Winthrop Hotel (Tacoma)

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 1/08/2016
  • Essay 11176
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For a time in the middle of the twentieth century the Winthrop Hotel was the grande dame of downtown Tacoma. In 1922 a group of Tacoma citizens formed an organization to build a fine hotel to attract business travelers and tourists and become a civic center for the community. The new hotel's name, selected in a contest, recalled Theodore Winthrop (1828-1861), an explorer and Union Civil War officer who visited Puget Sound in 1853 and wrote of the region's beauty. The 12-story Winthrop Hotel had its grand opening on May 16, 1925, and soon became the pride of Tacoma. Proms, dances, and weddings took place in its grand Crystal Ballroom and its roof garden hosted many special functions. Designed for business travelers, the Winthrop had telephones in each room. However, the hotel rarely exceeded 50-percent occupancy and the original shareholders did not get their investment back. In 1940 two upper floors were converted to apartments and the hotel made money during World War II. But by the early 1960s it was in financial difficulties, and efforts that included renovations, a new nightclub, and a Japanese restaurant could not save it. In 1973 the Winthrop was converted to affordable-housing units.

Building a Grand Hotel

On May 14, 1922, a group of Tacoma citizens organized to build a fine tourist hotel. Headed by prominent Tacoma business leader Henry A. Rhodes (1863-1954) and calling themselves the Flying Squadron, they fanned out across Tacoma seeking investors for a citizen-owned hotel that would attract tourists to the city. They obtained 2,300 investors and filed with the state as the Citizens Hotel Corporation. On March 13, 1923, the corporation granted a lease to the Daniel M. Linnard Company of California to oversee construction and then manage the hotel, which was to be located in downtown Tacoma between Broadway and Commerce Street north of 9th Street. Company president Daniel M. Linnard (1867-1949) operated a number of quality hotels in California.

Linnard selected architect William L. Stoddart (1868-1940) of New York, a specialist in hotels, to design the hotel. Stoddart worked largely on the East Coast so he depended upon his associate, Tacoma architect Roland L. Borhek (1883-1955), to fit his vision to Tacoma. Stoddart concentrated on hotels in small cities and had two main goals: He designed his hotels both to be efficient for the business traveler and to become social centers for the local community. For business travelers he included telephones in every room, a sufficient number of elevators so there would not be wasted time, and quality restaurants for entertaining and attracting locals. To make them local civic centers, his hotels had a ballroom, meeting spaces, and unique restaurants. On May 11, 1923, Tacoma contractors Pratt and Watson were awarded a contract to build the hotel.

Around that time the Tacoma Daily Ledger held a contest to give the hotel a name. The newspaper received 3,500 entries. George Dickson (1851-1935) of Tacoma, president of the Dickson Brothers clothing company, submitted the winning name: Winthrop Hotel. The name honored the explorer, writer, and Civil War hero Major Theodore Winthrop. Major Winthrop was one of the first Union officers killed in battle, when he was shot leading his troops in the Battle of Big Bethel on June 10, 1861. Winthrop had explored the Puget Sound region in 1853, and he wrote about its beauty in his book The Canoe and the Saddle. In the book he endeared himself to residents of Tacoma by using their preferred name for Washington's highest mountain -- Mount Tacoma -- and criticizing those who would replace "Mount Tacoma" (or "Tahoma") with "Mount Rainier."

Construction of the Winthrop Hotel began in December 1923. The 12-story hotel would have entrances on both Broadway and Commerce Street. Two hundred workers labored to complete the hotel within one year. When finished in early 1925 it had 250 rooms, each with a private shower or bath. Most of the furnishings were supplied locally. Trego Doors of Seattle produced the mahogany doors. Gregory Furniture Company of Tacoma produced the room furniture. Mattresses were purchased from Tacoma's Carman Mattresses. The Immanuel Presbyterian Church of Tacoma donated bibles to place in each room. The hotel had a roof garden, something that at the time only one other hotel on the West Coast had. The Winthrop also boasted the impressive Crystal Ballroom with four large Austrian cut-crystal chandeliers and a 38-by-120-foot dance floor. Over the years many dances, proms, and weddings were held there. There were two large dining rooms with seating for 500 guests to accommodate special ballroom events. The hotel's large lobby had antiques imported from Naples and London in addition to locally produced furniture and decorations.

On May 16, 1925, the Winthrop had its grand opening. The first registered guest was Floyd Steele (1871-1942). His mother, Janet Elder Steele (1842-1926), had operated a Tacoma hotel, the Steele Hotel, where he was born. Her highly regarded 24-room hotel on 2nd Street opened in 1869 and became known for its clean sheets and good food.

Social and Business Center

The Winthrop Hotel quickly became Tacoma's social and business center. In 1926 the Army-Navy Ball was held in the Crystal Ballroom and it returned to the hotel a number of times in subsequent years. The 1926 Army-Navy Ball had as military sponsors two decorated veterans of World War I: for the army Brigadier General Robert Alexander (1863-1941), commander of Fort Lewis and recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, and on the navy side Rear Admiral Samuel S. Robison (1867-1952), who had commanded the Atlantic submarine force during the war, earning the Navy Cross, and then the Puget Sound Navy Yard at Bremerton.

In March 1926 scenes for the Tacoma-produced silent film Eyes of the Totem were shot at the Winthrop. The hotel entrance became the Chinese cabaret "The Golden Dragon." Nine decades later, Tacoma historic-preservation coordinator Lauren Hoogkamer rediscovered the film in New York City and with historian Michael Sullivan brought it back for Tacoma showings in 2015.

The Winthrop's facilities were used by organizations such as the Rotary, Kiwanis, and Chamber of Commerce for meetings and events. Teas at the hotel were attended by prominent citizens. A number of wealthy residents who had summer homes on nearby American and Gravelly Lakes wintered at the Winthrop. In the 1930s they included Henry Rhodes and his wife Birdella Rhodes (1865-1941), as well as Anita Thorne Corse (1895-1994). On the Broadway and Commerce Street levels were 20 retail stores.

Foiled Holdup and Unsolved Mysteries

One of the most dramatic events at the hotel was a shootout on December 22, 1927. At 2:45 a.m., two bandits entered the hotel to rob the night clerk. Mike Rydecka (1897-1927), an escaped convict from the state penitentiary, and Samuel D. Ansel (1904-?) of Tenino in Pierce County, a recently released convict, had coerced a taxi driver to serve as their getaway driver. They planned to hold up the clerk and then run out the Broadway Street entrance and through the Bostwick Hotel to the taxi parked on St. Helens Avenue. The problem with their plan was that someone had tipped off the Tacoma police an hour and a half before the robbery.

Chief Detective William F. Jurisch (1862-1944) stationed four detectives at strategic locations in the hotel, with Jurisch himself behind the registration counter. Rydecka jumped over the counter demanding money. Jurisch shot him once and then Rydecka opened fire and the chief detective fatally shot him. Meanwhile Ansel tried to escape and was shot and seriously wounded. Doctors doubted he would live. He surprised his doctors, survived, and was sentenced to five to 15 years in the state penitentiary.

Following the December 27, 1936, kidnapping and murder of Tacoma youngster Charles Mattson (1926-1936), Lester Mead (1904-1973), alias Frank Olson, was arrested and confessed to the crime. Mead closely resembled the sketch of the kidnapper based on descriptions by Charles's siblings who were eyewitnesses to the abduction. The Washington State Police held Olson for two days in Room 305 of the Winthrop for interrogation. However, his confession was confused and inconsistent. The police learned that Mead had escaped from the Eastern Washington State Mental Hospital farm and had been in the hospital when the kidnapping took place. He was returned to the hospital. In 2016, the Mattson case remains unsolved and open.

Another unsolved mystery at the hotel happened in 1939. On April 22 a couple was discovered dead in their room having killed themselves with chloroform-soaked towels. The middle-aged couple had registered as Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Williams of St. Louis, Missouri. The St. Louis police could not find a missing couple by that name. To hide their identity the two had removed all marks of identification from their clothing. They were buried in Tacoma as unknowns.

New Ventures and Final Years as a Hotel

Despite being a social and business center, the Winthrop Hotel was usually not profitable. Throughout its history occupancy rarely exceeded 50 percent, and it only made money during World War II. The 2,300 shareholders of the original Citizens Hotel Corporation never recovered their initial investments. In an effort to increase the occupancy rate, in 1940 two upper floors were converted to apartments. They were successful as housing became scarce during World War II.

In 1947 the hotel was leased to the Western Hotel chain, which worked to provide new dining options. A coffee shop called the Daffodil Room, located off the main lobby, opened in March 1949 with daffodil curtains and yellow colors. On September 21, 1949, the famous restaurateur Victor "Trader Vic" Bergeron (1902-1984) opened the Sabre Room restaurant in the hotel. It was decorated in the style of an Old English tap room with red carpet, wood decor, and copper bowl lamps. The Sabre Room's menu was dominated by beef dishes. A renovation in 1955 added a chef's cooking station to the dining area. In 1963 the Sabre Room was renovated again and briefly converted to a nightclub with a colorful interior in retro-modern with psychedelic intensity. There was live music on the weekends.

The hotel at this time was experiencing severe financial difficulties and the 100 employees were informed that it might close. But the Winthrop stayed open and tried new ventures. Upgrades at this time included improving and renaming the main dining hall the Three Keys (a reference to excellent service, well-prepared food, and fine wines). In addition, a new restaurant, the Kokura, named after Tacoma's sister city in Japan, opened in the former Sabre Room location in May 1964. Its entrance had a Torii arch and diners sat on cushions on tatami mats. It was nicely decorated with Japanese objects and remained open almost as long as the Winthrop Hotel did. During the 1960s few tourists stayed in Tacoma, which lacked a viable downtown and had no convention facilities. The Winthrop Hotel faded and finally ceased operation in the fall of 1971.

Affordable Housing

In 1972 and 1973, the building was was remodeled with support from federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) subsidies and loans to accommodate its conversion to affordable housing. Over the next four decades the former hotel building changed ownership several times. Efforts by preservationists and those seeking downtown revitalization to restore it as a historic hotel did not succeed. Meanwhile maintenance was deferred. A 2009 property-condition assessment identified nearly $16 million in needed repairs. In May 2015 Redwood Housing Partners, with assistance from Washington Affordable Housing, took over and by October had started making repairs and renovations. The work included new windows resembling the historic windows, elevator repairs, and interior improvements.

The Winthrop continued to provide 194 units of affordable housing serving some 200 residents. As of late 2015 two of the impressive original features survived, the Crystal Ballroom and the penthouse. The former ballroom still had its large windows overlooking Broadway, the four impressive crystal chandeliers, and wall sconces. The maple floor was covered with vinyl tile and the room had suffered some water damage. The roof penthouse, vacant for many years, was intact but in poor condition. Other distinguished features had been lost. The former lobby and the space that had housed the Sabre and Kokura restaurants had become retail space, while the Presidential Suite on the northwest corner of the second floor had been divided into apartments and the fancy Three Keys restaurant was also converted to apartments.

Sources: Karla Stover, Hidden History of Tacoma: Little Known Tales from the City of Destiny (Charleston, South Carolina: History Press, 2012); Murray Morgan, Puget's Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979); Thomas W. Prosch, McCarver and Tacoma (Seattle: Lowman and Hanford, 1906); "Tacoma Hotel Viewed," The Oregonian, May 15, 1925, p. 3; "Winthrop Hotel Opened at Tacoma," Ibid., May 17, 1925, p. 10; "Army and Navy Ball to Take Place Soon," Morning Olympian, November 17, 1926, p. 3; "Life of Rhodes Story of Leadership," The Seattle Times, November 28, 1926, p. 15; "Bandit Shot Down In Tacoma Hotel," The Oregonian, December 23, 1927, p. 8; "Suicide Pact Pair Buried in Tacoma," The Seattle Times, April 26, 1939, p. 7; "Winthrop Apartments Attracting Interest," Tacoma News Tribune, May 4, 1940, p. 6; "Trader Vic Opens Unique Sabre Room," Ibid., September 21, 1949, p. 16; "Aberdeen Man Takes Over Winthrop," The Oregonian, November 23, 1962, p. 35; "Tacoma Hotel May Close," The Seattle Times, November 16, 1962, p. 19; "Conifer Corp. Purchases Winthrop Hotel," The Oregonian, August 28, 1970, p. 22; Julie Emery, "Former Hotel May Become Law School," The Seattle Times, February 6, 1972, p. 93; Todd Matthews, "Winthrop Hotel: A Glimpse Inside the Penthouse Suite, Crystal Ballroom," Tacoma Daily Index, January 28, 2015, p. 1.

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