The Savoy Hotel Bed & Breakfast and The Savoy Grill
Opulence, elegance, and ruin. The Savoy Hotel Bed & Breakfast in the historic Garment District in downtown Kansas City, Mo., wears a complicated personality. Partial renovations turned the once-glamorous 200-room hotel into a 22-room bed & breakfast. Among padlocked doors of abandoned rooms, a few residential units speckle six of the seven floors. The Savoy Hotel was once Kansas City’s most luxurious destination. The hotel and its grill, added in 1903 and serving only men, attracted patrons such as Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, John D. Rockefeller and Harry Truman. Shortly after it opened, and by popular demand, it started to serve women. Nowadays, the Savoy Hotel Bed & Breakfast is home to adventurous travelers, fine diners, paranormal investigators, low-rent tenants, and passionate preservationists upholding the ideals of a beautiful yet bygone era.
John and Charles Arbuckle of Arbuckle Coffee Co. built the hotel’s original wing in 1888, which crowns the Savoy the oldest running hotel west of the Mississippi. Don Lee, the Savoy’s current owner, bought the Savoy Grill in 1960 and later the hotel in 1965. Lee can be seen on most days wearing black suspenders behind the original reception desk in the hotel lobby or in the kitchen making cakes or plating food. For history’s sake, Don and his staff refuse to clean the fragile stained-glass dome in the foyer above the reception desk, letting its imperfections show the long-standing history of Kansas City’s oldest hotel. This Art-Nouveau stained-glass skylight was designed in Kansas City by Frank Anderson, and remains a testament to the importance of art in our town.
The scent of Marlboros and Chanel no. 5—a popular fragrance with the ladies since the early 1900s—lingers on the air. Floorboards moan, and every ascent in the elevator or stairwells feels like it could be your last. Parts of the Savoy aren’t meant to be seen. Boarded-up doors, open elevator shafts, graffiti on walls, wilting bathtubs line hallways, debris and trash pile in corners, ductwork and wires bare and hanging from the ceiling, and an entire portion of the sixth floor with broken-out windows.
Failed attempts to redevelop the Savoy have come and gone over the years, leaving it coated in age and wear. Most recently, 21c Museum Hotels propositioned a $47.5 million investment in the property with the aim to preserve its charm, yet preen it into a contemporary art museum featuring rotating exhibitions. If the Kansas City Tax Increment Financing Commission approves the incentives, then construction can start early 2014.
Despite the stalled renovations to the hotel, the Savoy brims with history and anachronistic art and architectural masterpieces worth a visit, whether you stay all night in a Victorian suite or pop in to the grill for a French 75 and a plate of Alaskan king crab legs. The Savoy Grill retains the art of revered turn-of-the-century muralist Edward Holslag, who painted the murals in the bar area in 1903 to illustrate the journey from Westport Landing along the Santa Fe Trail. The murals have recently been included in the Smithsonian Institution’s “Bicentennial Inventory of American Paintings.”
Eating at the Savoy Grill, which can seat up to 600 people, transports you to the turn of the century, when decadence and dining went together like Kansas City and hooch. Green Naugahyde swivel chairs stand bolted to the floor in front of the original leather-topped, carved-oak bar—made of lathe and horsehair plaster. The bar holds a deep scratch from the spur of an unruly patron thrown out in a hurry by the bartender. In 1918, a bar brawl shot out the mirror above the bar, adorned at the top with scarab beetles for good luck. Lanterns, once gas-powered, and brass telephone ports where guests could receive and make calls hang in each dining booth. The Savoy Grill, for better or worse, stands as a breathing monument in dedication of our city’s history.
Ken Burns, famed filmmaker responsible for Jazz, a History of America’s Music, claims that prohibition never happened in Kansas City thanks to Boss Tom Pendergast. During Prohibition, the Savoy Grill merely cast a curtain in front of its bar. Pendergast was rumored to have trucks full of frozen chickens delivered to the Savoy Grill, their cavities stuffed with bottles of gin, whisky and rum. He and his wide-open city could enjoy libations while the rest of the country dried out. If you tipped the bellman well enough at the hotel, then you’d likely find bottles of alcohol in your luggage. In the back of the Savoy Grill, Pendergast would play cards and drink booze, courtesy, most likely, of the Sugarhouse Syndicate, a mob-run organization that supplied alky cookers with corn syrup during prohibition. If cops entered the establishment, someone in the front would alert Pendergast, and he could escape to his headquarters at 1908 Main St. before persecution.
Everyone who works at the Savoy Grill tends to stay working there. Although it only employed an all-black wait staff until the late ’70s, the first Caucasian waiter still works at the grill and serves up baked oysters Rockefeller, Veal Marsala or Danish Herring to anyone who fancies them. The waiters, dressed in long white jackets with black bow ties never fail to uphold a “Ma’am and Sir” benevolence.
Over 100 years ago, the Savoy was a beacon of glamour and hope for an overly ambitious river town set on hurling itself into prosperity. We are still that same town, full of vigor and grit, with a desire to define and redefine ourselves. We are born of this city’s past and the Savoy holds our history—from old-fashioned recipes to charming waiters, and with a strong ferocity to be itself—a quality well-worth preserving.