Hotel Indiana: Old charm in a vanishing venue
Donations may bring building rich with history back to life.
Warm sunshine spills through a window, turning the peeling blue paint into a glowing wall of color. The radiator waits upright, as though moved over for a maintenance project. The carpet is flat beige with sneaker marks in the dust.
Welcome to the upper floors of Hotel Indiana, where vaudeville stars once likely spent the night.
Hotel Indiana closed in 1971 after some 50 years of service to downtown Fort Wayne, but parts of it have been restored. The entire hotel building may be coming back to life soon as a large reception center. A two-story ballroom, administrative offices and a roof garden are planned if the Embassy Theatre reaches its $10 million fundraising goal.
Kelly Updike, executive director of the Embassy Theatre that’s connected to the hotel, says, “We’re very good at renting the building … (these renovations) would open us up for more special events.”
Since the Embassy secures most of its funds for upkeep and renovation through the rental of the facilities – and because the Embassy and hotel are currently running at capacity – more rental space would be beneficial in the long run.
The rooms are empty, but the closets still have a few wire hangers on wooden clothes bars. The windows in each room are sturdy, with hefty metal handles. Some of the bathrooms are intact with tiled floors, deep tubs, and porcelain sinks and commodes. To be sure, much of the equipment is missing – empty light sockets gape over sinks, and the hardware that provided running water is gone. But the bold, black-and-white tile still glistens under years of dust.
Bathtubs are settled in their nooks, ready for hot water and soap. Although the residue of time and construction has liberally shrouded most of the hotel’s guestrooms, a faint appeal still permeates the abandoned hallways.
Hotel Indiana opened in May 1928 at the intersection of Harrison Street and Jefferson Boulevard, on land that was once home to Plymouth Congregational Church. The hotel shared brick wall space with the Emboyd Theatre and is reputed to have opened soon after the theater gave its first show – a spectacular event that included an 11-man harmonica band.
In the hotel, each of the 250-300 guestrooms had a sink with hot, cold and ice water. Most rooms offered either a half or full bath, too. Newspaper ads from May 13, 1928, state that the hotel’s box springs were made in Fort Wayne, probably by Wolf Bedding on Clinton Street, and that Eagle Laundry Service (phone number H-4117) would be taking care of the needs of “Fort Wayne’s Newest Hostelry.”
The Hotel Indiana offered a number of attractions for passers-by who might be attending a show downtown. There was a restaurant/cafe, several shops and a private dining room. Customers could stop by the gift shop; a barber shop that served men, women and children; a cigar counter; or a drugstore. <br> <br> According to Updike, many of these shops were housed in the storefronts facing Harrison Street, where Christmas scenes are now displayed. The barber shop was in the hotel’s basement, not too far from the private dining room, which was called either the “Hoosier Room” or the “Old Fort Room.” The “Indiana Room,” which was advertised by AAA as being “One of the most beautiful rooms in America” seems to have been the general title for the first floor restaurant and cafe space.
Regardless of what the private dining room was called, it served many different customers – including men who were leaving for military service outside of Fort Wayne during World War II. At that time, the private dining room was filled with cots and served as a barracks. The upper floors housed officers for the Army Air Corps, since Baer Field didn’t have space for them.
Prices for services at the hotel are interesting: the undated AAA ad cites room prices starting at $2.50 per night. Dyne Pfeffenberger, author of “The Historic Fort Wayne Embassy Theatre,” records that one person could stay for $5.50, while two would pay $7.50 for one room.
Advertisements for the food services of the hotel in 1928 claim that it was “always 70 degrees or less” in the cafe, and that “Luncheon” cost 50 cents while dinner was 75 cents. Customers who wanted a la carte table service paid between a quarter and 50 cents more.
In the mid-1990s, the lobby and mezzanine floors of Hotel Indiana were renovated into reception and catering space. Updike remarked that the space now “is almost as it looked, originally,” and pointed out the original tile floor, which was rediscovered after years of being hidden underneath carpeting. The main entrance facing Jefferson no longer has revolving doors, but the marble floor compass is still grooved from the footsteps of some 86 years of use.
For now, though, the upstairs hallways echo quietly with the sounds of outside street traffic. Memories filter through the cracked walls while dust settles, ever so slowly, over a piece of Fort Wayne’s past.
<br> <center>Quick facts about Hotel Indiana </center> <br>
<center> Why Hotel Indiana? And what’s the Emboyd? </center><br>
According to Dyne Pfeffenberger, author of “The Historic Fort Wayne Embassy Theatre,” the original name of the hotel was Hotel Indiana but people always called it Indiana Hotel. Today, the reception area is called “Indiana Hotel Lobby.”
The Emboyd was the original name of what we today call the Embassy Theatre. The name changed to Embassy in 1952. Clyde Quimby, who spearheaded the construction of the theater and hotel, named the theater after his mother, Emilie Boyd Quimby. <br>
<center> Where did the stars sleep? </center><br>
It is believed that popular stage and screen characters who played at the Embassy Theatre also stayed at Hotel Indiana, but proof of this is hard to find. Harvey Cocks Jr., whose father was general manager for the Quimby theaters 1937-1951, says, “Bob Hope was a small vaudevillian at the time the Emboyd – the Embassy – opened … He wouldn’t have been able to afford the Indiana Hotel!”
But Pfeffenberger’s book alleges that, prices or no, stars did stay over at the hotel. So, with this in mind, here are some of the stars who graced the Embassy stage and who may have stayed at the Hotel Indiana: <br>
* Bob Hope (first emceeing job is believed to have been in Fort Wayne)
* Lon Chaney Jr.
* Olsen and Johnson
* Fred Allen
* Marilyn Maxwell
* Doris Day
* Laurel and Hardy
* Amos and Andy
* The Three Stooges
* Perry Como
* Irene Ryan (later played Granny on the “Beverly Hillbillies”)
* The Mills Brothers
* Dr. Valentine (radio personality from NBC) <br>
<center> Slide show </center><br>
See photos of a tour inside the hotel attached to this story at news-sentinel.com.