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History Made: Hotel Baker the 'Gem of the Valley'

Published: Saturday, May 25, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, May 27, 2013 1:07 a.m. CDT

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ST. CHARLES – With one man’s inheritance and a lofty dream, the river town of St. Charles was brought to life, and the Hotel Baker – its beating heart.

Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, Hotel Baker was once known as the “Gem of the Valley,” a playground for celebrities, powerful politicos and the wealthy when it opened on the western banks of the Fox River in the Roaring Twenties.

In 1918, local philanthropist Col. Edward J. Baker and his niece, Dellora Norris, each inherited a large sum of money from Baker’s older sister and her husband, John Warne Gates, the founder of the Texas Oil Company – now Texaco.

Natalie Gacek, a St. Charles native and the Heritage Center's Museum's director, said Baker and Norris wanted to put their inheritance back into their hometown, a decision that greatly affected the landscape of the city.

“They had been born and raised in [St. Charles], and the colonel wanted to build a hotel where all of his friends could come and stay, and where he could entertain politicians … and other dignitaries,” she said, adding that building Hotel Baker and the Arcada Theatre cemented the town as a cultural destination.

Baker chose to purchase a plot of land that had been functioning as a garbage dump – the former site of the Old Haines Mill. Across the Main Street Bridge, the Norrises constructed the Arcada Theatre the same year.

Baker intended to use $600,000 for the hotel’s construction and ended up paying about $1 million – the equivalent of $13 million today – to construct the Spanish- and Mission-Revival Style riverfront hotel, according to Gacek.

The hotel opened in June 1928 with a lavish party for about 300 guests. The celebration took place in the hotel’s iconic Rainbow Room, named for the multicolored lights that lit up glass blocks on the ballroom floor, a feature that still exists. At the time, a room cost $2.50 a night. By the 1940s, it had increased to $6 a night.

Many celebrities have passed through the hotel’s double doors, including Louis Armstrong and Guy Lombardo, who performed in the Rainbow Room; former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, Gerald Ford and Billy Graham.

When John F. Kennedy visited St. Charles during his race for the presidency, Gacek said, local Richard Nixon supporters displayed the phrase “We like you better as a senator Mr. Kennedy” on the Arcada Theatre marquee.

Some more recent celebrity guests to visit Hotel Baker include Hugh Jackman, Ed Asner, Frankie Avalon, Dana Carvey, David Cassidy, Davy Jones, Bret Michaels, Don Rickles, Martin Short, Rick Springfield and the band Alice in Chains.

Similar to today – in the past – artists who performed at the Arcada often made the walkable commute across the bridge to Hotel Baker, a partnership current owner Rowena Salas believes Baker and Norris always had in mind.

“I have always said that the Arcada and Hotel Baker have a symbiotic relationship,” said Salas, who owns the hotel with her husband, Joe. “I can’t believe that [the Norrises and Bakers] built them to not have a relationship – it was for a reason.”

Economic difficulty

The construction of the hotel and theater sparked an economic boom for St. Charles. However, the hotel itself was not profitable for Baker or those who succeeded him, until it was auctioned off in the early 2000s.

“[The hotel] never made money until we came,” Salas said. "Col. Baker had deep pockets; he ran the hotel more for his own enjoyment."

Gacek added that Baker never intended to make money off the hotel, and after running the business for 31 years still died a wealthy man.

After World War II, the hotel's luster began to wear off, and Baker's death in 1959 sealed the fate of the once opulent estate.

Baker bequeathed the hotel to Norris, who donated it to Lutheran Social Services of Illinois in 1968, when it was morphed into a senior living facility under the same name. During Lutheran Social Services' ownership, the former hotel parking garage was razed to make way for Carroll Towers, and the Rainbow Room floor was restored.

In 1996, the building was purchased by businessmen Craig A. Frank – who renovated the Arcada Theatre – and Neil D. Johnson, who spent $9 million to restore the hotel to its former glory. They closed the hotel in 2001 after missing a mortgage payment, according to research compiled by the heritage center.

When the Salases took over ownership as a real estate investment, Salas said the city of St. Charles encouraged the couple to reopen as a hotel.

"It helped that the history of the hotel already dictated what it could be or would be," she said.

During the family's ownership, Salas said they've come across a few pieces of hidden history. A mural was discovered beneath a layer of stucco on the ceiling of the Waterfront Room depicting a cloud-filled blue sky with outdoor elements, such as ivy and trellises which were remnants of Baker's lounge-like trophy room, designed to resemble an outdoor courtyard.

The future

As far as what the future will bring to Hotel Baker, Gacek said she's thrilled to see the building as a hotel again, and thriving in downtown St. Charles.

"It’s still one of the most widely recognized buildings for anyone who has either visited or grown up in town," Gacek said. "People use it as a point of reference, and it epitomizes St. Charles, along with the Municipal Building and the Arcada Theatre."

Salas hopes the building will be around for years to come.

"It's going to be here until after me," she said. "It has a perpetual life."

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