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The Elms Hotel

Photo by
Kevin T. Morgan
Spring 2007

Built in 1888, the original Elms Hotel was a wooden, wide veranda structure, with pine interior and handmade terra cotta fireplaces. It was destroyed by fire on 1889. The second Elms Hotel opened in July, 1909, just south and east of the former hotel site. It was also destroyed by fire in 1910. The third Elms Hotel was rebuilt by the Elms Realty Company of native stone and opened in 1912. One advertisement which appeared in a 1910 Kansas City directory proclaimed "Open the year round. The New Elms is thoroughly modern. Surrounded by a beautiful 10-acre park. Bath house in hotel. Rates: $2.50, $3.50, $4 and $5 per day. American plan. Grand ball every Saturday night. John Emmke, Mgr."

Guests registered at the Elms included the names of Roosevelt and Rockefellar, as well as Hollywood celebrities and Chicago underworld figures. Other guests included oil magnate Harry Sinclair, artist Thomas Hart Benton, and television personality Dave Garroway. The most famous guest may have been President Harry S. Truman, who spent his 1948 election night at the hotel. That morning in his hometown of Independence, Missouri, Truman cast his ballot and posed for the photographers. He made a lunchtime appearance at the Rockwood Country Club where a party given by Roger T. Sermon, Independence mayor, was held on his behalf. Later that day, Truman, accompanied by two Secret Service agents came to the Elms Hotel, took of the baths, ate a light dinner and went to bed, confounding most area newspapers as to his whereabouts.

The Elms Hotel remains to testify, not only to the extravagant tastes expressed by resort architecture in the Victorian age, but also to the premier role held by the town of Excelsior Springs as a popular health resort. The Elms Hotel, designed by Kansas City architects Jackson and McIlvain in the Tudor Revival style, reflects the innovations and standards of comfort that were incorporated into all "first-class" hotels of the period. The hotel featured a number of sun rooms, a ballroom, and a vast lobby. The stairways were constructured of steel and marble, for durability as well as beauty. The ballroom was beamed and the walls mirrored. The 225 rooms contained private baths and featured built-in wardrobes. They were designed to have outside exposures with from two to four windows. The hotel featured various facilities where guests could take the waters, including tubs where mineral waters were pumped in. The women's bathroom, in addition to the water baths, was equipped for mud baths as well.

In 1922 the Elms Realty Company sold the hotel to Dr. A. S. McCleary, operator of a Kansas City sanitarium, who would later build the McCleary Clinic in Excelsior Springs and a private 3-story mansion in Excelsior Springs. He sold the hotel in 1925 to the Roberts Hotel Company of Chicago. During the 1920's, gambling became an additional attraction at the hotel. The hotel continued to be popular until the time of the depression. In 1932 the medicinal effectiveness of mineral waters came under attack by the American Medical Association. That same year, the hotel was declared bankrupt and was purchased by the Epply Hotel chain. During the 1930's and 1940's there were several changes of ownership.

In 1956 the Elms Hotel was purchased by the Sheraton Corporation of America, and then was quickly resold to the Fields Hotel Corporation. By 1960 the hotel was in bankruptcy again. The following year it was repurchased by the Sheraton chain, who kept it open sporadically until 1971. Then they sold it to Gotham Hotels, Inc. of New York for the sole purchase, it would seem, of having a tax write-off. A delegation of Excelsior Springs officials traveled to New York to encourage the hotel owners to restore and reopen the hotel. In 1973, a local group of investors were able to purchase the hotel and made plans to restore it to its former grandeur. The financing was inadequate and within three years it was put up for auction at the annual tax sale held by the Clay County Collector. No bids were received until 1976 when it was purchased by Kansas City businessman Robert Bisbee. He and his wife, Carol, begain restoring the hotel and reopened it in 1977. The old massage and water-therapy facilities were removed and replaced with new spa facilities, including hot baths and an interior oval swimming track.

In 1982, the Bisbee's sold the hotel to Elms Hotel Associates, who converted a portion of the hotel to time-share apartments. The company entered into an agreement with the City of Excelsior Springs for redevelopment of properties surrounding the hotel as the Elms Redevelopment Corporation. When the company took bankruptcy, the homes on Elms Boulevard were also foreclosed on. The hotel has changed hands several times since and survives today, known as The Elms Resort & Spa. It is a Historic Hotel of America and is a local landmark as well as being listed individually on the National Register of Historic Places.

Click here for background on the first two Elms hotels.

The Elms Pump House

The former pump house for the Elms is a simple, gable-roof brick building. The building is on the former site of the Sulpho Saline Well, a frame building which included an 80-ft. high well tower in 1894. The well itself was 1100-ft. deep. By 1900, a bowling alley had been constructed north of the well, and a bath house and swimming pool was immediately adjoining to the south. By 1913, though, this small brick pump house was constructed. It served as the pump house through at least 1942. When the Elms Hotel burned, its owner also happened to own the Sulpho Saline well. The hotel loss was such a substantial one, that the owner said he would be compelled to shut down unless he could sell the water to help defray expenses. Although some said it would kill the town if the mineral waters were sold, the city board gave him permission. At one time, so much Sulpho Saline was sold that the well employed two girls to dispense water, as well as a cashier. They were open from 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. The familiar sign of Sulpho Saline was "Three Owls", with the verse "We're out all night; Til broad daylight; But we drink; SULPHO SALINE; In the morning". The building remains on the property today.

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