Q. I’m interested in the history of the former Broadview Hotel at 415 E. Broadway in East St. Louis. What can you tell me about the original property purchase, architect, contractor, owner, major conventions, future, etc.
— R.B., of Fairview Heights
A. As the 1920s dawned, East St. Louis city fathers were working overtime to make the 1917 race riot a distant memory in residents’ minds.
For nearly a half-century, the city had been growing into a metropolitan powerhouse thanks to the construction of the Eads Bridge and the opening of National Stockyards, which drew such industrial giants as Alcoa, Armour and Socony-Vacuum (Mobil Oil). On May 14, 1907, the St. Louis Republic devoted its front page to the rise of East St. Louis, calling it “the Second City of Illinois.”
But all of that was thrown into chaos as Independence Day 1917 approached. Tensions had been growing as companies found a cheaper labor pool filled with blacks migrating from the South and Eastern Europeans moving from the East Coast. Political corruption was rampant. The bubbling resentments blew up on July 2 in rioting that would leave at least 47 dead and destroy or damage more than 300 buildings.
Immediately, the city’s movers and shakers mounted an effort to turn around the volatile situation. “Within three weeks of the riot, business leaders were making public calls for change and highlighting the need to move the city forward,” wrote Andrew Theising in his 2003 book, “Made in USA — East St. Louis: The Rise and Fall of an Industrial River Town.” By the end of the year, voters had approved the restructuring of city government into a nonpartisan commission.
That was just the start. An investigation by the U.S. War Department led to the formation of the War Civics Committee, which was asked to craft a program to address the racial problems. But it went far beyond that. In his “Comprehensive Plan for East St. Louis,” noted St. Louis urban planner Harland Bartholomew in 1920 offered a vision for the city that included new city parks, public housing and transportation.
“It must be admitted that East St. Louis today offers anything but a pleasing appearance to its citizens and those who visit the city,” he concluded.
Soon, shovels were tearing into the ground to revolutionize the city’s architectural landscape. During the next decade, the transformation would include the opening of the Ainad Temple (1923), St. Mary’s Hospital (1925), the 1,700-seat Majestic Theater with its exotic Spanish Gothic facade (1927), and the 13-story Spivy Building (1929) with its Prairie School ornamental details inspired by famed architect Louis Sullivan.
And to let out-of-town visitors marvel at the city’s turnaround, an equally splendid hotel was obviously required. So in 1926, a group of investors, led by Conrad Reeb, president of Southern Illinois National Bank, organized the Central Hotel Corp. to develop suitable lodging in downtown East St. Louis.
Until that time, the city had no modern accommodations for visitors. Sure, there was the National Hotel at the stockyards, but it was already 50 years old, it was far from downtown and it catered to the livestock industry, not tourists and VIPs. The best the heart of the city could offer was the four-story Ill-Mo Hotel at Collinsville and Missouri avenues that George Diehl had built in 1900 and, ironically, was destroyed by fire in 1927.
So city fathers likely were bursting with pride when, on March 28, 1926, the East St. Louis Daily Journal trumpeted, “East St. Louis to Have 260-Room Hotel — Home to Future Conventions.” The article featured the drawing of a seven-story fireproof hotel in the Classical Revival style that would be built at 415 E. Broadway for an estimated $1.35 million. Reeb said “the hotel is a cinch” and indeed it was. The corporation was granted quick approval to sell stock, and Hallenberg & Co. of Chicago started construction less than three weeks later on April 15.
It was designed by the Widmer Engineering Co. in St. Louis, which had been founded in 1917 by Arthur Widmer, an engineer, architect and inventor. Before opening his own company, Widmer had made a name for himself by designing the structural skeleton of the 22-story Railway Exchange Building. It was St. Louis’ largest office building at that time and was thought to be the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world if you didn’t count the Panama Canal.
The resulting hotel had guests staying in luxury. It boasted air-conditioned rooms with private baths and a rooftop garden open to the public. And with its size and large ballroom on the top floor, it outclassed other major metro-east hotels, including the Hotel Belleville (1930) and Alton’s Hotel Stratford (1909).
But that was the whole idea. Reeb and his colleagues wanted the hotel to be a center of civic life in East St. Louis, with fine dining for the public and ample accommodations for meetings of fraternal, civic and labor groups. They even hired Joseph Taylor, a noted hotel manager, to run the place.
Their vision paid off immediately. Already on opening day — Oct. 5, 1927 — the hotel found itself hosting the state’s annual convention of Realtors, which saw 400 members converging for what was reported to be the city’s first-ever large statewide meeting. The grand opening took place 10 days later, and by the end of the year the large Cahokia Room dining area was in operation.
Advertisements in 1928 tout the Cahokia Room, a rathskeller, private dining rooms and the 600-person ballroom along with free parking for guests. Rooms boasted “circulating ice water” and a tub or shower, according to a 2013 application to have the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Room rates started at $2, but that was not insubstantial at the time, the application noted.
The hotel also gave the city its first and only professional radio studio. On Nov. 1, 1927, radio station WIL began cranking out its signal to the St. Louis area, according to the Journal. Six years later, Springfield, Mo., native Lester Cox fired up WTMV, which drew listenership from a combination of its music programming and St. Louis Cardinal baseball play-by-play announcements.
Yet despite all the hoopla and posh accoutrements, the 1929 stock market crash soon brought a history of hard financial times to the hotel. On July 15, 1931, the Journal announced that the Broadview would be sold at auction the next month. Four years later, the hotel again was sold at auction after United Bank & Trust Co., a major stockholder, failed to retire a $39,500 loan for which it had put its hotel stock up as collateral.
Still, the hotel would continue to be a magnet for major conventions during its first two decades. Organizations that made their way to East St. Louis included the Illinois State Academy of Science in 1932, the National Association of Power Engineers in 1939, District 1 of the Retail Clerks International Protective Association in 1942 and the Illinois State Archaeological Society in 1947.
A major feather in its cap came Feb. 15, 1942, when 1,150 Jewish men and women from Litchfield to Cairo gathered at the Broadview. It was the organizational meeting of the Jewish Federation of Southern Illinois, which is still going strong nearly 75 years later.
Eventually, the hotel even drew luminaries who used its rooms as convenient apartments. In 1946, Philadelphia Phillies Hall-of-Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, who had played for St. Louis in the late ’20s, was residing there while the Cardinals were winning the World Series across the river. He would continue to call it home until his death in 1950, according to “Wicked Curve: The Life and Troubled Times of Grover Cleveland Alexander” by John Skipper. Even East St. Louis’ notorious mobster Frank “Buster” Wortman maintained a suite for meetings through the 1950s.
By that time, however, public needs were changing. The shift of hotels away from downtown locations was on. In 1957, for example, the East St. Louis city directory listed 18 hotels and eight motels. It was that very same year, too, that Southern Illinois University would open extension campuses in East St. Louis and Alton, leasing the hotel’s second floor for office and residence space.
Soon, it would change its name to the Stadium Hotel, by which time its reputation was fading rapidly. In 1971, SIU signed a 15-year lease with an option to buy, which it did in 1978. A decade later, the school would start a $1.5 million renovation, replacing the hotel’s windows, altering the upper floors and enclosing the storefront openings on the ground floor.
In 2004, the university moved out and only the ghosts from its glory days remain to haunt the structure, which remains vacant. Still, of the 18 hotel buildings from that 1957 directory, only the Broadview, which made the National Registry list on Dec. 31, 2013 for its commercial and architectural significance, remains. Several years ago, the city, which now owns the building, rejected an attempt to raze it, but hopes to reopen it as a hotel have gone nowhere.
For an even more detailed look at its history along with floor plans and pictures, read the entire application by Michael Allen, director of the Preservation Research Office in St. Louis, at www.nps.gov/nr/feature/places/pdfs/13001006.pdf.
True or false: “As Time Goes By” was written for “Casablanca.”
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: While running for class president at Harvard, Lothrop Withington Jr. may have been the first person to swallow a goldfish, touching off a nationwide craze in 1939. It certainly didn’t do him any harm. A successful businessman, he died in 2013 at age 96 — but not before perplexing panelists about his culinary feat on “What’s My Line,” “To Tell the Truth” and “I’ve Got a Secret.”
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, firstname.lastname@example.org or call 618-239-2465.