By Jessie Shattuck St. Charles Heritage Center Intern
One of St. Charles greatest philanthropists, Colonel Edward J. Baker spared no expense when it came to building the Hotel Baker. Originally planning to spend only $600,000 on the hotel’s construction, Baker ended up spending around $1,000,000, which is equivalent to over thirteen million dollars today, in order to include the latest conveniences and to perfect every aesthetic detail. Popularly known as the “Gem of the Valley” and “Beauty Spot of the Fox River Valley”, Hotel Baker had everything to do with elegance. It was a place for the rich to play, and an opportunity for the city of St. Charles to prosper. The first class operation held black-tie affairs with men and women showing up in the latest fashions in their Pierce Arrows, Hudson Teriplanes and Packards.
The Hotel Baker was at first the site of the Old Haines Mill. Built in 1837, it burnt down in 1919 and the lot remained empty for seven years. Accumulating trash for those seven years and with talk going around that a new factory was going to take its place, Edward J. Baker bought the property in 1926 deciding that the focal point of St. Charles should be much grandeur. With the money he inherited through his older sister and her husband John Warne “Bet-A-Million” Gates, the founder of the Texaco Oil Company, Edward J. Baker broke ground in September that very same year and began construction of the famed Hotel Baker. With the prosperity of St. Charles in - mind, Baker desired to only hire local contractors and suppliers.
Though Colonel Edward J. Baker (“Colonel” due to his many successes in horse- racing) first planned for the hotel to be finished in 1927, he opened the doors of Hotel Baker to the public on June 21st, 1928 with a grand opening dinner celebration in the Rainbow Ballroom, where 301 guests attended. The two-story ballroom and dining room had a dance floor lit-up with 2,620 yellow, red, green, and blue lights under 300 glass blocks, and was wired for more than 63,000 watts of electricity. The lights within the floor and the damn outside on the Fox River were synchronized with the music from the Spanish Renaissance-style pipe organ, creating a festive ambiance with a bright kaleidoscope of color. At the time there were only three lighted floors of its kind in the entire world, and the $30,000 pipe organ (equivalent worth of $400,000 today) was 100% unique, being designed solely for the Hotel Baker.
Next to the Rainbow Ballroom was the Trophy room, now known as the Waterfront Room. Acting as a lounge for the hotel guests, the walls were painted in order for the room to replicate a courtyard of a Spanish mansion with Moorish influence, complete with decorated eaves, balconies, canopies, and terra cotta tiles. The ceiling was painted and lit to replicate moving clouds in the open sky. Two walls of the room have big windows overlooking the formal rose gardens and the Fox River.
When the hotel opened on June 2nd, 1928, accommodations started at a whopping $2.50 a night. By 1947 a room was up to six dollars a night. In the thirties and forties Hotel Baker acquired the reputation of being the “Honeymoon Hotel” because of its proximity to the river, Pottawatomie Park and the Arcada Theatre. During the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, the Hotel Baker was advertised as one of the best places in the area to stay. The hotel and the Arcada Theater, built by the Norris’ who also inherited John Gate’s fortune, sparked a business and economic boom in St. Charles and it has been a busy and bustling town ever since.
Many famous guests have stayed at the hotel through out its history, including John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Richard Daley, Louis Armstrong, and many more. While some guests arrived by chauffeur, others flew in with the Central Airway Corporation, which had three, 5-passenger Stinson Detroiter planes. It was a fifteen minute trip between an airstrip west of town and the Chicago Flying Field. Roundtrips cost $30 and Mr. Baker himself would greet them when they arrived at the airstrip.
For electricity, Hotel Baker was one of the few hotels in the world to generate its own power. It did so by channeling the Fox River into an underground raceway below the hotel. The river poured through sluice gates into alcoves where it turned two 50 kilowatt generator turbine blades, and then circled back out from below the hotel through a tunnel under Main Street and rejoined the river below the bridge. The generators have since been donated to a museum because they could not provide enough electricity for modern conveniences.
After World War II, the elegance of the Hotel Baker unfortunately began to deteriorate. Fashionable spiked heels began to scratch the glass blocks in the rainbow room, and after the flood of 1954 the lights in the floor became permanently damaged. In addition, the hotel lost its appeal when people began to travel farther by plane and car. Edward Baker died in 1959 at the age of 90, and his property was bequeathed to his niece Mrs. Dellora A. Norris. In 1968, after not being able to sell the hotel within her time restraints, she donated it to the LSSI, or Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. The Hotel Baker retained its name, but was converted into a retirement home for men and women of an ambulatory age who could no longer handle a home or apartment on their own. During the ownership of LSSI, the hotel’s parking garage was razed and replaced by the Carroll Towers, the Rainbow Room floor was restored almost to its former glory, and Hotel Baker as a whole was listed as a local landmark by the St. Charles Historical Museum for its historic and architectural significance. In addition, the state of Illinois and the United States Department of Interior, National Park Service, placed the hotel on its National Register of Historic Places.
In 1996 the Hotel Baker was purchased by two local business men, Craig A. Frank and Neil D. Johnson, who sought to reopen it as a hotel to the public again, and to restore it to its original European elegance while renovating it with all the comforts and conveniences of today. The city of St. Charles created its first tax increment finance district to help fund the rehabilitation of Hotel Baker, and nine million dollars was used in the restoration. Also in 1996, Craig Frank and his mother Ruby received the Preservation Partners Award for their renovations of the Arcada Theatre and their renovation plans for the Hotel Baker.
Unfortunately in 2001 the new owners of the Hotel Baker missed a mortgage payment, partly to do with the events of September 11th, and the hotel was foreclosed and auctioned off. It was sold in a sealed-bid auction to Joe Salas, a computer consultant and real estate investor, with his partners Sonny Salas and Dan Burns. Today the Hotel Baker is just as beautiful and magnificent as it was in its heyday under the ownership of Edward Baker. Though it was been updated with modern conveniences, much of the hotel has been kept in its original state. Walking through the ornamental doorway through the Spanish-Moroccan inspired foyer, into the grandiose lobby, it’s like walking back in time to the 1920s when it was first built. It is a transcendent experience and I think everyone should experience at least one night in this unique and beautiful historical landmark.