As it were

Early hotels were simple affairs

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Courtesy of the Columbus Metropolitan Library
The American House Hotel opened at the northwest corner of State and High streets in November 1836.

Hotels have been in the news in Columbus in recent months in a rather indirect but positive sort of way.

The recent opening of a new Hilton hotel adjacent to the Greater Columbus Convention Center, combined with improvements to several existing downtown hotels, has made Columbus an attractive candidate for even larger conventions and other large public events. Indeed, it may not be too long before Columbus joins Cincinnati and Cleveland in having hosted a national political convention.

Columbus in many ways has always been a service city. The first businesses of any substance in the new frontier capital were taverns and inns. The Ohio General Assembly only met for a few months in those days. But when the legislators came to town, they needed a place to stay.

When the legislature was not in session, the courts – federal, state and local – continued to meet, and lodging was needed for all of the parties prosecuting and being prosecuted, suing and being sued, or just in town to watch all things judicial.

Most of the early taverns and inns were rather simple affairs. They consisted of one- or two-story buildings mostly located along High Street, with an adjacent vacant lot often serving as a wagon yard and outdoor livery stable.

Most of the early inns consisted of a downstairs public room with a welcome fireplace and a table with food and drink. The larger inns even had a bar which – as the name suggests – helped keep the customers at a decent distance from the drinks of the day.

When socializing was done, guests retired to the upstairs – in the better houses by an actual staircase – or to an adjacent outbuilding, where they spent the night with several people to a bed in a place with several beds. People who arrived late or who were servants or employees slept on the floor. After all, it was better than sleeping with the horses.

The early taverns were colorful places, and we know quite a bit about them from local histories and early accounts. With all that we know of that early history, one might think it would be easy to identify the first hotel in the capital city.

Not really.

Like many other stories we tell about the early history of Columbus, this one is not quite as easy as one might think. A number of places called themselves hotels in Columbus in the years between 1812 and the time when the National Road arrived. Most of them were nothing more than taverns with the name of “hotel.”

The opening of the National Road changed everything. On March 1, 1832, local newspapers made an announcement: “The undersigned, from Lancaster, in this state, has taken the tavern stand, nearly opposite to the public buildings, and owned by William Neil, esq., which will hereafter be known as the National Hotel, and will be furnished and attended to in a style equal to the highest expectations. The Ohio Stage Company stops at this house, and their office is attached to the establishment.” The ad was signed by John Noble.

This was something new in Columbus. It not only offered many rooms but also a large eating room as well as a bar and other rooms for public and private meetings. It was a reflection of the fact that Columbus was a growing city due to the arrival of the Ohio Canal and the National Road.

In short order, the two-story brick hotel, painted a rather garish green, had a rival.

There had been a tavern called the Franklin Inn at the northwest corner of State and High streets for some time. Robert McCoy acquired the site and opened a dry goods store. McCoy in due course decided a hotel made more sense. Constructing what would come to be called the American House Hotel, McCoy broke a bottle of good whiskey at the top of a chimney when the last brick was laid. The hotel opened in November 1836, and the building would survive into the 20th century.

In 1839, William Neil, who had made his money in stagecoaches while his wife ran a small tavern on Statehouse Square, decided the future was in hotels. Spending what was, for that time, the immense sum of $100,000, he built the first of what eventually would be three Neil House hotels. With black walnut floors and wall paneling, immense staircases and public rooms, and service unparalleled in the city, the Neil House became the place to reserve a room.

And so it stayed until 1860, when it burned to the ground in one of the more spectacular fires in the city’s history.

The Neil House Hotel fire – tragic as it was – had a number of positive aftereffects. The inability of Columbus firefighters to extinguish the blaze led to the creation of a professional fire department for Columbus – one of the first of its kind in the country.

The fire also led to the construction of a new generation of hotels in Columbus. Proclaimed to be “fireproof,” some were and some proved to be less than that.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.

The American House Hotel opened at the northwest corner of State and High streets in November 1836.

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