Rocky River’s Hotel Westlake a storied survivor: Elegant Cleveland Plain Dealer 4/26/2009

By Evelyn Theiss, The Plain Dealer 

on April 26, 2009

This ongoing series looks back at the finest elements of Cleveland’s stylish history, as shown in architecture, fashion and other cultural touchstones.

ROCKY RIVER — The living couldn’t get much easier in the 1920s than at Rocky River’s “Pink Palace,” which flashes into view just as you cross the bridge from Lakewood.

At the Hotel Westlake, maid service was taken care of, and you could send your clothing down to the valet to be laundered and pressed. Your car — a Peerless, perhaps? — would be washed in the adjacent garage. If you needed your hair cut or styled, you just went to the barber or beauty salon downstairs.

There was a playground in the back for your children, right by the tennis courts. Practically next door were the stables, and if you had a sailboat or “yacht,” you could dock it at the slips below.

On a slower day, you could just play on the miniature golf course, then have tea on the terrace overlooking the river. Men would enjoy their afternoon cigars with the newspaper, on the indoor mezzanine level.

Should any of your activities lead to the need for aspirin, the switchboard would connect you to Marshall’s Drugstore, a few steps across the street, though they’d certainly deliver.

And you never had to cook or do dishes. There was always a place to dine — the Marine Dining Room, the Lacquer Room, the Commodore Lounge — for elegant or simple meals.

The ballroom — people still remember its grand staircase — was the scene of many weddings and cotillions; the smaller party rooms and mezzanine were popular for card-playing, a favorite entertainment then.

Guests, said management in a newsletter of the time, “need merely occupy their quarters at the hotel, and have their days to devote entirely to their own personal affairs and to the business and pleasure of living. … Today the modern hotel is the ideal home.”

Better even. There was no need for servants that “Mother” had to supervise: “For, after all, the servant problem is almost as much of a nuisance as doing the work herself.”

In this era, when Rocky River was still so countrified that it was referred to as Cleveland’s “vegetable garden,” the Hotel Westlake represented the ultimate in swanky sophistication, even though it happened to be on the West Side.

A glamorous stopover

The location, on a bluff overlooking the Rocky River, not far south of its mouth, had always been a place for hospitality. In 1816, Wright’s Tavern stood here — and a few decades later, it was replaced by the rambling Silverthorne Inn and Tavern. Its owner, Jacob Silverthorn, was known as a “congenial tavernkeeper.”

But when the Miramar Apartments Co. decided to build the Hotel Westlake in 1923, this was a whole new level of luxury. It was part of a flurry of buildings that were known as residential hotels in Cleveland. The 1920s brought such places as the Alcazar and the Wade Park Manor, among nearly a dozen others, most radiating from the University Circle area.

The western location, along with its Mediterranean brick-and-stucco architecture (a combination of Old Florida and Deco-era Hollywood), made it an immediate landmark. Then, too, there was its pink hue, referred to by some as a shade of “strawberries and cream,” and the striking lake and river views it provided.

There was so much activity that the 400-room residential hotel even had its own weekly glossy magazine, 10 or 12 pages an issue, called From the Windows of Westlake.

Besides articles of interest to guests and residents, it printed area train, bus, boat and plane schedules (to such cities as Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chicago), as well as the showtimes for movies and theatrical productions in downtown Cleveland.

And of course, it divulged the goings-on of guests and residents: In October 1929, “Col. R.O. Davies has returned from New York City and is spending the fall months with us. ‘Fit as a fiddle,’ says he.” And: “Mr. D.K. White announces the opening of his evening classes in golf instruction.”

By then, it was clear that the Westlake had become a convenient favorite for people connected to the new aviation industry. The hotel became a must stop for aviators, as well as others involved in the airline business; it also served as headquarters for the leading women’s flying clubs, including the Ninety-Nines and the Betsy Ross Aviators.

Amelia Earhart, a frequent guest, was interviewed at the hotel in 1935. She commented on a lucky charm given her for an upcoming long flight: “I think a good mechanic is much better than a lucky charm.”

Other aviators who visited included James H. Doolittle Jr., Wiley Post and Charles Lindbergh, though whether Lindbergh stayed overnight is uncertain.

But in the days before night flying, the Westlake was the place for pilots to sleep over — it was the closest hotel to Cleveland Municipal Airport (not yet named Hopkins). Many of them recognized the building from their planes, since the 20-foot-high sign on the Westlake’s roof created a marker visible at an elevation of 4,000 feet.

Adding to the glamour quotient, a number of stewardesses (as they were then known) lived here, and some airlines also kept suites for employee layovers.

Tom Barrett, a longtime Rocky River resident and member of the historical society, says his aunt, Jeanette Curtis, lived at the Hotel Westlake with two stewardess roommates in the ’40s.

“It was a safe place, convenient to the airport, and there really weren’t other reputable hotels on the West Side at the time,” he says.

In October 1929, for instance, the Westlake’s newsletter reported that “Skyways Inc. has two of its most able men living in one of the bachelor apartments,” and further that a Mr. H.L. Kindred, operations manager and vice president of Continental Airlines, and his family “were making the Westlake their Cleveland home.”

High society meets Depression

Plenty of families made the Westlake their home, too. Old photos in the Rocky River Historical Society archives show children playing on the swings in the back and sledding down the hill behind the building, a few feet from the river.

The ’20s had brought with them a new trend: Those who did not want the complications of owning a home — perhaps they wintered elsewhere, for example — would find the new concept of residential hotels a friendly one.

Of course, this was the time of Prohibition. It’s hard to imagine that the Westlake’s proximity to the river and lake wouldn’t have helped some cunning bootlegger supply hotel residents with hootch.

In 1931, the Cleveland News did report the arrest of a “society bootlegger” who had responded to a call for the delivery of six pints of whiskey from a federal undercover agent staying at the hotel.

While residents enjoying the hotel-residence lifestyle might not have noticed, the Great Depression had its effect on tourism. The hotel owners defaulted and operated the place under receivership until it was sold to a committee of bondholders in 1935.

Ruth Regula, who has lived in Rocky River her whole life, still remembers her mom taking her to the Candyland ice cream parlor across from the Westlake in the early ’40s.

“Rocky River was a rural community then, mostly known for its greenhouses, so it was a special treat seeing all the well-dressed people going in and out of the hotel,” she recalls.

“I remember the weddings and dances there, and going down the wonderful staircase.”

For those who could afford it, dances, parties and other celebrations drew people to the Westlake, through the Depression, World War II and beyond. Tom Barrett’s parents got married in the ballroom in 1949. He also recalls the colorful story he heard about a windowless room on the lower level of the river side of the building, where — one of his uncles told him — stag films were shown.

By 1953, more and more guests were arriving in cars than on the trains, so a double-deck parking garage was added.

Nine years later, a spectacular blaze hit the building. An alarm went off at 6 a.m. on Jan. 25, 1962, for a kitchen grease fire, and at 7:30 a.m., another alarm sounded on the roof.

The hotel had long been deemed fireproof, and that may have been what limited the fire damage to the roof, which was destroyed. Water damage occurred throughout the building, though, and 175 residents — 160 of them permanent — were evacuated for many weeks.

The extremely popular Silverthorne Bar, though, reopened the next day.

Run-down palace is rehabilitated

During the next two decades, the hotel slipped into seediness; even the exterior was a dingy pale gray. As Barrett recalls, “It essentially became a big rooming house, and it got kind of rough.”

Architect Andrejs Smiltars, who worked on the rehabilitation in the ’80s, agreed.

“It had once been the place to go for parties, just very elegant, but it had become rundown,” he says. “It had been a landmark, though, and there were no problems with the structure.

“We didn’t have to do a lot of work to bring it back to habitable shape, just a lot of cosmetic work and changing out the plumbing and electrical and mechanical systems.”

Developer Scott Maurer was behind the project. Besides reconfiguring the interior — making fewer but larger units and adding units at the penthouse level — the exterior was restored to its original coral color.

By the ’80s, condominiums were clearly a more profitable venture than hotel rooms in Rocky River. The condo units, which varied in size and went up to three bedrooms, ranged in price at that time from $77,000 to $244,000.

The luxurious service and wide-ranging leisure amenities of the ’20s and ’30s are only a dreamy memory, though there was a burst of VIP vibrancy as a number of sports figures moved in in the ’80s. The Silverthorne is now an empty party room; residents are more likely to go to Salmon Dave’s across the street for libations.

But in Rocky River and from the western side of Lakewood, the presence of the big pink “hotel” — once a drawing card for movie stars, aviators and local glitterati — still makes a head-turning statement.

It’s an edifice that continues to fire the imagination — and inspires a longing for a simpler yet somehow more sophisticated time.


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