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Growing up in the American Hotel

Grace Shackman

Warren Staebler's boyhood neighbors were traveling salesmen and May Festival musicians

In the early years of this century, traveling salesmen would set up shop for a week at a time in the "sample rooms" of the American Hotel at Ashley and Washington. Downtown merchants would come by to order everything from liquor to dry goods for their stores. Composer Victor Herbert, one of many famous musicians who stayed at the American during the annual May Festival, claimed its dining room served the best sauerkraut between New York and Chicago. But to Warren Staebler, the hotel was home.

Staebler's grandfather, Michael Staebler, built the brick hotel (now best known as the home of the Earle restaurant) in 1885. He called it the Germania, after the Germania Society. Like the Schwaben Verein and the Greater Beneficial Union, the Germania Society sold mutual insurance to members, and it also served as a social center. The hotel's top-floor ballroom housed the society's meetings, lectures, physical drills, and concerts.

The society did not prosper, but the hotel did. In 1895, two years after Warren Staebler's father, Albert, began working there, the family divided the ballroom into additional guest rooms, added a fourth story with still more rooms, and changed the name from the Germania to the American. In 1905, the year Albert Staebler married Dora Tice, Michael Staebler retired and Albert and Dora took over the business. Warren was born in 1910.

The family had a four-room apartment on the second floor, but Warren lived in the whole hotel. As a young boy, he rode his tricycle around the terrazzo-floored lobby, sometimes detouring through the adjoining saloon. He and his sister, Bernice, ate their meals in the hotel kitchen, served by the pastry chef. The only meal the family ate together was Sunday dinner, in the hotel dining room.

Warren remembers sitting in front of the lobby fireplace talking with guests, many of them regulars whom he and his family got to know well. Most were salesmen, who arrived by train, usually on a Monday, and stayed the entire week. Many May Festival musicians returned annually for as many as twenty-five years, and the American also welcomed theater troupes performing at the Majestic Theater on Maynard.

After a big storm, gangs of repairmen from Detroit Edison and the telephone company would stay at the hotel while working to restore service. Other guests came for special events or to visit relatives—in an age when even many employed adults lived in boarding houses, they had little space to put up their visiting families.

From the beginning, the hotel also was home to a flock of Staebler family businesses. From the storefront on the building's east side, Michael Staebler sold, at various times, farm implements, fuel, sewing machines, athletic equipment, and various modes of transportation—bicycles, motorcycles, cars. The Staeblers ran Ann Arbor's first car dealership there, selling Toledo Steamers, then Reos, Oaklands, Franklins, and finally Pontiacs.

As his sons came of age, Michael Staebler turned the various businesses over to them. Albert, the fourth of six sons, was given the hotel business.

Warren Staebler recalls that his father supervised a staff of four desk clerks (often university students), two bartenders, a janitor, and a man who drove the horse and wagon to the railroad station to pick up guests. His mother supervised the chambermaids—one per floor—and had most of the hands-on responsibility for the dining room.

Located right behind the lobby, the dining room was very formal, with linen tablecloths and napkins and waitresses in starched uniforms. The food was good enough that people from town came for dinner there, especially on Sundays.

The hotel saloon also served local customers. When Prohibition was enacted, it switched to serving soft drinks, sandwiches, and light refreshments. But business dwindled, so the space was turned over to the family's car dealership (which had expanded on Ashley).

By then, the heyday of downtown hotels was over. The traveling salesmen had all shifted from trains to cars, which gave them the freedom to go directly from customer to customer, bringing their samples with them. In 1927 the American's dining room closed; its space became the Staeblers' Pontiac showroom.

In 1929, Michael Staebler died, and Albert's family moved into his duplex on Liberty and Third streets. The next year, Albert retired. For a while. Warren's uncles, Walter and Herman, who operated the car dealership, also ran the hotel, but they soon leased it to a company who ran it as the Griswold. In 1954 the Milner chain took over, renaming it the Earle after company owner Earl Milner, who had grown up in Ann Arbor. In 1971, the hotel closed for good.

In 1973, four partners, Ernie Harburg, Rick Burgess, David Rock, and Dennis Webster, bought the building, opened the Earle restaurant in the basement, and began restoring the rest of the building. In 1982 they sold the building to Tom Gaithwaite and Marvin Carlson, who gutted the upper floors, which were still divided into sixty-one small hotel rooms, and made the space into elegant offices, today occupied mainly by lawyers. The eastern storefront, until recently 16 Hands, is currently vacant. The western storefront—the original hotel dining room and lobby—is undergoing conversion to the Sweetwaters Cafe (see Changes, March).

When he grew up. Warren Staebler operated the Hi-Speed gas station at the corner of Packard and Arch (today a park). Now retired, he still keeps several souvenirs of his unusual boyhood in the hotel his grandfather built: a set of chairs from the dining room and spittoons from the lobby and saloon. Asked about growing up in a hotel, he recalls, "My friends envied me because I had no grass to cut. And I envied them because they had grass to cut." —Grace Shackman

Photo Captions

(Left) The exterior and lobby of the American Hotel. Also called the American House, it was originally named the Germania in honor of the Germania Society, which met in its third-floor ballroom. (Note the very tall windows there; the lower-ceilinged fourth floor was an 1895 addition.)

Founder Michael Staebler is the bearded man behind the counter; standing next to him is his son, Albert, Warren Staebler's father.

(Above) The Earle Building today.

Rights Held By
Grace Shackman