Kansas City is rich in vintage hotel buildings. There are the gothic arches of the Kansas City Hotel, the golden winged statue in the lobby of the Phillips to the ornate President with its cool Drum Room cocktail bar, the elaborately adorned facade of The Aladdin.
But right in the middle of them all sits the 1915 Muehlebach, now part of the Marriott Kansas City Downtown hotel complex, which also includes a 1975 tower and a 1996 addition.
The original 12-story hotel still stands at the corner of 12th Street and Baltimore, its ballroom, tea room and meeting rooms serving guests of the hotel complex, while its guest rooms, lobby and lovely street-level bar await new futures, according to Director of Marketing Cynthia Savage.
Savage’s father Philip Pistilli got his start in 1954 as a dishwasher at the Muehlebach and went on to help launch the boutique hotel concept with his Raphael Hotels in Chicago, Kansas City and San Francisco. He later ran the hotel where he got his start.
That kind of personal history hints at the many stories that lurk inside the walls of the grand old dame, designed by Chicago’s Holabird & Root for the Muehlebach family.
Who was Muehlebach?
The name Muehlebach is rooted deep in KC history.
Born in Argau, Switzerland in 1833, George E. Muehlebach Sr. and his three brothers and their sister landed in Kansas City (Westport, to be more exact) in 1859 after making a stop in Lafayette, Indiana.
After starting a saddlery and then a freight business, he and his brother John launched their eponymous brewery in 1869, buying the Main Street Brewery in what is now the Crossroads Arts District, which boasts a concentration of craft breweries today. The brewery was sold to Schlitz in 1956.
The stadium that for decades was home to baseball’s Kansas City Blues, Monarchs, Athletics and Royals and football’s Chiefs was named for Muehlebach when it was construction in 1923. It became Municipal Stadium in the mid-1950s.
The birth of the hotel
Muehlebach died in 1905 and 23-year-old George Jr. found himself at the top of the brewery and his father’s real estate company, which had amassed an impressive portfolio of Kansas City property.
Young George Jr. was a savvy businessman and across his first eight years running the brewery, he doubled its sales and its size.
He also funded the ballpark at 22nd and Brooklyn in 1923, but by then, he’d already built his soaring brown brick Beaux Arts hotel, tapping one of the Midwest’s best-known architecture firms for the task.
“It took one year to build,” says Savage. “They had no electricity, trucks or anything, so that is kind of amazing. One year.”
It cost $2 million to build – on the site of the Old First Baptist Church – and it is beautiful.
The ballroom, which has been updated but maintains some original details, remains in use today. The lobby and reception area just outside its doors has that classic hotel lobby look, with decorated pillars and moldings galore.
It also has exposed beam ceilings, a sprawling and intricate tile floor, mahogany columns, more ornate moldings and a marble fireplace flanked by windows that open into the slightly raised tea room behind, which boasts its own fireplace.
There are brass elevator doors, built-in bookshelves in a library-style nook, a gorgeous brass water fountain (that still works!) and just across, a quartet of original phone booths.
Behind the front desk is a classic old hotel wall of mail and key slots for the 500 rooms.
Down a few stairs and with windows facing Baltimore Avenue is a great cafe/saloon with what appears to be the original (or at least an early) bar and back bar.
Down a step is a table seating area separated by decorated railings. Glass-door display cabinets adorn the walls on opposite ends.
Outside, there’s limestone and terra cotta decoration from the street level – with its line of three-story arched window openings – all the way up to the cornice, including friezes and window hoods.
It all says, “stately accommodations.”
“It was a traveler's hotel,” rather than a residential one, says Savage, “ and it was very luxurious at the time.”
History checks in
The Muehlebach was THE place to stay in Kansas City, that is quite clear.
To ensure that, Muehlebach tapped the team of Samuel Whitmore and Joseph Reichl and the Mid-Continent Hotel Company (later Whitmore Hotel Company), who had worked with The Ritz in London and New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, to manage the property.
Every president from Teddy Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan spent at least a night in the hotel, as did pop stars like Al Jolson, Sinatra, Elvis and the Beatles (who stayed in the Terrace Penthouse on the 18th floor and held a press conference at the hotel); movie stars like Jean Harlow, Mae West and Mary Pickford; sports legends like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig; and writers like Ernest Hemingway.
Helen Keller stayed at the Muehlebach and famed director Cecil B. DeMille’s daughter was married there.
“Anybody who is anybody since 1917 has been here,” says Savage.
“Truman Capote wrote for the Kansas City Star, and he wrote ‘In Cold Blood’ in this lobby. Hemingway also worked for the Kansas City Star and was here.”
In fact, Hemingway set part of his novel, “Across the River and Into the Trees” at the Muehlebach.
Most of these folks were guests at the hotel when it was owned by Barney Allis, who arrived in 1931, and who was so important to Kansas City that he got an entire square block named for him: The popular Barney Allis Plaza sits right outside the doors of the Muehlebach addition.
In 1938, the Barbershop Harmony Society got its start at the hotel, too. Sixteen years earlier, the hotel was the site of the first regular radio broadcast by an orchestra, in this case Carelton Coon and Joe Sanders’ Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawk Orchestra.
In 1956, the Muehlebach became the first hotel in the world to have built-in televisions.
But surely the biggest moment in the hotel’s history was when President Truman – a Missouri native who later died in Kansas City – signed legislation in the Presidential Suite in 1948, authorizing aid to Turkey and Greece as part of his post-war Truman Doctrine.
Truman was at the hotel so often that it had become known as the “White House West.”
Although the Depression squashed an earlier plan to expand the Muehlebach, in 1952, Allis built a 17-story addition to the west of the building (on the site of the Gayety Theater) and a parking structure went up to the south in 1966 (on the site of the Orpheum Theater).
By then, in 1962, Allis had sold the hotel and died a few months later in front of The Aladdin Hotel.
In 1976, Radisson renovated the hotel, which operated for another decade.
“In the 1980s, this whole area kind of became under disrepair,” says Savage. “The whole hotel was closed.”
The previous year, the giant Vista Hotel opened across the street from the annex and beginning in 1987 the Vista was managed by Pistilli’s Raphael Hotel Group. Five years later, that building became the Marriott Kansas City Downtown.
The Marriott era
The Marriott’s owners bought the Muehlebach in 1996 and tore down the 1952 addition, replacing it with the current structure. The complex was renovated between 2011 and 2015, resulting in nearly 1,000-room hotel you see today.
Those 1,000 rooms do not include the guest rooms in the original Muehlebach, however.
“They're just mothballed,” says Savage. “They've been stripped of everything, and right now they're in some negotiations with a group that might make some condos out of those.”
The hotel would continue to use the public spaces, however, and is looking at reopening that beautiful cafe/bar space off the Baltimore side of the lobby.
Standing in the now-quiet, empty lobby – once full of furniture and guests, a hive of activity – it’s easy to see it coming back to life.
“It's got beautiful detail, and it’s got some really cool historic things,” says Savage, sounding wistful, likely at least in part because of her own family history embedded in the Muehlebach.
“It looks remarkably the same.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.