Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Ephemeral city: Jefferson Hotel sign

It's another obscure treasure from the cluttered crannies of the West Bottoms antiques malls. A time-stained cardboard placard in a cheap frame, listing hotel "Rules and regulations" for "persons engaging rooms" in the Jefferson Hotel. Presumably it once hung on a door or wall of a guestroom in the hotel, which long ago stood on the southeast corner of an intersection that no longer exists, Sixth and Wyandotte streets.

The rules include a few era-specific references, like "cloak room" and "servants" and 25-cent room service, but they provide few hints of the Jefferson's infamy as "one of the leading and most notorious vice resorts in the city."

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The Jefferson had a relatively short life – one decade – after replacing an office building in 1910. It fancied itself "Not the biggest – just the best" and featured a cafe with four-bit lobster dinners, cocktails named "Chorus Girl" and "Leading Lady," live music and "other entertainment." The early ownership group included Dan Shay, then also the hot-tempered manager of the Kansas City Blues who later in an argument fatally shot a black waiter in Indianapolis (and was acquitted). The Jefferson's primary owner was one Thomas J. Pendergast.

An advertisement from 1911.
In those years Boss Tom worked out of an office in the hotel. His "Goat" faction competed for political power with fellow Democrat Joe Shannon's "Rabbits." By the time America entered the World War even out-of-town newspapers were referring to the political machine being run by "the Hotel Jefferson gang."

At the same time the hotel's reputation among upstanding citizens had deteriorated. Beatings, robberies, even murder took place at the Jefferson. Gamblers rented rooms for games. The cafe flaunted liquor laws. And "other entertainment" might have been what Army Sanitary Corps investigators meant when, in seeking to protect the manhood of wartime soldiers and sailors, they investigated the local scene and reported widespread vice. Thus the "leading resort" quote above and the accusation that

On every occasion the Jefferson Hotel was visited, assignations were observed in the cafe. The parties followed upstairs were seen to register and go to rooms.

Reformers used this report ahead of the 1918 city election to try to rid the city of vice and corruption. They failed. Law required bars to close Election Day. The cabaret at the Jefferson Hotel was open for a victory celebration.

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With the arrival of Prohibition in 1920 Boss Tom found it easy to close the Jefferson. Especially with the deal he received from the city to vacate for a new Sixth Street trafficway: a check for $79,550 for his property at Sixth and Wyandotte.

Ninety-five years ago today the newspaper headlined its story

Hotel Famous in Politics And
Crime Being Torn Down Today

Not quite accurate, as demolition was yet to come. The actual event of August 12, 1920, was the removal of stuff bought at auction a day earlier – "furniture, carpets and fixtures," said the classified ad. Also, according to the news story, unwanted junk like empty whisky cases, beer kegs, "old registers, account books and ledgers that might have revealed tales of sorrow or joy."

And perhaps at least one framed room sign, a reminder that the place did have some rules and regulations.

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