The story of the Mayfair Hotel
Historic hotels have lives all their own. A hotel's life often parallels human life. It has its ups and downs, triumphs and despair.
The Mayfair opened in 1925. There may be no other hotel in St. Louis that sparks the fond memories among St. Louisans than the Mayfair. Actors John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks and Cary Grant stayed there. So did then-President Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson, who established their St. Louis campaign headquarters at the Mayfair. Award winning stage and screen actress Tallulah Bankhead was hostess at a cocktail party for the press held at the Mayfair in 1937. In the 1980's, the hotel was a hotbed of political intrigue.
From the moment Emmett, the uniformed doorman smiled and handed you from your car, you knew you were a special person. Maybe you celebrated a graduation dinner in the Mayfair Room or stopped in for a drink in the Hofbrau after a movie. As soon as you stepped into the lobby, your were a VIP.
Many of the timeless amenities of the past are a just as a part of the Mayfair today as they were in 1925. This booklet celebrates the hotels' over three- quarters of a century of life.
The dream of a 15-year old busboy at a hotel in Heidelberg, Germany was fulfilled and made the mark on St. Louis's hotel history with the building of the Mayfair Hotel.
Charles Heiss, born in 1883 into a hotel family, journeyed through hotels in Belgium, France, England and Canada where he held administrative positions before coming to St. Louis. He finally came to the United States in 1912 to become assistant manager at the Knickerbocker in New York City.
After the Statler Hotel chain hired Heiss to manage its hotels in Detroit for three years, he was transferred to St. Louis to manage the Statler here. He left after seven years to fulfill his dream of his own hotel. The Statler Hotel company was one of the United States' early chains of hotels catering to traveling businessmen and tourist
Pierre Borders, head writer in the Mayfair Room from 1949 to 1955, remembers Charles Heiss as "a real gentlemen. He was the international type and spoke German, French and English. he knew how to relate to his distinguished clientele," Bores said in a heavy French accent.
"A story was told that Mr. Heiss had an argument with Mr. Statler and said, "Someday I'm going to build two hotels close to yours and they'll be better than yours." the waiter recalled.
The results of that promise where the Mayfair at St. Charles and Eighth Street, a block behind the Statler, and the Lennox across Washington Ave from the Statler. Heiss built both hotels and took William Victor, assistant manager of the Statler with him when he left.
To design his masterpiece, Heiss chose Preston Bradshaw, who had worked on the House and Senate Buildings in construction began in 1924, the height of the Jazz Age. This was the most colorful decade in the century. Flappers wore bobbed hair, short skirts, turn-downed hose and powdered knees to dance the Charleston. Reddish orange streetcars clanged slowly down Washington Avenue.Washington, D.C., before moving
to St. Louis. Here he had already designed the Chase, the Melbourne, the Embassy and the Coronado Hotels.
A 1925 Model T. Ford cost $495. Sounds of Bessie Smith, the Empress of Blues and Duke Ellington filled the airwaves. Prohibition was already six years old and bare knuckles rapped on speak easy doors. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge was elected the 30th President of the United States.
It took a little more than a year and a then staggering $2,500,000 to build the 18-story hotel. St. Louis investors, headed by Charles Heiss, funded the project. Heiss named his hotel the Mayfair, after the elite hotel district in London.
The hotel was built of mat-faced brick with terra cotta trim in the Italian Renaissance style, which was carried into the foyer and lobby with its hand-painted ceiling. Ornate cornice work, beading and Italian-style urns decorated the third and 15th floor windows. Copper canopies covered both the Eight and St. Charles Street entrances of the fireproof building. All 400 rooms had private baths and uniformed piloted three high-speed elevators which were manually operated until the mid-1990's.
Three centrifugal pumps with a capacity of one-half million gallons of water a day, enough to serve a town of 15,000 people, provided water for the hotel.
The main dining room was designed after the Elizabethan Period with walnut paneling stretching from the terrazzo marble floor to the ornamental ivory and gold ceiling.
A luxurious lounge on the mezzanine was an outstanding feature of the hotel. Its homelike atmosphere invited guests to rest or receive company outside their rooms. Red silk drapes covered the windows. Two private dining rooms and a ladies' retiring rooms were also on this floor.
The nine-chair barbershop, six-booth beauty parlor and chiropodist (foot doctor) shop were also on the mezzanine rather than in the basement as in most other hotels.
KMOX Radio opened its first studio in 1925 in a two-room suite on the mezzanine of the Mayfair. The larger studio, known as the grand salon, was furnished in Louis 14th style furniture and tall gold cathedral floor lamps. The smaller studio was artistically designed with sound proofing, coffee colored satin drapes and blue velvet carpeting.
The double studio provide for "on air" on one side and preparation for the next show in the other studio. Visitors could watch the radio broadcast through double plate glass windows in an adjacent lounge room.
KMOX installed an $18,000 Kilgen organ and recitals were performed from the organ loft every day at noon and between 6 and 7 pm. according to Frank Absher, station historian. "Torchy at the grand piano in the studio became so popular that she replaced the organ recitals," he said. In 1931, KMOX left the Mayfair for larger quarters and opened studios in the Mart Building.
On Saturday evening, August 29, 1925, the Mayfair opened its doors to 120 stockholders and contractors for a reception, dinner, entertainment and a tour of the hotel. The next evening, 4,000 invited guests attended the grand opening and dedication.
St. Louisans applauded Heiss for his splendid accomplishment and local newspapers marked the occasion in complimentary terms. The Censor reported the opening as an "epoch-making event in the history of St. Louis and predicts for it the success it deserves from an appreciative public."
The St. Louis Times said, "Here's hoping Charles Heiss may have the success he so richly deserves."
Heiss worked for his success, being in the lobby every morning at 7 o'clock to greet guests in the old hotel manner.
When the hotel opened for overnight guests on Sunday, August 30, a traveling man from Chicago was the first to sign the register. He arrived on Thursday insisting on being the first guest.
Room rates ranged from $3 to $6 a night and each room had all the finery of the day including outside exposure, bath, circulating ice water, an electric fan, and bed lamp and a large closet.
Three shops with entrances on Eighth Street included a telegraph office. The cigar store and haberdashery connected with the lobby.
The Reign of Mrs. King
"There's no business like show business - except maybe the hotel business."
- Julia Rugne King
Julia Runge King worked for the Mayfair for 50 years, setting standards for the hospitality industry and making hotel history along the way. "She was ahead of her time," said Monsignor Fenton J Runge, her brother.
The hotel had been open three years when Julia King started her career there at the age of 16 in the accounting department. A student at Rosati Kain High School, this was to be a summer job. But Heiss recognized her talents and asked her to stay on. With a younger sister and brother, she accepted the officer for a permanent position to help support the family.
Her father was a receiving clerk at the Kingsway Hotel and later at the Jefferson Hotel. Her mother died in 1935. Her sister became a cashier at the Melbourne Hotel and later worked for the Palmer House in Chicago. Her brother was ordained a priest and later became secretary to the late Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter and vice chancellor of the St. Louis Archdiocese.
Julia King rose through the ranks and was named to the top spot at the Mayfair in 1957. In true Mayfair tradition, she was in the lobby at mealtimes meeting and greeting guests, calling them by name. Her friendly and outgoing manner endeared her guests to the hotel.
Charles Heiss has said, "If this girl were only a man, she would be manager of one of my hotels." Shortly after he died in 1956, his son and successor, C. Gordon Heiss, promoted her to head hostess. She was the first women manager of a hotel in St. Louis. In 1960, she became vice president of the Mayfair-Lennox hotels, Inc,.. an managed the Lennox Hotel long with the Mayfair.
Mrs. King was a member of the Hotel and Motel Men's Association of Greater St. Louis and when she was elected the president, the organization dropped the word "Men's" from its name, according to Msgr. Runge.
She was heaped with honors during her career including being named "Women of the Year" in 1967 by the Downtown Business and Professional Women's Club.
She was the only women honorary colonel on the Governor of Missouri's staff, named by then-Governor John M. Dalton. Dalton issued an appointment proclamation "commending all citizens of Missouri to help observe this festive occasion and express to her our thanks for her many kindnesses." the governor declared the day "Julia Runge King Day" throughout Missouri.
She also received a citation from the St. Louis Police Department for her aid in the arrest of a savings and loan robber who was a hotel guest.
Mrs. King's uncanny ability to remember names and faces amazed many a guest. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat, in a 1933 feature story on her, report the arrival of Aloysuis Zitts of Seattle. When he approached the desk to register, the stately young women, who stoof 5 feet 9 inches tall, greeted him. "good morning, Mr. Zitts. How are things in Seattle? Glad to see you again. You may have your old room - 1305." She had not seen the gentlemen since he stayed at the hotel three years earlier.
Although she had an office upstairs, she preferred her desk in the lobby. "I have to be close to the people," she said. She stood ready to answer all requests, such as tickets for a ballgame or a table at the VP Ball.
Julia Runge married Joseph M. King in 1936 and kept it a secret for a year. "In those days married women who worked were frowned upon," she told a St. Louis Globe-Democrat reporter in 1963. "I didn't want to give up my job because I wanted to provide the best education possible for my little brother."
Her husband was transportation manager for the Mayfair. The couple had no children, and after he died in 1951, she moved to the Mayfair and lived in a suite on the 15th floor. She never drove a car.
The Theatre District
The Mayfair was in the center of the theatre district. Many performers appearing at the nearby Orpheum, a famous vaudeville theater that later became the American, stayed at the hotel. In 1939, John Barrymore was distinctive not only for his acting at the American, but for the $434 bad check he used to pay his hotel bill. Irving Berlin was also a guest in 1942 when he visited St. Louis to promote his wartime musical "This Is The Army." Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas and Roberts Young were also guests.
Cary Grant's legacy to the Mayfair is the chocolate on your pillow. The handsome actor started the tradition in the 1950's. He reportedly liad a trail of chocolates from his parlor suite, through the bedroom and finally onto the pillow with a note to his female companion. The Mayfair continued the tradition and it spread to hotels across the country.
Cary Grant wired Christmas greetings to his friend, Julia King. "She used to let him come into the hotel through a back door and use the freight elevator to get him to his floor," remembered Monsignor Runge, Mrs.s King's brother.
Mrs. King ended her career managing the hotel at Barnes Hospital's Queeny Tower, subcontracted to the Mayfair. She retired at age 66 and became a volunteer at Barnes. She died at age 80.
The Great Depression struck in 1929, shortly after Mrs. King joined the hotel and bondholders threatened to foreclose on the Mayfair. The hotel firm reorganized, but faced financial difficulties again in 1941.
Through it all, the Mayfair stayed in the news. In 1934, Gabe Newman, bartender at the Mayfair, won 10th prize in national cocktail contest. His recipe, judged the best among 2,500 entries from Missouri, was an original creation known as "a sip and a smile." Newman retired in 1941 at age 80 after 50 years of tending bar.
In the early years of the hotel, local newspapers also reported that a two-week-old infant was found at the Mayfair and taken to City Hospital.
During the summer of 1935, the hotel advertised its "weekend" trip. The Hotel arranged for guest to receive a ticket to either an American or National League baseball game, a ticket to the Municipal Opera, and excursion on a Mississippi River steamboat, six meals and lodging at the Mayfair. The cost for the package was $12.50.
In 1937, the hotel was air-conditioned, which was one of the largest hotel air-conditioning projects in the country with controls in each room for a total cost of $200,000.
From 1960 to 1977, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis headquarters were on the top two floors of the Mayfair. The area was remodeled into plush offices, meeting and dining rooms and paneling from an old courtroom in England was installed.
Famous food from a Famous Place
One of Mrs. King's stops in her daily rounds was to inspect the enormous sliver pieces in the Mayfair Room. She called them the "family jewels." She also stopped in the kitchen to sample the soup of the day.
The Mayfair Room was among the best restaurants in the country for many years, and was the first "Five-Star" restaurant in Missouri. Its sparkling crystal, two white linen tablecloths on each table and Elizabethan decor made it a memorable dining experience.
The Mayfair was so proud of its salad dressing that it bore the hotel's name. The Mayfair dressing was first recognized nationally by Fortune. It's believed that the anchovy-based dressing was developed about 1935 by chef Fred Bangerter. Gordon Heiss sold the hotel in 1970, but not the dressing recipe. The Mayfair finally retrieved its celebrated dressing 20 years later.
"It's a popular dressing around town. Anybody who worked for the Mayfair could have taken the recipe," said Ollie Sommer, past president of the Chefs de Cuisine Association of St. Louis. But no one did, having too much respect for their beloved hotel.
Count Hoffman and the Hofbrau
The Hofbrau opened in 1934, with the repeal of prohibition. It was decorated with German Murals, a reminder of the hotel's European influence. The vibrant stained glass windows showed lute players, imbibing gentlemen and bashful maidens. The Hofbrau frequently won Holiday Magazine awards for Distinguished Dining in the 1960's.
"Count" Henry Hoffmann, St. Louis' most famous bartender, presided over the long bar. He was known as guide, philosopher and friend to bar patrons.
The genial host was a master of the cocktail shaker and, though he never drank, he trained many younger men in his art. In preprohibition days, he was known as the "Michelangelo of St. Louis Bartenders." His designation as the "Count" symbolized the nobility of the drinks he prepared.
'Count' Hoffmann was also rated as St. Louis' No 1. Baseball fan. For many years, he placed his order with Cardinals management on opening day of the season for $1,000 worth of world series tickets. He organized parties that traveled on special trains to other cities to attend World Series games.
The Famous bartender, age 66, died of an apparent heart attack in a box at Sportman's Park in the 17th inning of a tie game between the Cardinals and Giants on April 30, 1936.
In the Summer of 1961, the Mayfair claimed another lofty first, the first rooptop swimming pool in St. Louis. The pool, 250 feet above the city sidewalk, held 20,000 gallons of water in its depth of five and one-half feet. Orange trees, geraniums, ageratum and a fountain brightened the pool area. "It's like a rooftop Riviera," said one guest. Fashion model lifeguards with bouffant hairdos and black lace swimsuites were an attraction. Lunch and drinks were served at umbrella tables near the pool. Use of the pool was free to anyone registered at the Mayfair or Lennox. In 1991, the rooftop won the National Pool & Spa Association's Renovation Award.
The same year the pool opened, an all-girl barbershop debuted in the hotel's leased barbershop. But former Attorney General Thomas Eagleton closed it down, declaring the 'barbettes' were cosmetologists, not barbers.
In 1961, the hotel brought the late Aga Kahn's 1952 Rolls Royce to provide the first luxury transportation from the airport to the hotel. The green royal carriage, brought in New York, had a well-stocked bar complete with silver goblets. Ladies could freshen up, using the cosmetics in the car's vanity in the armrest dividing the rear seat.
In 1966, a lavish ball for Rose Kennedy was help in the Mayfair while 25-cent happy hour drinks were served in the Hofbrau.
In 1968, the Mayfair was home to the national Governors' Conference.
It was 1970 and downtown St. Louis, like faded summer flowers in the fall, wasn't what it used to be. While service at the Mayfair was as impeccable as ever, downtown patrons were few. Legitimate theatre was passe at the American Theatre and movies at the Lowes State and Ambassador theatres played to slim crowds. Travelers, too, opted to stay at hotels farther west.
So Gordon Heiss, who had successfully managed the grande dame for 25 years, put the hotel up for sale.
Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company took over the hotel, placing it on the market for $950,0000, $1 and 1/2 million less than it cost to build.
Two Miami hotel operators bought it, and in 1976, it passed to two other Miami Beach real estate investors. Plans were announced to upgrade the rooms, whose rates then were $18 for a single and $25 for a double. The Bar Association left in 1977, the same year the Mayfair's life took an unexpected turn.
The hotel came home to a group of nine St. Louisans headed by father-son combination Sorkis Webbe, Sr., and Jr. The younger Webbe had shined shoes in the Mayfair lobby as a boy.
The Webbes, leaders in the local Democratic Party, spent #3.5 million renovating the hotel to its original ambience and hospitality. They gutted the rooms, tore out inner walls and enlarged them. The number of rooms dropped from the original 400 to 230. The Mayfair's 6-door Cadillac limousine picked up guests at the airport. "We have set out to create a difference between just checking into a hotel and staying at the Mayfair," Webbe, Jr. said.
The Webbes installed enormous crystal chandeliers from their Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas in the lobby and Mayfair Room. The chandeliers still glitter and are the focus of your attention when you enter the hotel.
They opened the Gaslight Club in the venerable Mayfair Room. It was a branch of the Chicago-based club, the nation's original key club, the first in St. Louis.
The Webbes retained the integrity of the room itself, although glamorous, scantily-clad 'Gaslight Girls' served drinks and belly dancers swayed during lunchtime.
When the hotel opened its doors for Architect' Sunday in February 1979, more than 700 people lined up along St. Charles Street to tour St. Louis' showplace. That same year, the hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1984, flamboyant Webbe, Jr., tossed a party for Margaret Echlin, an elevator operator for 60 years. She had earned 19 cents an hour and worked 48 hours a week when the hotel opened. She was 76 at the time.
By 1983, the Webbes also owned the Gateway Hotel, formerly the Statler, and the Lennox and had visions of redeveloping Washington Avenue. But, Webbe Jr's political activities clouded his vision. He was arrested in 1983 for third-dress assault in a scuffle at a polling place. In 1984, FBI wiretaps in the Webbes' office at the hotel gathered evidence about gang warfare and political corruption in the city. This led to indictments in connection with the city's cable television franchise which cost the government $500,000. Webbe Jr. a former St. Louis alderman, was convicted in 1985 on corruption charges and for harboring a fugitive. but the Webbes had turned the direction of the hotel and set the stage for its future.
Ownership passed to Prestige Hotels to Peter Greene who was president of a Chicago-based hotel developer. Doubletree took it over for a short time in 1992, but lost it to the Bank of New York for default on a $13 million mortgage loan. At a foreclosure sale, the contents were auctioned. Patriot American Hospitality bought it in 1996 and planned to spend $3 million to automate the elevators. The hotel was managed by Grand Heritage Hotels, specialist in running historic hotels. Patroit American bought Grand Heritage in 1977.
Closed in 1987 for a $20 million renovation, the hotel reopened in June 1990 with 184 luxury suites. The city of St. Louis made a long-term, low-interest loan of $1 million in federal money for the rehab.