Even after all these years of looking into the past of this city, it never ceases to amaze me what one might find while looking for something else. This is usually referred to as the “Serendipity Effect” and this unexpected discovery of interesting things is part of what makes history a pleasure as well as a profession.
In this case I was on the trail of the Chittenden family and one of their many ventures. And they certainly had more than a few of them. In doing so, I came across one of those people who often get missed in the story of Columbus. We readily remember the people who create things, invent things or build things of one sort or another. But once these things are created, invented or built – who keeps them running?
First a little background about the Chittendens, who make much of this happen. The Chittenden family had been in America for a long time. Asahel Chittenden arrived in Columbus when the new capital city of Ohio was less than 20 years old with his wife Harriet Treat Chittenden. By the time their son Henry was born in 1836, Columbus was a city of 5,000 served by both the Ohio Canal and the National Road.
Asahel Chittenden had a house near East Broad Street on South Third Street and Henry Chittenden grew up there with his six siblings. The Chittendens did well in the new country. Asahel Chittenden made money with a variety of business ventures and was able to send his sons to good schools and marry his daughters into wealthy families. Henry Chittenden was much like his father and followed him into business in Columbus. Investing in railroads, streetcar lines and local industries, Henry Chittenden was always looking for a new opportunity.
In 1873 he acquired the land at the northwest corner of Spring and High Streets. Occupying the site was a building previously used by a variety of businesses. He took the existing building at Spring and
High in 1889 and added two floors to it. When he was done he opened it as the Chittenden Hotel. The next year it was destroyed by fire.
Henry Treat Chittenden was a very persistent sort of person.
On the site of the burned-out hotel, he built yet another hotel. Taking up most of a city block it offered superb dining and excellent rooms as well as two adjacent theatres. It opened in 1892. On Nov. 13, 1893, the new hotel burned to the ground in one of the more spectacular fires in the city’s history.
Taking this second loss in stride, he immediately began work on yet another hotel on the site. Perhaps taking a cue from the Great Southern Fireproof Hotel that was constructed shortly after the Chittenden Hotel fire, Henry Chittenden built the third Chittenden to be as fireproof as possible.
It proved to be just that and survived until well into the 1970s. Like most of the better hotels of its era, the Chittenden operated on the American Plan where one price paid for a room as well as three meals a day.
And what meals they were. A sample Sunday menu from the first decade of the Twentieth Century included main courses of Broiled Bluefish, Terrine of Lobster Newburg, Lamb Cutlets, Tenderloin of Beef, and Stuffed Capon. And all of that was supplemented with elaborate appetizers, side dishes and desserts. It was a truism of the times that anyone could build a hotel but the hotel’s success was measured by its cuisine.
And who made sure that cuisine and the service that accompanied it was the best it could be? Well, it wasn’t Henry Chittenden. It was a man like Thomas Frazier.
Thomas Frazier was the Headwaiter at the Chittenden until his death in 1903 at the age of 51. Over the course of a long career he had served as Headwaiter at a variety of the best hotels in America. They included the Kimball in Atlanta, the Ocean House in Newport, R.I., the World’s Inn in Chicago and the Grand Hotel in the Catskills in the state of New York.
In the course of his career he witnessed what once was simply an occupation become a profession, as the best of America’s hotel restaurants came to offer service comparable to their European counterparts. And the people who made that happen were men like Thomas Frazier.
At the time of his death, a memorial to his life and work was published by his friends in the Head and Second Waiters’ National Benefit Association. It read in part, “By his death the young men of the present generation have lost a true friend. Mr. Frazier did everything in his power to stimulate the young men with whom he came in contact, for he was a firm believer in the efficacy of good example and good advice.”
Thomas Frazier was a special sort of person. He, and many people like him, are not as well remembered as men like Henry Treat Chittenden. But perhaps they should be.
Local historian Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek.