“It is a great pleasure to me to pay for my room in this magnificent hotel. It was beyond my expectations, and nowhere, in my travels, have I found a hotel any better equipped and with better accommodations.” — Harry Houdini, as reported in the Denison Herald, October 14, 1924.
The Great Houdini, who had traveled the world, bandied no words in his praise of the newly opened Hotel Simpson at the corner of Chestnut and Burnett in Denison. The city’s finest hostelry, perhaps the most elegant hotel between Dallas and Kansas City, had opened to great excitement only two weeks before, on October 1, and the community was still somewhat in awe of their new gem.
Denison had needed a first class hotel. The Denison Hotel, four brick stories of Victorian gingerbread with arched windows and an elegant cupola at 500 West Main, had served the city well in its time, but a roaring fire on the cold night of Jan. 24, 1920, had destroyed the hotel and the commercial college that shared the space. Since then the city has been hotel shy.
The Palace Hotel still stood at Main and Burnett, but neither it, or the other handful of smaller, working class hotels were considered adequate for a city on the move. The town’s first hotel of note, back in the days when Denison was still a raw end-of-track destination, had been the Alamo, a big wooden frame building west of the depot. Stories recall elegant receptions and galas held at the Alamo before it burned a few years after its opening. Something like it, something to mark the city as a coming spot on the map, was needed to replace the pile of rubble on Main Street.
This was the era of Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street,” when boosterism was the byword of an America for whom the struggles of the Great War were now memories and the clouds of the Great Depression were still far over the horizon, beyond the imagination of even the most morose pessimists. There was a man in the White House — Calvin Cooledge — who would say, “The business of America is business,” and the dynamic businessmen of the era figured anything was possible.
This was the background for a hometown project, a grand hotel promoted, financed and run by the people of Denison. Efforts to turn the idea of new hotel for the city into something real, began almost immediately, powered along by the Chamber of Commerce, and a special hotel committee set out to make plans and look for investors.
The result was a contract between the chamber and Arthur Simpson and Joseph Crumpton to build a hotel. Simpson, a Denison native, and Crumpton, who came from Illinois in 1909, were in-laws and business partners in the Palace Hotel. They owned other real estate in the city, and Simpson held the property, adjacent to the palace, slated for the new building. Plans for the project were officially announced Sept. 4, 1923.
The money would come from the community. The Chamber of Commerce set out to sell $75,000 in stock and to find a market for another $100,000 of bonds. The State National Bank agreed to underwrite the bonds. But there was a hitch. The bank determined that legal niceties precluded their participation, and they withdrew from the agreement with Simpson and Crumpton. Simpson opted out, declaring that he would no longer be associated with the hotel project, and it looked as if the city’s new hotel would die aborning.
The Chamber of Commerce was not about to let this happen. The movers and shakers of Denison’s business community put their heads together and came up with an alternative plan. In short order they had obtained pledges and local financing sufficient to keep the dream alive, and Simpson opted back in. He returned to Denison from his home in St. Louis, and on Sept. 4, 1923, the first contracts for the hotel were signed.
Barnett, Haynes and Barnett of St. Louis were the architects and engineers, with George H. Bartling acting as the man in charge on the site. Craftsmen and contractors from all over North Texas and beyond were part of the construction. D.B. Ridpath of Ardmore, Okla., did the excavation and poured the concrete; Charles Schley of Denison handled the brick work and terra cotta trim. The painting and decorating contract went to W.H. Crutcher of Dallas, and Waco Sash and Door provided the mill work. The hotel’s extensive tile, terrazzo and marble enhancements came from J. Desco & Son of Dallas, and J.C. Korioth of Sherman took care of the heating and plumbing.
Work officially began at 2:10 p.m., Sept. 6, 1923, when J.E.T. Peters, the Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, climbed to the top of Beazley’s Garage, the building which stood on the ground to hotel would occupy, pried a brick loose from the facade and tossed it the ground below. There was a short program, a toast to the success of the venture and Schley’s workmen set to razing the garage.
The architects’ drawing called for a six-story building costing $222,942.80, exclusive of the furnishings. Constructing had only just begun when it was decided to add a seventh floor of suites. All told, the hotel would come in at just under $400,000.
Rising with the building was the interest of the public. As the finishing touches were added to the interior, the Denison Herald carried stories almost daily on the progress of the work. “The Southwestern Bell Telephone Company has received a shipment of 115 desk telephones to be installed in the Hotel Simpson,” the paper reported. Desk sets were a rare commodity in hotels of the time, wall-mounted telephones were the norm. “Each room will be equipped with desk sets, a feature not enjoyed in some of the larger hotels in Texas,” the paper chronicled with pride. Other stories brought the news of carpeting, furniture and kitchen fixtures being fitted in place.
People could already see the building’s exterior in final form. Sandstone blocks with buff Bedford terra cotta trim made up the first floor, with red matt brick and terra cotta on the facings of the upper stories. A decorated frieze of stone provided a cornice atop the building.
Stone window frames held leaded glass on the first floor, and the topmost row of first-floor windows were of stained glass. The hotel was “fireproof,” with floors and roof of concrete, and there was an elegant iron canopy projecting over the hotel’s main entrance on Burnett Ave.
If Denisonians were amazed at the exterior of their new hotel, they would be bedazzled by the interior. On Sept. 30, 1924, the Herald devoted a special section to the Hotel Simpson. The stories described, with great detail, what the public would find when they stepped through the doors. And that they could do, during a great open house scheduled the next day, Oct. 1, 1924, from 12 noon until 12 midnight.
by Edward Southerland
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