The Bellevue: A Grand Dame and Comeback Kid Worthy of Philadelphia

Every big city has a “grand dame” of a hotel that stands as an enduring vestige of a more glamorous time. New York has the Waldorf (among others, because, New York always has to have more), Miami has the Fontainbleau, and Honolulu has the Royal Hawaiian, to name just a few. Though Philadelphia has long been considered a city of hardscrabble folk who, frankly, don’t care what anyone thinks about them, even the most raucous Philadelphian would be quick to point out that, like anything else, Philadelphia’s “grand dame” of a hotel can rival (and beat) any other city’s. The Bellevue is Philadelphia’s “Grand Dame of Broad Street” and, in keeping with her city’s style, some bumps along the way made her hard-won title that much more sweet.

Immigrant Dreams Become Elite Realities

It’s only fitting that Philadelphia’s premier luxury hotel began as the dream of a Prussian immigrant who would work himself up the ladder to be one of the premier hoteliers of American history. George C. Boldt emigrated from Prussia to New York in 1864 as a young man, finding work in New York City hotel kitchens during the city’s post-Civil War hotel boom. He eventually found his way to Philadelphia, working as an assistant to the head steward of the Philadelphia Men’s Club, the oldest men’s club in the country. He was a hard worker, with an incredible eye for detail, and the head steward, as well as the club’s upper class members, took an extreme liking to this enterprising young man. By 1877, Boldt had married the head steward’s daughter, Louise, and had dreams of someday operating his own luxury hotel.

By 1881, with financial backing from his father-in-law and his prominent friends in the Philadelphia Men’s Club, George Boldt opened the Bellevue Hotel at the northwest corner of Broad and Walnut Streets. The hotel was small but, under George’s leadership and Louise’s keen eye for the elegant and beautiful, it soon became known as a national epitome of service, with the finest cuisine (originating the dish, Chicken a la King) and attracting the highest of upper class society, both from Philadelphia and beyond.

Boldt’s success caught the eye of renowned New York millionaire hotelier William Waldorf Astor, who owned the Waldorf but frequented the Bellevue, and was engaged in a bitter feud with his cousin, John Jacob Astor, for building the Astoria right next door. In 1890, Waldorf persuaded Boldt to leave Philadelphia behind and become the proprietor of the Waldorf in New York City. Boldt had the Midas touch and succeeded in quelling the Astors’ feud and joining the two hotels to become the legendary Waldorf-Astoria. Under his management and with Louise’s upper class decorating skill, the hotel became the embodiment of all things elite and, in keeping with his passion for cuisine stemming from his days working in hotel kitchens, The Waldorf Salad and Thousand Island dressing became menu mainstays and attractions under his leadership. But, as did George C. Boldt, I digress. His heart still stayed true to his dream of owning and operating his own hotel.

He ultimately returned to Philadelphia (while still remaining the famed manager of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York) and purchased the land across the street from the Bellevue, opening another hotel named The Stratford after the birthplace of his and Louise’s beloved Shakespeare. But Boldt was not finished yet. To him, the Stratford was simply a place for the Bellevue’s overflow. His ultimate vision was a Waldorf for Philadelphia, a grand dame to trump all grand dames.

A Debutante’s Debut: The Bellevue-Stratford

In 1902, Boldt hired the Philadelphia-based architectural firm of G.W & W.D. Hewitt to create his vision and they came up with a 19-story French Renaissance masterpiece. This included rounded roofs with faceted towers and elaborate penthouse dormers capping ornately carved limestone exterior walls. The interior was nothing short of opulent with richly carved wooden paneling and moldings, gilded coffered ceilings, and detailed ironwork, most notably for the railings of the elliptical staircase that led from the lobby to the first-floor ballrooms. As for the furnishings, Boldt wanted nothing but the highest quality and most modern conveniences. This included “flush toilets” in every guestroom and the latest in electrical lighting, created for the hotel by none other than Thomas Edison himself. Louise’s elegant taste was evident in everything from the rich linens and fabrics that made up the beds and furniture to the stained glass windows and transoms that were created by renowned stained-glass artist and fellow Philadelphian Alfred Godwin. By the time the Bellevue-Stratford opened in 1904, this grand dame had cost over 8 million in 1904 dollars.

From its very beginning, the Bellevue-Stratford was everything George and Louise Boldt envisioned it to be. In the years following it’s opening, it was described as the most luxurious hotel in the country and, in some opinions, the world. It was massive, with 1,090 rooms and an 11,616-foot Gilded Age ballroom that was known throughout the world, complete with a parquet floor, gold-leafed domed ceiling, crystal chandeliers, and the second-floor balcony essential for people watching. The hotel became an epicenter for the rich and powerful to not only eat and sleep, but was the location of choice for weddings, charity events, balls, and business meetings. And, to be clear, these were not meetings of small companies trying to make it big. These were meetings presided over by Vanderbilts, Astors, and Morgans where the wealth that would fund a nation was discussed and European dignitaries flocked, along with every US President, starting with Teddy Roosevelt.  George Boldt had achieved his dream, and then some.

A Slow Fall From Grace

Somehow, it’s always the mighty that seem to fall the hardest. Though the Great Depression hit Philadelphia’s luxury hotels hard, The Bellevue-Stratford soldiered on with guests such as Katherine Hepburn, John Wayne, and Bob Hope, but its glitter slowly began to glisten less brightly. By the 1950’s, there was a general lack of income and attention for the ornate details of the hotel and much of the fine woodwork and plastering fell into disrepair or was painted or plastered over in favor of more modern and less overpowering décor. After hosting both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in 1948, the hotel’s most notable event was playing host to President John F. Kennedy in October 1963, who arrived at the hotel via an open motorcade that was an exact replica to the one in which his life would be taken just one month later.

An Epic Disaster

As if this event were a harbinger of things to come, the Bellevue-Stratford’s reign came to the same abrupt end as Kennedy’s in 1976, garnering worldwide notoriety. In July of that year, the aging hotel played host to a convention of American Legion members. Soon after checking out of the hotel, over 182 guests became sick with a pneumonia-like illness, with 29 people dying from the mysterious condition. The connection to the Bellevue-Stratford was quickly discovered and the condition became known as “Legionnaires’ Disease.” The negative publicity from this event caused hotel reservations to come to a screeching halt, with occupancy at the Bellevue freefalling to just 4 percent. By November of that year, the hotel was shuttered permanently. Six months later, a physician discovered new bacteria that were proven to be the cause of Legionnaires’ Disease and thrives in hot, damp locations. The bacteria were located in the cooling towers of the Bellevue-Stratford’s air conditioning system, which had spread the disease throughout the hotel. When the Bellevue-Stratford was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, it was empty and abandoned; the “Grand Dame of Broad Street” had fallen from grace.

Philadelphia Loves a Comeback

Yes, no city loves a comeback more than Rocky Balboa’s hometown and the Bellevue’s was as long and bumpy as the famous boxer’s. Just a year after closing, The Richard Rubin Company bought the hotel in 1978 for $8.5 million and began a massive renovation to restore the hotel to its former glory, importing carpets from Ireland, crystal chandeliers from Uruguay, and marble from Portugal, jumpstarting a restoration of Broad Street itself as Philadelphia’s epicenter of the arts. Fairmount and Westin Hotels undertook management of the Bellevue through a joint partnership and the hotel reopened in 1979 but, unfortunately, by the mid-1980’s, The Bellevue-Stratford was still struggling to fill rooms. In 1986, the Rubin Company bought out the Westin’s stake in the hotel and invested $100 million more dollars to create a massive luxury shopping area in the hotel’s lobby, with additional shopping and a food court below. The hotel was renamed The Hotel Atop the Bellevue, with rooms limited to just floors twelve through eighteen and the remaining floors being given over to office space and a restaurant. Yet, under management by the Cunard Line, the hotel continued to flounder and Cunard’s hotel division was bankrupt by 1993. The Grand Dame looked like she was down for the count again.

For anyone who’s made a comeback, sometimes it’s the little things that make for a turnaround. For The Hotel Atop the Bellevue, this was in 1996, when Hyatt took over management of the hotel. Hyatt management was able to recognize that the mixed-use nature of the hotel with shopping and office space in addition to hotel rooms was becoming the new face of the modern urban landscape. Hyatt added a world class gym, salon, and spa to the mix and further revitalized the hotel’s historical features, reopening the balconies outside the nineteenth floor restaurant and renaming and rebranding the it under the name XIX (Nineteen) as the epitome of a gourmet experience in an opulent historic setting with the option for the highest alfresco dining in the city. The hotel’s Grand Ballroom was revitalized to embody the beauty of its heyday and Hyatt marketed the ornate décor of the event spaces as historical settings bestowed with modern conveniences. The hotel’s name was restored to simply The Bellevue and, in 2009, the Grand Dame of Broad Street reopened one more time.

Just when you thought she was down for the count, the Grand Dame took back her title. She won her championship bout and reigns supreme in the city once again as the epitome of luxury hospitality, shopping, and professional space. As part of Hyatt’s Unbound Collection, she has flourished again as a modern homage to her unique history. For the Bellevue, this comeback was long, with twists and turns along the way. But such is the fate of a true Philadelphia story.

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