1904 fire prompted Monmouth leaders to pursue modern hotel
MONMOUTH, Ill. — At the turn of the 20th century, Monmouth boasted five hotels, but in fact it didn’t boast too loudly, as all were throwbacks to the previous century, with few creature comforts such as private bathrooms and electric lighting. As early as 1898, a local corporation called the Monmouth Hotel Company had been formed with a stock of $25,000 with the intent of building a $40,000 hotel.
Business travelers visiting town at the time could choose from the Arlington Hotel (northeast corner of First Street and First Avenue), the Baldwin House (314 South Main), Hotel Hammond (southwest corner of Main and Boston), Union Hotel (northeast corner of First Street and Second Avenue), and Hotel Richardson (northwest corner of Broadway and Second Street).
Perhaps of more concern than plumbing and lighting was the issue of fire safety. The antiquated hotels were framed with wood and had a limited number of exits. A case in point was the Hotel Richardson, which caught fire on June 9, 1904, and was severely damaged — the fourth time in recent years that fire had struck the hotel once visited by Lincoln and Douglas. One of its owners, Chauncey DeWitt Hardin, told the press that he was favorable to supporting a growing initiative among local businessmen to construct a modern fireproof hotel in downtown Monmouth.
Plow manufacturer J. Howard Pattee, who had just returned from his winter home in California, announced that he would put up the money for a first-class hotel if the city would donate the lot. Just 12 years earlier, Pattee had converted a former church across from his South Main residence into a community opera house. He now had visions of building a hotel just south of the opera house, at the northeast corner of Main and Second Avenue. At 69, Pattee acknowledged he was too old to be actively involved in the enterprise, but would support it for the good of the community.
On the evening of Aug. 23, a mass meeting was held at the courthouse to discuss Pattee’s offer — $60,000 to construct a hotel with a 150-foot fronting on Main Street. Called by W. W. McCullough, president of the Monmouth Business Men’s Association, the meeting was attended by prominent businessmen, all of whom heartily endorsed the project and ended the meeting with the motto, “We will make it a go.”
Pattee had previously partnered with local capitalists J. Ross Hanna, W. D. Brereton and John D. Lynch to draw up plans for a hotel that would have 60 sleeping rooms and designed so that 40 additional rooms could be added in the future. According to the Warren County Democrat, “It now depends upon the spirit of enterprise in Monmouth whether there will be a new hotel built in this city. The names mentioned above are assurance enough to every one here that the proposal can and will be carried out, if the people are willing to do their part.”
It’s uncertain whether the spirit of enterprise foundered or if political differences interfered (Pattee and his partners were staunch Democrats in a heavily Republican city), but by October 1904, progress on the hotel initiative had stalled. Two hoteliers from Chicago, Joseph and Ed Marshall, announced they would invest $30,000 to $35,000 in a 75-room hotel if the Pattee proposal fell through. Another Chicago proposal came forth in January 1905, when the Hotel Promotion and Equipment Co. offered to build and pay rent on a 50-room $40,000 hotel if a local stock company could raise half of the funding.
By May, the Monmouth Hotel Company, originally organized in 1898, had decided to again move forward and 180 citizens subscribed to its stock. Twelve proposals for the site of a hotel were considered and the nine directors selected the property of Minnie Babcock on the north side of East Broadway between First and Second streets. The lots were purchased for $8,500 and in July the Babcock house was moved north from the property to face Archer Avenue.
Herbert Hewitt, the promising young Peoria architect who would later design Monmouth College’s Wallace Hall and Carnegie Library, was selected to design the hotel, while the Monmouth firm of Davis & Cochran won the construction contract with a bid of $42,347. By October 1905, the foundation was being laid.
April 1906 saw resumption of construction, and in July the directors gave a 10-year lease to twin brothers Ray and Ralph Fraser of Taylorville to operate the hotel. In August, Colwell & Co. was selected to furnish the drapes, shades and 3,000 yards of Wilton carpet. Storefronts on the street level were advertised for lease, with a jewelry store and a barbershop among the first tenants.
At a meeting of the board of directors in August, the hotel was officially given a name: “The Colonial.” It was a curious choice because the building’s appearance was far from colonial. It instead reflected an upscale style of public architecture then being advanced by the New York City firm of McKim, Mead and White. Known as Italian Renaissance Revival, the style typically featured rectangular buildings with flat roofs and classical details such as columns, porch arcades, heavy balusters and broadly overhanging, bracketed eaves.
At the end of September, it was announced that within two weeks Davis & Cochran would have completed their contract and the hotel would be ready for the decorators. The top two stories were finished and a large force of men was then laying the floor in the dining room and installing the pillars. The Fraser brothers had placed orders for all the furniture and fixtures, which would arrive the following week.
Still, construction dragged on, and a highly anticipated district convention of the Dental Society of Illinois was rescheduled twice. Finally, on Dec. 11, hotel stockholders christened the building with a banquet in the dining room, and the dental society convened the following day. On Dec. 14, the Fortnightly Club met for what would be the first formal banquet in the hotel’s history.
Shortly after the Frasers began operating the hotel, Ray was diagnosed with sarcoma and had a leg amputated. Following his death in May 1907, Ralph became the sole operator and when the lease expired in 1915, he and his mother, Martha, purchased the outstanding stock of the company.
Martha Fraser died in 1923. Ralph died in 1947, leaving the hotel to his son, Raymond, who had managed the hotel since his retirement. In 1970, the National Bank of Monmouth decided to expand its operations and purchased the hotel, constructing on the site a four-lane drive-in bank that included a community room and an office for the chamber of commerce. In honor of the hotel’s history, it named the new facility the Colonial Drive-In.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.