast dining room. Letters from the Prohibition era were found. The Savoy, being in Missouri, helped people who wanted liquor in Kansas. A letter from a Kansas real estate, loan and insurance man read: "Kindly send me the good stuff. I am laying in a little supply before the (national) bone dry law goes into effect." The Savoy shipped him four quarts of Sherwood Rye.
The Hotel Savoy's Bed and Breakfast suites are receiving good response from Kansas Citians as well as world travelers, offering encouragement that other historic hotels may have a secure future.