Worthington's Thompson Hotel: 100 years old and counting
WORTHINGTON -- In the sweet was and was -- yet still not a great long time ago -- Worthington residents, along with residents of every community in America, went to their downtowns day by day to climb stairs. They climbed stairs to second-story offices of doctors and dentists, attorneys and insurance agents. There was as much business and activity in the second levels as there was at the ground level.
I was thinking of this lately when I went to the Hotel Thompson to learn how the grand old twins are faring. I say "grand old twins" for the Thompson is a pair of identical buildings joined by a great lobby.
It was recalled, as 2012 dawned, that the Thompson is now one century old. The digging of the hotel basement began early in 1912, and the structure was completed by year's end. Peter Thompson, the builder, was 73 years old at the time. His sight was failing. But he was resolved that Worthington would have a hotel that would be the finest lodging facility between Mankato and Sioux City. He believed (and he was proved right) that a grand hotel at Worthington would be profitable.
As an earlier report on the Thompson's centennial anniversary noted:
"Peter Thompson wanted a lavish enterprise with stores and dining rooms, public rooms, a barber shop complete with shoeshine stands, a Western Union telegraph office, a cigar case, a news stand, a posh lobby with oil paintings and carpets, guest rooms with running water and electric lights ..." That is what Peter Thompson commissioned, and that is what he got.
The Thompson is the most spectacular business venture ever undertaken in downtown Worthington. The cost was $56,000, a notable amount in 1912. The contractor, Erick Carlstrom of Mankato, built Worthington High School on Seventh Avenue in 1909. Before that he constructed the National Guard Armory at 211 11th St., which was razed last month. (Cost of the hotel does not include furnishings; total cost was $80,000.)
I stood before the old hotel one morning this week and thought of second levels and of stairways. The Thompson has more stairways than any building in town and it was built in three stories, three levels, which makes it still the most imposing structure in Worthington's historic business district.
If you stand on the sidewalk facing the venerable hotel:
To the left is the descending staircase to the basement of the north building. Memories stirred. In one era this was the stairway to Emil Mohr's pool hall. Guys called it the Rat Hole. In another era this was the stairway to the notable shoe repair shop where Herman and Edna Henrichs and then Ralph and Norma Rienstra tended to Worthington's footwear. The shoe repair shop had a stream of customers and often short lines remindful of Avera Clinic. Residents brought their shoes and boots for new half-soles and new heels. For polishing. People made shoes last for a great long time.
The descending staircase to the right, the staircase to the basement of the south building, is still in general use. This staircase leads to Jeff Baumgarn's Worthington Printing Co.
In another time -- in the 1940s, the 1950s -- both these stairways led to the studios of Worthington Radio Station KWOA, "730 on your radio dial."
Eddy Skeets and his band went up and down those stairs many and many times for daily broadcast performances. Fans of all ages followed the band's footsteps. They went to see and hear live performances. They watched as manager Ralph Shepherd read the news in a small, separate studio. They heard disk jockeys introduce recordings of Johnnie Ray singing "Cry," Kay Starr singing 'Wheel of Fortune," and the Mills Brothers singing "The Glow Worm."
I wasn't going downstairs on my visit this week. I was heading for the lobby. This required a climb up six steps between the Thompson's pillars, then several steps across the portico to the front entrance. The businesses in the hotel building -- El Mexicano No. 3; RG Music, where for decades Herbert Drug flourished; Jim Schissel's barber shop on Third Avenue -- the businesses are at the street level. The hotel entrance is fully six feet above the sidewalk.
At the head of the entry stairs to your left, in the north building, was the Thompson barber shop. This was where Chris Hanson and John Kirk, among many, many others through three-quarters of a century, trimmed the hair on hundreds of Worthington heads. This was where, in Peter Thompson's time, you also might go for a shoe shine.
At the head of the entry stairs to your right, in the south building, is the shop where through many years Mrs. Lee Shell operated a realty office and, later, Larry Peterson sold bracelets and rings from Peterson Jewelry.
Through the front doors --
Queen of Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant.
There is nothing any longer to suggest this ever was anything but a restaurant, save perhaps the notably high ceiling.
The white, mosaic tile floor with rather intricate designs in red and green is still there. The white is so clean it has the appearance of being scrubbed by a toothbrush, tile by tile.
There is no counter and there are no booths at Queen of Sheba. There is an array of matching tables and chairs. As with the tile floor, table tops and chairs are polished to a shine. When I stepped through the door there were two men at one table watching a wide-screen television.
Residents would do well to stop at Queen of Sheba for a cup of coffee. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and the management at Queen of Sheba turns out a golden-brown brew. They know how.
So what has changed?
The long, varnished check-in counter where guests signed their names through 75 years -- the check-in counter is gone. The oil paintings in gilded frames that decorated the south wall are gone. Of course, the sofas and easy chairs are gone. There is no Western Union office, no cigar case, no news stand.
And -- maybe I felt grateful -- the grand, bannistered, carpeted staircase where guests ascended to their rooms is gone. There is not even evidence in the upper wall and ceiling that a stairway once ascended there.
I asked about the Empire Room. At the head of the grand staircase, and across a carpeted hall, was the Empire Room, the spacious room where Peter and Christine Thompson celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, along with nearly every prominent local resident --the Empire Room where Worthington's Kiwanis Club famously met through decades and attracted an array of speakers that ranged from U.S. senators to Father Flanagan.
There now are stairways to the upper floors "around the corner" in Queen of Sheba. I was assured "the big room" still is there. I didn't climb to see it.
I was satisfied that, after 100 years, The Thompson remains vital and dynamic.
Peter Thompson, immigrant from Sweden, arrived at the site which was to be Worthington in October 1871. He was 32 years old. The day after he arrived, the first survey of the town was completed.
The next day, Thompson bought three lots, two along Ninth Street for business development and one at the corner of Third Avenue and 11th Street for his family home. Thompson spent time with his personal friend, former Gov. Stephen Miller, who then was an agent in charge of land sales for the St. Paul & Sioux City Railroad.
Thompson returned to the Worthington townsite on Sunday, April 16, 1872, aboard the first regularly scheduled train to stop at the Worthington depot. In his own notable style, Thompson brought with him "three or four" carloads of lumber and "several" carpenters. Work began Monday morning on Thompson's general store along Ninth Street. He also established a farm machinery business and built a warehouse for buying, storing and selling grain. He opened a real estate office.
This was prelude to the buildings he came to commission for 10th Street. Peter Thompson was Worthington's greatest downtown developer.
On Jan. 1, 1880, Thompson (with George J. Day) founded the Nobles County Bank, of which Thompson was president. The imposing bank building in the 200 block of 10th Street followed. Nobles County Bank is distinguished by its twin stone archway entries, with polished granite pillars on either side. Across the front of the second level are six bold windows in a row that fill most of the frontage.
Divided into several smaller stores in the 20th century and disguised by an assortment of signs and facades, the bank building was nearly "lost" until Deb Vander Kooi rescued and restored it.
Peter Thompson seemingly was troubled that Worthington had no distinguished hotel. Perhaps his civic pride was pinched. Whatever, in 1912, when he was 73 years old, he opened the doors to the public for the first time at his landmark Hotel Thompson. Tenth Street, out front, was still not paved, but the hotel was a modern facility. Peter Thompson was right in surmising it would be a commercial triumph.
Peter Thompson's family (two daughters) kept the hotel until 1936, when it was sold to Carl E. Imes of Minneapolis. Imes focused close attention on the Third Avenue side of the building, creating a new facade with shiny black tile and glass blocks at the entrance to a new Thompson Coffee Shop and, to the rear, a dining room with carpeting, linen table cloths and linen napkins.
The Thompson Coffee Shop also functioned as Worthington's bus depot. Sleek buses came and went from a parking area on Third Avenue several times each day. At midday and in the evening, buses waited while passengers went inside for meals.
The coffee shop became a focus of Worthington's business community. Coffee drinkers came and went through every day. The dining room was an object of community pride; it was a place for Sunday dinners.
It was not until the late 1950s that the hotel installed an elevator. The American public began to protest stair climbing. It also was in the late 1950s that the hotel was integrated racially, against resistance from the hotel management.
The Thompson was beyond its prime by 1962, its 50th anniversary year. Restoration would have been costly but -- in any event -- America was in a new era of motels and roadside hotels. At last Holiday Inn came to Worthington. The Thompson's destiny was to become a residential facility, especially for the large population of new residents who came to make Worthington their home.
Today it is possible, at one turn or another, to catch a whiff of fresh-brewed coffee from Queen of Sheba Ethiopian restaurant. The hotel and restaurant are a reflection of community change through 100 years.