Friday, November 7, 2014

Digging up Savoy history

Days after a recent fire in the historic Hotel Savoy I hurried down to the corner of Ninth and Central to have a look. Several doors stood lashed open with cautionary yellow tape, so I walked right in.

I'm ashamed to admit it was the first time I'd set foot inside the old place in probably thirty years. Apart from the spent-campfire smell and the workers cleaning up, nothing had apparently changed. The 19th-century time warp was intact: well-worn floor tiles, Art Nouveau stained-glass dome and windows, wall sconces and heavy oak paneling all seemingly undamaged. I wandered through the lobby and down a dark hallway to the oldest and – judging by longevity and historical significance – most famous restaurant in Kansas City. I wanted to check the condition of the Savoy Grill.

What most people mean when they say they've been to the Savoy is not the tired hotel, a section of which has operated for years as a bed-and-breakfast, but the grill. Over generations the grill's reputation was built on fresh Maine lobster and American Royal champion beef served by very old black waiters in white jackets. I'm afraid I hadn't been to the Savoy in so long mainly because I'd heard the food was no longer a reason to go.

Actually, quality has been suspect at least since the 1970s, when a Kansas City Times critic wrote of "messy salads, mushroom caps stuffed with what seemed to be ground onion and little else, and lobster broiled to a mush and burned around the edges." A current check of online reviews suggests the few good ones are heavily influenced by the old-school atmosphere, unmatched anywhere in town: Pre-prohibition bar; a dark-leather booth favored by Harry Truman; deep-green subway tile and white tablecloths; a dozen panels of romantic scenes on the old Santa Fe Trail, painted more than a century ago by muralist Edward J. Holslag. At least, it was that way before the fire shut everything down.

Now the hotel and its grill await renovation by prospective buyers 21c Museum Hotels. Here's hoping the deal still goes through and the Savoy gets some expert tender-loving care and a long-overdue 21st century makeover that somehow preserves the ancient otherworldly charm. And updates the history.

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The Savoy is proud of its past, as evidenced by a plaque on the brick facade at the corner of Ninth and Central streets. "The Hotel Savoy was constructed between 1890 and 1906," it begins, before describing its architectural significance. According to the hotel's current website the hotel was built "in 1888 by the Arbuckle brothers of the Arbuckle Coffee Company" and "In 1903 it was remodeled and the west wing was added along with the Savoy Grill dining room." Turns out the plaque, the website and the sign hanging out front – "Since 1903" – are incomplete at best, inaccurate at worst.

A little independent archival digging unearthed different details. Yes, the hotel began life in 1888, not as the Savoy but as the Hotel Thorne, named for Dr. Joshua Thorne, its builder and one of Kansas City's first physicians. Four years later Thorne sold the hotel, but the deal wasn't completed until 1894 with different buyers, William Jamison and John Arbuckle, partners in Arbuckle Coffee of New York. The hotel had been closed for some time, but after repairs it reopened at the end of 1894 as the Savoy.

In July 1905 The Star noted a six-story brick addition was going up at Ninth and Central "to double the size of the Hotel Savoy." Then in December that year the paper reported on "the grill room of the addition to the Hotel Savoy," being designed by the architectural firm of Howe, Hoit and Cutler. "The new grill room will be opened in March," the article said. In other words, though a restaurant surely had operated elsewhere in the hotel, the Savoy Grill that exists today dates to 1906.

A century ago this month the Savoy marked 20 years under that name and advertised directions from Union Station, which had just opened:

It's interesting that for a time in the 1930s the grill was called the Pioneer Grill, known as a good choice for a turkey dinner:

The Depression brought a brief closure before new owners reopened and the Savoy Grill name really took root. The new owners obviously recognized the value of history:

Which brings me back to that newspaper story of late 1905, the one about the design for the new grill. The architects had decided that the room would have a theme based on the Santa Fe Trail and that an artist, as yet unnamed, would be hired to paint a series of Western scenes. One of them revealed the inspiration:
"In digging the excavation for the addition to the Savoy the workmen unearthed a pair of wheels such as were used on the ox wagons years and years ago. They were fifteen feet below the street level. This really suggested the idea of the Santa Fe Trail pictures."
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And so I was happy to see, as I squeezed past the stacked tables and chairs in the Savoy Grill after the fire, that Edward Holslag's murals were still there, looking fine. Still the inspired legacy of a pair of old wagon wheels dug up more than a century ago. May they live for a new century of diners.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Game 7, October 1985

The last time "We Did It!"

When it became clear this wasn't just a dream, that the first game of the 2014 World Series really would be played tonight at Kauffman Stadium, I decided it was time to try to find those photos I snapped the night of the last World Series game played here, when the ballpark was called Royals Stadium. Twenty-nine years ago.

It was a lucky draw. A friend's father had somehow ended up with his company's pair of box seats for this final game of 1985. He really wasn't much of a baseball fan; you could tell by the way he gasped at every routine fly ball. The Chiefs were his team, and golf was his passion. But he was a great guy and for some reason no family members were available that evening so he wondered whether I would like to go.

As it happened, it wasn't my first Series game that year. I'd sat in upper-deck nose-bleeders for game 2, when the Cardinals scored four runs in the ninth off Charlie Liebrandt and took a two-games-to-none lead. Driving out of the parking lot I passed two drunk fans in red hooting and laughing from the top of their car, so I pulled up next to them and shouted, "Royals in six!" They laughed harder.

This night my vantage point, several rows up from the infield on the first-base line, was considerably better, and I'd brought my Nikon FM to record the experience. Besides the immediate post-game celebratory clutch of players and fans near the pitcher's mound, above, I also got MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth greeting fans, Darryl Motley's home-run trot after providing all the necessary Royal offense, and the fifth-inning hysterics of Cards pitcher Joaquin Andujar, who had come on in relief with his team down nine runs.

In the middle of the third inning I snapped a series of images of the whole scene before me, from left to right, beginning with the press box area ...

... where Fred and Denny are broadcasting and Mr. and Mrs. K are watching from their suite ...

... moving toward the Stadium Club ...

... and the Red Birds perched in their dugout ...

... up the third-base line, where home-plate umpire Don Denkinger watches ...

... starting pitcher John Tudor's warm-up tosses to catcher Darrell Porter ...

... and the scoreboard shows the results of Motley's two-run, second-inning homer ...

... to right field, where Motley will catch the game's final out.

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The pictures bring back several things – the artificial turf, the old Royals "R" logo, the bare-bones look of the stadium compared to today's amusement-park version. Bret Saberhagen's complete-game shutout. Ultimately I'm reminded of those two beer-soaked, red-clad twits in the parking lot.

What you get from St. Louis fans most often about the 1985 Series, of course, is the bad call Denkinger made at first base in the sixth game. You seldom if ever hear anything from them about  subsequent Cardinal misplays in that ninth inning – the pop foul first baseman Jack Clark let drop or Porter's passed ball – or their complete failure in the seventh game or the fact that the Cardinals hit .185 for the Series.

So I suspect Denkinger is what those two from the parking lot remember, and not my bold prediction to them. OK, so I was off by one game.

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Slide right for the panorama. Go Royals.

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Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Novelty Club

The second story of 406 E. 18th street, in the East Crossroads.

The other day I went down to the Crossroads, looking for the spirit of Boss Tom Pendergast.

One of the things I like most about visiting the Crossroads district, where plenty of fresh creative energy percolates, is that I'm never far from the Pendergast era – for better or worse the most colorful years of this city's political and cultural history. The district is still chock-full of low-rise brick buildings that date to that era in the first half of the Twentieth Century. 

There's 1908 Main, of course, the former upstairs headquarters of the Jackson Democratic Club, where Pendergast ran his political kingdom and doled out favors. There's the former T.J. Pendergast Wholesale Liquor Company building at Twenty-first and Central, one of his numerous business interests. And there are numerous places with forgotten stories to tell about Tom's Town.

The place I was looking for stands near the corner of 18th and Oak, in the heart of the relatively gritty East Crossroads where industrial suppliers share their neighborhood with metalsmiths and glassmakers and traveling musical acts who perform in an outdoor venue. 

Diagonally across the street from Grinders pizza is the new home of the Border Brewing Company one of two craft-beer operations soon to open in this area. The folks at Border may or may not be aware that they occupy what for many years was home to several auto-service businesses. Or that the stairs next door at 406 E. 18th street lead to a second-floor space that was once a Prohibition-era speakeasy known as the Novelty Club.

The Novelty Club had a very short life and was notable for three things: Its ornate bar came from the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair; one of its employees (though he later claimed he had owned it) was a young man named Milton Morris, who would eventually become a minor legend among Kansas City nightclub owners; and after being open just a few brief months, the place was raided in a citywide sweep of speakeasies by federal prohibition agents in the early-morning hours of September 28, 1932.

The building in 1940.

According to the Star's reporter, the agents broke in the front door with an ax and ran upstairs, where "The orchestra just had begun a snappy tune and the floor was filled with dancing couples, some of the women in evening dress, others in street and sports wear, and men in dress and business suits."

After the raids of several clubs, government moving vans hauled away tables, chairs, rugs, curtains, slot machines, glassware and liquor as well as the entire 1904 World's Fair bar. All of it was stored away to be auctioned.

And that's the story of the Novelty Club. Not particularly exciting, unless you appreciate long-forgotten stories, as I do. And the fact that the place still exists, to date under-appreciated as a remnant of the city's colorful past.

The day I visited I saw that the upstairs space – or rather, part of the original 4,000 square feet of the Novelty Club – was for lease. A real estate flyer showed photos of a rather bland office – carpet, mini-blinds, florescent lights – that required imagination to envision a speakeasy.

Outside, however, around the corner and across a parking lot, peeking over the top of a portable outhouse from the wall of a neighboring building, Boss Tom Pendergast smiled back at me in assurance. He's still around.

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