Baltimore Hotel, 1899-1938
One of the largest hotels beyond New York City and perhaps the most luxurious hotels in the West prior to World War II, the Baltimore Hotel was the center of social life and politics in Kansas City during the first half of the 20th century. The hotel was popular among local business leaders, visiting celebrities, and even played an integral role in national politics. A young Harry Truman had many fond memories at this hotel-including his role (which he later denied) in bringing a live moose into the hotel during one of the Democratic Party's national conventions.
Backstory and Context
Kansas City boomed in the fifteen years following the Civil War, reaching a population of 60,000. By 1910, the population had grown to a quarter million. Recognizing this growth in the midst of the booming 1890s, Bernard Corrigan hired architect Louis Curtiss to design a luxury hotel for the growing commercial center. When it opened in 1899, the six-story Baltimore Hotel was widely-regarded as one of the finest hotels west of the Mississippi River. Reflecting the era’s optimism and latest design concepts, the hotel was built entirely of brick, iron supports, cement, and terra cotta. The designers also minimized the use of wood within the interior. As was the case of many similar buildings that followed these guidelines, the Baltimore Hotel was dubbed “fireproof.”
The Baltimore Hotel was not only on par with leading luxury hotels, it was the second-largest hotel outside of New York in 1900-the year that Kansas City hosted the Democratic National Convention. Not content to be second to Chicago’s Palmer House hotel, the proprietors expanded the hotel throughout the next decade. The hotel’s solid and thick walls not only provided safety, they supported the construction of two additional stories by 1901. The hotel also extended its lower floors southward and added an additional 12-story tower at 12th and Baltimore in 1908. These three projects tripled the capacity of the hotel, from 160 guest rooms to a total of 550 rooms.
Curtiss envisioned his hotel as a symbol of Kansas City’s growth and significance. Like many of the city’s boosters, he anticipated that Kansas City would become the leading commercial city in the Midwest. As a result, few expenses were spared on the hotel’s interior, with marble columnns and sculpted ceilings throughout the lobby and public rooms. Curtiss even traveled to Europe and returned with an elegant fountain for the center of the dining room. (That fountain was later moved to the suburban Mission Hills neighborhood). The main dining room seated 700 and became the first in the city to feature air-conditioning in 1915. Curtiss devoted equal attention to guestrooms and amenities—presenting chamber music and acquiring the chef from New York’s famed Astoria Hotel. In an era when most hotels had interior rooms, each of the rooms in the Baltimore Hotel had exterior windows. The hotel underwent a massive remodeling project in 1914. At a cost of over $400,000, the dining room was expanded and every room was refurbished and air conditioned.
Recognizing that many of his guests attended the nearby Willis Wood Theater, Curtis constructed a wide underground tunnel to connect his hotel with the theater so that guests would not have to face traffic and the elements. The tunnel soon earned the nickname “Highball Alley” as it also connected to a men’s lounge within the theater. The tunnel’s utility came to an end in 1917, when a fire destroyed the Willis Wood Theater.
The onset of the Great Depression and increasing competition led the hotel’s business to decline. Ownership of the hotel passed to several different companies, but nothing could alter the fact that the building as simply too costly to maintain and operate. The Baltimore Hotel closed in 1938 and the hotel was razed the following year. The location of the former hotel served as both a vacant lot and a parking lot in the decades that followed. Today, it is home to City Center Square.