Back in 1985, the late Albert Moffa and his wife Doll called a local reporter in to talk about Moffa’s recent takeover of the historic and massive Dery Mansion in Catasauqua as his home.
In the interview, Moffa was asked if he wasn’t afraid of being overwhelmed by the size of the place. “Well,” he quickly replied with a chuckle, “I used to own and live in the Americus Hotel in Allentown that had 400 rooms. So, I guess you could say, I actually moved to a smaller place.”
Taking over the Americus Hotel, the downtown Allentown showplace of the 1920s, would be a task for anyone. But a recent tour of the structure revealed that current owner Albert Abdouche is both restoring and updating the historic hotel.
Busy work crews have already brought back to life the vast public spaces that have echoed the sound of innumerable weddings and other family gatherings. Music from swing bands like the Dorsey Brothers and Paul “King of Jazz” Whiteman once resounded from its walls along with the busy feet of thousands of dancers.
And it was here in 1933 that the Allentown Kiwanis Club once hosted round-the-world flyer Wiley Post. His tragic death in 1935 in a plane crash in Alaska with humorist Will Rodgers created international headlines.
Users of the space will be pleased to note that a restroom has been added so a hike up the stairs and a walk across the mezzanine will no longer be necessary.
On the upper floors, much work is still being done. The fifth floor has several bedrooms that are vast improvements over what they once were. The walls are decorated with old photos of the past, some donated by the Just Born Candy Company. Others offer vintage advertising for the Americus from its opening day. One of the hotel’s old fashioned brass elevators is also being restored.
A trip up to the tenth floor offers sweeping vistas of Allentown and the Lehigh Valley. There are plans for outdoor dining areas on some of the spaces. The basement and subbasement spaces feature 1920s technology in all its faded glory. Gradually it is being replaced and brought up to code. A new chef has been hired and he is currently involved in updating the kitchen.
The workers confirm that they have yet to see any ghosts roaming the halls drifting past ukulele players or singing “Yes, We Have No Bananas” or other popular tunes of the 1920s. There is however a mystery about the numbered doors in the basement.
Suspicions exist that the space might have served as speakeasy of sorts. In fact, according the late Call-Chronicle cartoonist Bud Tamblyn who was a young man at the time, “during Prohibition, Allentown and Lehigh County floated on a sea of booze.” Yet the general feeling is more of a storage area from a time when refrigeration was rare.
In the 1920s, long time Allentown residents would have understood a hotel should be located there at the northeast corner of 6th and Hamilton Street. The first hotel there was a two-story frame structure erected in 1811 by Abraham Gangware and named the American House.
The year after the American House opened, Allentown was named the county seat of the newly created Lehigh County. Its location made it ideal for local farmers who came into town to handle legal business when the court was in session--usually over property disputes.
The property’s next owner was Charles Seagreaves. He owned a stagecoach line that ran between Allentown and Philadelphia, and the hotel was a natural stop for out-of-towners like traveling salesman. It was also the place where out-of-town newspapers were delivered. Seagreaves expanded it and renamed it the American Hotel.
The American Hotel was a popular spot for political meetings and out-of-town lawyers who had business at the courthouse. It was said to have been generously equipped with cuspidors and rocking chairs on its ample front porch.
At his passing in 1891, Charles Seagreaves turned the hotel over to his son, James. A popular innkeeper, but not always in good health, he expanded the American Hotel, but died in 1907. At that time, the hotel began to go downhill. It could not compete with the Hotel Allen, located at 7TH and Hamilton, that had electric lights and attracted guests like former president William Howard Taft.
In 1917, industrialist Samuel Traylor gave Allentown its first modern hotel. But today it might be called a boutique hotel. It attracted high quality tenants who seemed to regard it as a place they stayed when they came into town.
In the 1920s, William Bonneville, son of local cement manufacturer Amble B. Bonneville, sold his nearby mansion on S. 15th Street and moved into the Traylor, finding it more convenient than living in a large home.
But because it was not in center city, as the decade of the 20s dawned, the Hotel Traylor was not what was thought of as a real downtown hotel.
Finally, it was out-of-town developer Aaron Potruch who saw the value of the property on which the American Hotel stood. In 1925, he purchased it from the Seagreaves estate for $500,000, demolished the American Hotel and cleared the land. He announced his plan was to build an office building there.
Following that announcement, a local businessman named Albert “Bert“ Gomery stepped into the picture. Born in Lehighton, he ran a very profitable wholesale produce business with his brother, Edgar.
They had already ventured out into real estate by buying the former site of the Allentown College for Women, the predecessor to Cedar Crest College at 4th and Turner Street in 1915 and converted it into the College Hotel. Its primary guests were prominent actors who were appearing al local theaters, the most well-known of which was Al Jolson.
Gomery talked to Potruch and a deal was reached for Gomery to acquire the site. Shortly thereafter Potruch went to the 1400 block of Hamilton and built “The Livingston,” an exclusive New York style apartment building in the Spanish-Moorish style.
The next step was to find an architect and a competition was held. No one locally was considered able to handle so big a project and the contract went to the Philadelphia firm of Ritter and Shay.
Verus T. Ritter and Howell L. Shay were that city’s leading architects. Holders of several awards from the American Institute of Architects, the firm created a number of landmark buildings during the 1920’s, including, in 1929, the Drake apartment building that shows exterior design touches similar to that on the Americus. The construction firm chosen was Roberts and Roller also of Philadelphia.
At first, the Americus was to have 270 rooms but that was upped to 328. The plans were to appeal to business travelers and, hopefully, conventions. The many service clubs like Rotary and fraternal orders were big in the 1920s. Gomery was active with several of these organizations. Although the butt of satire by Sinclair Lewis in his novels, they were a significant part of the national scene.
The kitchen was not to be overlooked. Its staff of 22 was presided over by Swiss chef Warner Koloetzli who had formerly been with Chicago’s Palmer House. It “assured a cuisine that was second to none in the country,” noted the Morning Call.
Groundbreaking for the Americus took place in July of 1926. Two of those present were General Harry C. Trexler, the city’s leading citizen, and Allentown mayor Malcolm W. Gross.
An iconic photo taken of the two of them shows the tall Mayor Gross leaning over to listen to Trexler. Although Gomery was the idea man behind the Americus, there can be no doubt that both Gross and Trexler played major roles in the project’s creation behind the scenes. Gross was well known for saying “now I want to remain in the background on this,” when projects like this were proposed.
Both the interior public rooms and exterior style reflected a mix of the romantic Spanish-Moorish style with a touch of Art-Deco.
In the 1920s, from the Latin Lovers that flitted on the silent silver screen to the palace of San Simon of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst rising in California, the fantasy of old Spain (with plumbing) was being felt across the country. White stucco and orange red tile roofs seemed to be everywhere.
Originally the plan had been to name it simply the American Hotel but in keeping with the 15th century age-of-discovery theme, the name was changed to Americus after Amerigo Vespucci (1451-1512), the Italian-born navigator who sailed for Spain and whose name was given to America by a German geographer who thought Vespucci and not Columbus had discovered the new land .
The Americus had several large murals on this theme in its public rooms, showing grandees and senoritas in exotic gardens. They were done by internationally recognized muralist and illustrator for Harper’s Magazine, George Harding (1885-1959). A combat artist for the military in both World Wars I and II, he was taught by Howard Pyle in Philadelphia.
Alas these murals were later covered over apparently by a generation who was not prone to such fantasies and found them foolish. The sole surviving mural by Harding is a lunette over the Hamilton Street entrance showing the Trexler Game Preserve complete with buffalos.
The Americus opened on September 13, 1927. To the sound of the 28-piece Americus Hotel Orchestra, an estimated crowd of near 800, many in formal wear arrived to take in the new hotel. Tickets had been sold but it was finally decided that was all the hotel’s tables could handle.
The consensus was that the Americus was a success. Hopefully it will be so once again.