Standing tall in downtown Kansas City – its name boldly spelled out above the rooftop – the Hilton President Hotel is an integral part of the city itself. The hotel has seen the boom days, sat empty when downtown was in a slump and reopened triumphantly when the city underwent a renaissance. Ever since 1926, the President Hotel has watched the city change from behind its elegant facade.
When the Hilton President Hotel reopened in 2006, they intentionally kept the look and feel of the space true to the 1930s. The General Manager, Philip Strnad, told Storied Hotels, “the hotel was built to last for 200 years.” After more than 50 years, the marble floors still shone. The facade held strong. “The building itself needed millions of dollars of work, and it got it.” And yet, for all the modern updates, the spirit of the place remained.
Strnad said, “Occasionally we will get people in the hotel who say ‘I worked here 60 years ago.’ Or, ‘I was a bellman or a front desk agent.’ ‘It brings back memories,’ they often say.”
And what memories they are. In this story, we take a look back at the many moments at the President Hotel. Some were glamorous, some were ghoulish and some were presidential, just like the name says.
Kansas City’s Grande Dame
The story of the Hotel President begins in 1924. The company behind the project United Hotels Company, a chain of luxury hotels led by Niagara Falls-based businessman, Frank Dudley. The hotel was designed by architecture firm Shepard & Wiser. The firm used Jacobethan design elements in the 15-story building. Some of the most prominent are the rectangular windows, curved gables and liberal use of strapwork on the facade. The windows are decorated with wrought iron railings
When the Hotel President opened in 1926, it was one of the original luxury hotels in Kansas City. The total cost of construction was between $2.5-3 million, or $35-42 million in today’s currency. The building was dazzling – the height of technology. The hotel had the city’s first ice-maker, which had the capacity to produce 8,000 pounds of ice daily! It also had and a public address system, which was rare at the time. There were 453 guestrooms, ballrooms and meeting spaces. All this grandeur would be put to good use very soon.
The Headquarters of the Republican National Convention
In 1928, the Hotel President landed itself in the history booked and lived up to its name all at once. In this year, the hotel was used as the headquarters for the 1928 Republican National Convention. The convention ultimately nominated Herbert Hoover for president.
According to General Manager Philip Strnad, details of the event remained under wraps. However, “We have some anecdotal stories of the nominee Herbert Hoover addressing the crowds of people from the Mezzanine level of the hotel.”
A Mysterious Murder In Room 1046
Not all the stories were so glorious. In fact, one was positively ghastly. On January 2, 1935, a man checked into the hotel under the name Roland T. Owen. He had no luggage – just a comb and a toothbrush. He requested an interior room and was given room 1046. Six days later, he was discovered dead in that very room. Many facts surrounding the murder are still a mystery, but the bizarre days prior shed some light on his fate.
On January 3, a maid came to clean his room as about 12:00pm. The door was locked from the inside so she knocked and he answered. The room was very dark, with the curtains closed and only the dim tableside turned on. After the maid finished cleaning, he asked her to leave the door unlocked. He said he had a friend coming to visit. In four hours she returned with fresh towels. He was sleeping on top of his bed, the blankets still made. There was a note next to the bed that said “Don, I will be back in fifteen minutes. Wait.”
After a couple more days of similarly strange encounters, the hotel’s telephone operator called the bellhop to tell him the phone in room 1046 had been off the hook for ten minutes. The bellhop went to check, but found that the door was lock and the “do not disturb” sign was on the doorknob. The bellhop knocked and Owen invited him in. The bellhop told him the door was locked, but Owen did not reply. The bellhop assumed he had been drinking and yelled at him through the door to hang up the phone.
Over an hour later, the phone was still off the hook. The bellhop entered Owen’s room with the master key. He was lying naked on the bed and seemed to be drunk. The bellhop hung up the phone and left without disturbing him.
An hour later, the operator called the bellhop again to tell him the phone was off the hook once again. The bellhop opened the door and found the room to be covered in blood. Owen was cowering in the corner, a victim of multiple stab wounds. The bellhop called the police, who rushed him to the hospital. The doctors found that Owen had been tortured. Strangely enough, they said that many of the wounds had been inflicted before the bellhop entered the room the first time.
Investigators were even more confounded when they came to the room. They found that there were no clothes, no soap and no toothpaste inside. There was also no murder weapon. In fact, upon researching further, there was no evidence of a Roland T. Owen living anywhere in the country.
After there were no leads, the detectives decided to hold a small funeral for the mystery man. Mysteriously, a bouquet of flowers and a donation for the funeral expenses arrived. The card said “Love forever – Lucille.”
Philip Strnad told us, “As a side note, we have a couple of guest room phones on the 10th floor that will occasionally ring at odd hours when the room is occupied or vacant.” When the guest picks up, “no one is on the line. The desk has not sent a call to the room. It happens every so often. We have never been able to figure out why this happens.”
The Drum Room
Soon enough, the hotel would be back in the news with happier happenings. In 1941, the Drum Room Cocktail Lounge opened. The lounge had a South Sea island theme. The 280-foot murals were painted by New York City artist, Winold Reiss.
The lounge would become an essential stop on the Kansas City club circuit. Over the years, it hosted such acts as Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.
While he admitted that there’s no way to verify the stories, Strnad told Storied Hotels that Frank Sinatra would play the Drum Room before he became a superstar. “We are told that he and others would share the same table every time, an area we now call the ‘Rat Pack Booth.’” Patsy Cline played the Drum Room. Gene Autry stayed at the hotel, and likely played a set or two in the Drum Room. By all accounts, this was the place to be.
Nowadays, the Drum Room is still kicking. Strnad tells us, “It’s a nightly gathering place for downtown Kansas City. We do live music on the weekends right now. It’s pretty crowded almost seven days a week in the afternoon. It’s a really cool environment, too.”
Presidents at the President Hotel
During the early decades at the hotel, at least four presidents visited (possibly more – the hotel won’t confirm). There was Herbert Hoover, who earned his nomination at the 1928 Republican National Convention, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.
How does the hotel prepare for presidential stays? Strnad tells us, “we sit back and let the Secret Service handle the details. We have an excellent relationship with Washington DC.” When asked, he didn’t tell us any interesting stories from past presidential stays. Strnad says it’s a good thing that nothing too exciting happened. It shows they did their job.
Rumors list other celebrity guests who are said to have stayed, like Charles Lindbergh, the Marx brothers, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Bob Dylan. However, Strnad would confirm nothing. When which celebrities passed through over the years, he replied, “Countless. Daily. Keeping in tradition and out of respect for our guests we don’t reveal specific guests who are well known that stay with us on a regular basis. We want them to come back!”
A New Beginning
In the 1970s, however, Kansas City was changing. According to Strnad, “People moved out of downtown and moved to the suburbs, and the downtown area became pretty much a vacant wasteland.” In 1980, during these challenging years, the hotel closed. It sat empty for about 20 years. “That pretty much represented downtown Kansas City at that time,” Strnad told us. “Downtown was empty for about 20 years.”
The hotel was scheduled to be demolished. The hotel “was probably ready to be torn down,” said Strnad. Thankfully, a savior of sorts stepped in. The building was purchased by Mr. Ron Jury, who decided to save the hotel. Not just save it – he wanted it to be better than ever before. He spent $45.4 million on renovations, based on the standards of the National Historic Preservation Society. The architects brought the room count down to 213 rooms, so each room would be larger. To keep the original look of the hallways, each floor has eight faux doors. In addition to the rooms, there are 12,000 feet of meeting space, the iconic Drum Room and two restaurants. The lavish lobby shines more brightly than ever before.
According to Strnad, “The renovation kept the feel of the hotel – the feel you would have seen if you walked into the hotel nearly 100 years ago.” The design team used paint analysis to determine the original colors used in the 1920s. These were the colors used to paint the walls during the renovation. Strnad says, “The hotel today still maintains that charm, with amenities commensurate with 2019. It truly is a special building.”
The President Hotel is special to Mr. Strnad for more reasons than one. In fact, his parents stayed at here for their honeymoon in 1950. Once the work was complete, his parents paid a visit to see the fully-renovated hotel. “They could remember walking into the hotel as newlyweds – the sounds, the sights.” It had the same look and feel as it always did. While the hotel felt the same, Kansas City was changing. And it was all for the better.
A Renaissance in Kansas City
The hotel reopened in 2006 as the Hilton President Hotel. During this time, a renaissance was just beginning in downtown Kansas City. And the hotel was in the center of it.
Downtown was mostly shuttered, a new mayor had a vision. Kay Barnes decided to open an entertainment district to revitalize the downtown area. It began with the Sprint Center in 2007, a 19,000-seat multi-purpose arena. After the Sprint Center opened, H&R Block, who is headquartered in Kansas City, decided to move their offices downtown. Eventually, Cordish Companies came in to develop the Power & Light entertainment district, which features bars, restaurants, entertainment venues and more. Today, the city has been named one of the top tourist destinations in the country by National Geographic. Strnad says, “With the arts and the food, this city in general is just wonderful.”
Strnad tells us, “We got to see downtown go from virtually empty to over a billion dollars in development, new housing and entertainment. And here’s our almost 100-year-old hotel right in the middle of it.” Now, in this new phase of Kansas City, the Hilton President Hotel stands tall, watching as new memories are made.