The Muehlebach — once KC’s heart, still a proud monument

The letter box and elevators in the lobby of the Muehlebach Hotel, which is celebrating its 100th year of existence. The hotel used to be the social hub of Kansas City. Harry Truman used it so much that it became known as the "other White House."
The letter box and elevators in the lobby of the Muehlebach Hotel, which is celebrating its 100th year of existence. The hotel used to be the social hub of Kansas City. Harry Truman used it so much that it became known as the "other White House." The Kansas City Star

In truth, it’s easy to miss.

Just an old, brown-brick building in downtown Kansas City, plopped onto the nondescript intersection of 12th and Baltimore, its name trickling down the east wall in block letters, one at a time.


For the run-of-the-mill passerby, it’s difficult to imagine the building inspiring much wonder or interest. But for those of a certain age, the 12-story structure holds a kind of spell — a level of significance belied by its outward appearance.

When the Hotel Muehlebach first opened its doors — 100 years ago next month — it was a sight to behold. It was a palace, no doubt, and throughout much of the 1900s, it would evolve into what might very well have been the city’s social epicenter, hosting a seemingly endless carousel of presidents, athletes, writers and actors.

Inside its walls, a century’s worth of history played out. Love, life, death and, yes, even a ghost story or two.

Today, still standing among the surrounding skyscrapers yet closed for all but group gatherings, it serves as a kind of hidden jewel for those who know what they’re looking for. Now part of the Kansas City Marriott Downtown complex, it is a relic, a reminder of an older, grander time, when a hotel was more than just a place to rest your head between flights.

As Cynthia Savage, vice president of the Raphael Hotel Group and daughter of the late hotelier and onetime Muehlebach general manager Philip Pistilli, puts it: “There probably aren’t very many buildings in Kansas City that have seen the things this building has.”

It started as a place of worship.

Acquired by the Muehlebach Estate Co. in 1914, the land at 12th and Baltimore streets in downtown Kansas City was home to the old First Baptist Church.

But George E. Muehlebach — whose father had built a local empire through farming, real estate and the operation of a vineyard and brewery — had other plans. He promptly had the church demolished to pave the way for the construction of a 500-room hotel that would serve as a pillar of Kansas City social life.

Up it went, then, 12 stories high — at a total cost of $2 million, the equivalent of roughly $47 million today.

Even before its completion in May 1915, the hotel had piqued the city’s imagination.

When it was announced that a grand opening celebration would be held in two of the Muehlebach’s dining areas, 1,200 applications poured in for the 800 available seats.

Everything about the place oozed elegance. The lobby, with its blend of Southern and English Colonial feeling. Troves of fancy furniture with an Elizabethian theme. The mere breadth of the offerings: a banquet hall, multiple restaurants, a tea room, a ballroom, a music room, a drawing room …

And it wasn’t just the decor. Samuel J. Whitmore rounded up a collection of established hotel royalty: The manager, Joseph Reichle, had previously worked for the Waldorf in New York City and the Ritz in London, while the room clerks had come from the well-regarded Alexandria and Utah hotels in Los Angeles.

Even the help was selected with attention to detail. Whitmore boasted to The Star at the time that many of the hotel’s waiters could speak four to six languages.

It didn’t take long, meanwhile, for its reputation to stretch past the city’s downtown corridor.

On Dec. 5, 1922, just seven years after the hotel had opened, history was made inside the Plantation Grill when Carleton Coon and Joe Sanders aired what would come to be considered the first regular radio program performed by a band. The lack of radio stations at the time allowed their show to reach much farther than it would today, and the nightly performances of the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks Orchestra could be heard across the country — and even, on occasion, overseas.

Letters and telegraphs poured in, prompting the band to form its own fan club — and thus expanding the Muehlebach’s already considerable reputation.

“The Muehlebach was always the spot, it was always the place,” said Chuck Haddix, sound and recording specialist with the University of Missouri-Kansas City Marr Sound Archives, who has been researching the Coon-Sanders band, including its time broadcasting from the hotel.

Things progressed well over the course of the decade, as the hotel became increasingly ingrained in the downtown fabric.

Then the stock market crashed, and as the roaring ’20s gave way to the Great Depression of the 1930s and financial struggles besieged the city and nation, it seemed fair to wonder whether the Muehlebach would succumb to the pressures facing countless others.

And it might have, if not for a pint-sized man who would usher the hotel into its most prosperous era.

Barney Allis was a perfectionist, a tough little cuss who stood just 5 feet 3 and ran the hotel with something of an iron fist.

He had taken over as manager of the Muehlebach in 1931, after a stint running the nearby Baltimore Hotel, and it hadn’t taken long for him to make his presence known. His demanding expectations for employees became something of local legend; he’d wake them at all hours, even urging them, according to a long-ago story in The Star, not to golf in their free time.

Once, when he noticed an elevator operator had failed to fasten a button on his tunic, he is said to have walked over, ripped the man’s tunic apart, and then strolled away without a word.

Today, we might describe Allis as a case study in the particulars of the Napoleonic complex. But he was also a visionary, and as his tenure at the Muehlebach advanced, so, too, did the hotel’s reputation.

In his capacity as the hotel’s proprietor, Allis welcomed some of the era’s biggest names to Kansas City, from Helen Keller to Ernest Hemingway. The latter was said to have occasionally slept in a hotel bathtub during his time as a reporter with The Star.

So regular were the high-profile visitors that the hotel developed a code word for guests who warranted special attention. “Promptos,” they were called, and in those days, as the Depression fell further and further from memory, the hotel welcomed scores of them.

Babe Ruth. Frank Sinatra. Bob Hope. Elvis Presley. The Beatles.

Over the years, various presidents would rest their heads upon Muehlebach pillows — among them, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover — and Harry S. Truman’s presence in the hotel’s Presidential Suite would become so ubiquitous that the Muehlebach came to be known as “White House West.”

And it wasn’t just visiting royalty. For decades, Kansas Citians flocked to the hotel’s lavish ballrooms, restaurants and bars for various social gatherings and business meetings. There were dinners and parties and banquets, wedding receptions and committee get-togethers.

“It really was the dominant place for people to meet and socialize and do business,” said former Kansas City Mayor Richard Berkley, who later would occasionally conduct meetings there during his time in office. “It just was the center of activity in the downtown area, it was just a focal point.”

Under Allis, the hotel seemed to take on almost a life of its own, the kind of place that gave way to a collection of oft-repeated — if unverified — anecdotes.

In one, Allis, having been assured by a hotel manager that everything in the lobby was in order, proceeded to ask why, then, a dead man was currently seated there, having gone unnoticed.

In another Muehlebach tale, a hotel employee was said to have seen the typically disheveled Howard Hughes standing in the hotel lobby and — figuring him to be a man who had wandered in off the streets — had him promptly removed from the building.

And then, of course, there’s the legend of the Blue Lady — a blonde-haired, 30-something apparition who allegedly stalked the hotel grounds, in search of a lost lover.

By the early 1960s, however, Allis had had his fill. He sold the hotel, which eventually became part of the Radisson hotel chain.

“Never die in your own hotel,” he had always said.

And he didn’t.

Three months after the sale, Allis dropped dead in front of the Aladdin Hotel, just down the street from the Muehlebach.

The hotel would never be the same.

Kansas City underwent significant change in the latter part of the 20th century, and that spelled trouble for the Muehlebach.

Other, newer hotels began to pop up, each one, it seemed, nicer and fancier than the last. Stand-alone restaurants and bars became increasingly en vogue. Westport and the Plaza emerged as the city’s de facto social hubs, as downtown foot traffic began to thin out during the ’70s and ’80s.

The Muehlebach’s role as the city’s social hub, in effect, had diminished.

But the Muehlebach’s memory is carried on by the few still living who experienced the hotel in its heyday.

Regina Pachter remembers the majesty of the Muehlebach during its glory days, and on a recent weekday afternoon inside her home, she smiled as she recalled the hotel she once frequented with her late husband.

Now 99 years old, Pachter was a regular at the hotel during the ’40s. She attended banquets and parties. She co-chaired an organization with Barney Allis’ wife. Once, she played the piano at the Muehlebach.

“You felt like you were being treated like royalty,” she said of her experiences at the hotel.

There’s also Kurt Mayo. Years ago, when he was a college student at Penn Valley junior college, he worked an internship at the front desk of the Muehlebach, and he never did forget the experience.

Not long ago, his daughter’s wedding reception was held in the old Muehlebach lobby, and Mayo spent the occasion proudly telling guests that he’d once worked behind the front desk, which, during the reception, served as the bar.

During a career that has been dedicated to hotels — he’s now general manager at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kansas City, Kan. — Mayo has maintained a long-standing connection to the Muehlebach.

Though it had already begun to lose some of its prominence by the time he arrived at the hotel in the early ’70s, there was no questioning its reputation as a city landmark.

“Even though it was struggling a bit,” Mayo said, “it was still the granddaddy hotel.”

At the moment, the hallways and lobby of the granddaddy are mostly empty, save for an occasional passerby.

It’s a recent weekday afternoon, and Savage and downtown Marriott general manager Rusty Macy are giving a tour of the original building.

Though some areas have been renovated, many of the historic spaces inside the Muehlebach have been restored to maintain their original look. The old-fashioned lobby, complete with key-slots behind the front desk. The old bar on Baltimore, its old wooden floors still intact.

And while its upper floors featuring roughly 150 rooms worth of floor space are no longer in use — and haven’t been since 1986 — events are still regularly held in the hotel’s public spaces: meetings, conventions, wedding receptions.

Today, it’s the nearby Marriott that attracts the business kings and convention crowds.

Connected to the old Muehlebach building via walkway and also managed by the Raphael Hotel Group, the newer Marriott spaces — which recently underwent a $30 million renovation — represent a stark contrast to the historic building. With 983 guestrooms and roughly 93,000 square feet of event space, as well as a new, modern lobby, the Marriott complex is a go-to convention hotel, as well as the lodging of choice for various visiting celebrities and entertainers.

Still, there’s no denying the Muehlebach’s importance.

“The Muehlebach has been a jewel to the city and to the hotel industry,” said Bud Nicol, executive director of the Hotel and Lodging Association of Greater Kansas City — whose office wall is adorned with a posterized tribute to the Muehlebach.

To Savage, it holds a special significance; her father, Philip Pistilli, first went to work at the Muehlebach in 1954 as a Barney Allis protege, and the daughter still remembers coming to the hotel as a child, along with brother Kevin Pistilli, when her father was running the place.

On those occasions when she gives a tour of the hotel grounds to interested guests, Savage said, she still notices their eyes light up when they arrive at the old Muehlebach.

Currently, there are no plans to reopen the building’s guestrooms — though Savage doesn’t rule it out at some point.

And while restoration of a historic hotel may be desirable, it doesn’t solve the city’s need for a marquee convention hotel. Mayor Sly James told his City Council colleagues at a discussion in January that the city needs a new convention headquarters hotel with 800 to 1,000 rooms.

“We need a hotel that has been built since 1985,” he said. “If we’re going to compete with the big boys, we need to be the big boys, too.”

Downtown has made a resurgence recently, with the construction of the Sprint Center and the Power & Light District. The city’s streetcar project, expected to debut in 2016, figures to be another step forward.

Yet, even as time moves forward, there remains a focus on maintaining the essence of a building that has been as much a part of the city’s fabric as any other in the city’s history.

“We look now at all the improvements we make, and they’re for the future,” Savage said.

“But there’s still a way to preserve the history.”

The Star’s Lynn Horsley contributed to this report.

To reach Dugan Arnett, call 816-234-4039 or send email to darnett@kcstar.com.