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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