Former president Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty, spent their wedding night at Ann Arbor’s Allenel Hotel in 1948. “I thought I was giving her a great treat,” Ford recalled in a 1975 visit to Ann Arbor. “I paid for that a thousand times.”
In her autobiography, The Times of My Life, Betty Ford writes, “You never stayed above the second floor at the Allenel Hotel because it was such a fire trap you wanted to be sure you could jump.” The newlyweds were in Ann Arbor because Jerry wanted to see Michigan play Northwestern the next day. (Betty left after the first half.) And they stayed at the Allenel because the nearly eighty-year-old firetrap was still the best hotel in town.
The Allenel was the direct descendant of Cook’s Temperance House, which opened in 1836. Owner Solon Cook and his wife, Anna, were teetotalers. (Anna managed the Ladies Total Abstinence Benevolent Society, and Solon was a trustee of the Presbyterian Church.) A harness maker, Solon Cook exchanged saddles and harnesses for produce, lumber, and feed for his horses, who pulled the “omnibus” that took hotel guests to and from the train station. The Cooks ran the hotel until after the Civil War, enlarging it twice.
In 1871, the wooden Cook’s Hotel was demolished and replaced by a four-story brick building. The Cooks had retired by then, but the new hotel retained their name and a reputation as “the” destination for visitors to town. In 1896, presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan stayed at Cook’s and gave a speech standing on the marquee above the entrance. According to contemporary accounts, Huron Street was jammed as far as the eye could see.
On Christmas morning in 1910, the hotel was badly damaged by a fire that started in the basement. No one was hurt, but some of the guests barely escaped. After two months of remodeling the hotel reopened, boasting the latest in luxuries: telephones in every room and an electric elevator. It was renamed the Allenel—a blend of the words Allen (presumably after Ann Arbor founder John Allen) and hotel.
The hotel was remodeled again in 1928, after Angelo Poulos and Ted Dames took it over. Distant relatives, the two men had known each other as boys growing up in Kapsi, Greece (now Artisimon). Both came to the United States as young men, Dames to Chicago and Poulos to Ann Arbor. Poulos owned the Ann Arbor Restaurant at 215 South Main and in 1923, he invited Dames to Ann Arbor when he needed help to build the Michigan Theater.
Poulos’s nephew James Maharis remembers that his uncle and Dames worked very well together. Dames’s widow, Inez Dames, agrees, recalling that Poulos was the more reserved of the two, while her husband was the more outgoing. Active in the Greek community, Poulos was one of the founders of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church.
Dames became the Allenel’s manager, settling into a two-room suite on the second floor. According to Maharis, Poulos “lived on West Washington Street and walked to the hotel every morning before six. He would do most of the buying during the morning hours. Mr. Dames would come down around eleven and start his day. . . . Everyone worked the same--seven days a week.”
About a dozen employees lived in small rooms on the fourth floor—cooks, waitresses, bellboys, and a retired chef who cooked for the staff dining room. The public dining room, off Fourth Avenue, became one of the town’s most elegant eating places. The Tap Room, accessible from either Fourth or Huron, served breakfast, casual meals, and drinks. The kitchen also prepared food for the private Town Club, which had its quarters in the hotel--Jerry and Betty Ford ate their first dinner as a married couple in the Town Club.
Rare steaks were a favorite in the dining room. Poulos’s brother-in-law, James Colovos, carved the turkeys and hams, and Maharis’s parents, Stella Poulos Maharis and Nick Maharis, took care of the salads and ice-cream pie a la mode was always popular. While guests dined, three musicians played soft chamber music. On football Saturdays there were lines for the dining room all day long. After the game, the U-M band often marched through the hotel’s public rooms, playing as they went.
Unless people had university connections and could book the League or the Union, the Allenel’s upstairs banquet room was just about the only place for large events. Alice and Lawrence Ziegler held their wedding rehearsal dinner there, and Pat and Ed Murphy’s wedding brunch was there. The Washtenaw County Medical Society, the Young Republicans, and various service clubs held their meetings there and the May Festival was always celebrated with a big banquet for the visiting orchestra.
Poulos died in 1943, at age fifty-three, of a heart attack. Dames tried to retire in 1952 but, unhappy with the way things were being done in his absence, moved back in 1958. By then, however, the Allenel’s days were numbered. The Town Club had moved to West Washington in 1957; the dining room had closed, leaving only the Tap Room, and the building was showing its great age. In 1964, Dames and Poulos’s heirs sold the hotel. It was torn down and replaced with a Sheraton Inn, which opened in 1967.
Though far bigger--202 rooms instead of 60--the new hotel never achieved its predecessor’s pivotal role. Highway traffic no longer came through the downtown, and most travelers began staying closer to the expressways. Meanwhile, two closer hotels, the new Campus Inn and the renovated Bell Tower Hotel, won most of the U-M trade. After going through several name and ownership changes, the Ann Arbor Inn closed permanently in 1990. Construction is now under way to convert the building into 116 apartments for seniors.