As best as we can tell, Ann Arbor's hospitality industry officially started with the Washtenaw Coffee House, at what would come to be known as "Bloody Corners
." When people came to the newly settled town, and needed a place to stay, they went to the home of Elisha and Mary Ann Rumsey. But as more and more folks arrived, Ann Arbor needed additional lodgings. (Mrs. Rumsey was, by all accounts, a great hostess—but everyone has her limits!). Thus, we built us some hotels.
In 1832, William R. Thomson opened the Washtenaw House Hotel on Broadway in Lower Town. Inside the three story building was a bar and ballroom. Not much information about the hotel remains today, but we do know that our first governor was a guest there, and in its day the inn was known as the finest between Chicago and Detroit. By 1857, Washtenaw House had a new proprietor by the name of W.W. Wells. He and his wife, Diana, had two children and he was described as a "courteous landlord". The building was torn down in 1927.
Many hotels surrounded the courthouse square. Our first large hotel was the Franklin House, located at the northwest corner of Main & Huron, former site of John Allen's log block home. Across the way at Huron and Fourth Avenue sat Cook's Hotel, later renamed Cook's Temperance House. Not only were the owner and his wife teetotalers, but the Mrs. ran the Ladies Total Abstinence Benevolent Society (one can only hope called itself L-TABS, because that sounds cool).
In 1871, new owners replaced the old wooden hotel with a modern brick building. A 1910 fire led to further remodeling and a new name—the Allenel, a clever mix of founder John Allen's name and the word "hotel". Like many hotels of its day, the Allenel boasted a fancy dining room and a bar. Common knowledge, however, dictated that guests avoid rooms above the second floor, as the place was such a fire trap that one wanted the ability to jump to safety should the need arise. In 1967, a Sheraton Inn replaced the Allenel, later renamed as the Ann Arbor Inn. In 1990, the hotel shut its doors and the building was converted into what is now the Courthouse Square apartments for seniors aged 55 and above.
The west side had its own place to stay, eat and drink. The Germania Hotel, located where the Earle and Sweetwaters currently sit, at the southeast corner of Washington and Ashley, had more than just hotel rooms. Built by Michael Staebler, the building hosted meetings of the Germania Society, dances, balls and lectures. In 1895, the family renamed it the American Hotel and added a fourth floor. An 1891 advertisement boasted modern refits and steam heating throughout for just $2.00 per day.
Located at the southwest corner of Main and Ann, the Hotel Whitney was next to the Whitney Theater. To get into the theater, you actually entered through the hotel lobby. One fun fact about the Whitney Theater was that you could get tickets by climbing the fire escape to reach a ticket window in the second balcony. Stars who were touring the area usually stayed at the conveniently located hotel. This was also the original site for Hill's Opera House. Sadly, today it is a surface parking lot.
Though an evening in Ann Arbor's historic hotels may sound appealing, they also had a tendency to reflect the ignoble attitudes of the time. No advertisement actually says that African Americans were forbidden to grace the premises, and no articles about a "whites only" clientele were written. But, it is important to note that Forester's Hotel, in what is now Kerrytown, was known as the hotel "under colored management." For visitors of color, the message was clear: the only rooms open to them would be found at Forester's. The Kayser Block also housed accommodations for African American residents, and was known as a place to go for new arrivals. It now houses the 'venerable' Fourth Avenue Birkenstock store and the Bellanina Day spa.
Today, as long as you can pay the price, you can stay in any Ann Arbor hotel you want. And the downtown options are finally growing. The Campus Inn has been expanded and rebranded as the Graduate Ann Arbor, and a brand new Marriott opened at the northeast corner of Ashley and Huron. The days of society balls may be over over, but, thankfully, you can rest in peace if your room happens to be above the second floor. As with all things, you win some, you lose some.
Patti L. Smith is a freelance writer. Her first book, Images of America: Downtown Ann Arbor, was published by Arcadia Publishers. It is available on her website, www.TeacherPatti.com as well as at bookstores in the Ann Arbor area.