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Ellsworth Milton Statler

In 1950, the hotel industry picked the late E. M. Statler as the "Hotel Man of the Half Century," even though he had been dead for 22 years. Statler's impact on innkeeping was so great, no one else even came close. While many considered Statler the premier hotel figure, he was not a typical executive. A plain, rugged man who started to work at age 9, he continued to wear $20 suits and $4 shoes even after he became successful, and resembled Will Rogers more than Rudolph Valentino.

When Statler began in the hotel business, the following practices were commonplace:

  • Some hotels specifically forbade guests from spitting on the carpets, lying in bed with their boots on or driving nails into the furniture.
  • Even the better hotels had shared bathroom facilities. Bathtubs were usually built on a platform, and hot water cost 25 cents extra.
  • About 90 percent of hotels were American plan, with cheap, unlimited food included in the room rate.
  • Smoking was usually not permitted in dining rooms, bars barred women and wine and beer sold better than liquor.
  • Rooms were heated with stoves or open fireplaces. Signs reminded guests to not blow out the gas jets.
  • No hotel owner called his house full until all double beds were fully occupied, often by complete strangers. Talk about yield management.

Statler was more interested in comfort than trimmings. He said, "A shoe salesman and a traveling prince want essentially the same thing when they are on the road- good food and a comfortable bed - and that is what I propose to give them. I could run a so-called luxury hotel or a resort hotel that would beat any damn thing those frizzly-headed foreigners are doing, but I just don't operate in that field. All I want to do is to have more comforts and conveniences and serve better food than any of them have or do, and mine will be at a price ordinary people can afford."


Ellsworth Milton Statler at age 18, courtesy of Wikipedia

Statler was born on a farm near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on October 26, 1863, the son of Reverend William Jackson Statler and Mary Ann McKinney. When he was young, the family moved to Bridgeport, OH, across the Ohio River from Wheeling, West Virginia. At age 9, Statler and his brothers worked hard at the La Belle Glass Factory in Kirkwood, OH, tending glory holes, small furnaces used to heat and soften glass so it could be formed into bottles or other products. At age 13, Statler landed in the hotel field as a night-time bellboy at the McLure House Hotel in Wheeling, West Virginia.

In 1878, the McLure House had an elevator, but it was reserved for guests and the general manager. Bellboys had to use the stairs to carry luggage and guest necessities like hot water and kindling wood. Guestrooms were barely adequate, furnished only with a bed, a chair and a large clothing hook on the back of the entry door. Apparently, the McLure's saloon was more in tune with guest needs, offering a free lunch buffet of cold meats, hard-boiled eggs and rye bread. A large painting of a nude female hung over the bar.

Enterprising and innovative, Statler leased the hotel's billiard room and railroad ticket concession and made them profitable. He got help from an unexpected source: his younger brother Osceola had developed an amazing talent for billiards. Osceola's fame brought people to the hotel to watch the local champion defeat comers from out-of-town. Statler bought out the company that owned the four-lane Musee Bowling Lanes, added four additional lanes and installed eight pool and billiard tables. He then organized a citywide bowling tournament with a grand prize of $300.

To accommodate the crowds, Statler started the "The Pie House" in the Musee building, serving his mother's pies, minced chicken and ham sandwiches on eggshell china with quadruple-plated table silver. The place was so busy, pin boys in the bowling alleys had to spend their spare time turning cranking the ice-cream freezers.

The family business thrived: Osceola was partner and manager of the billiard room; brother Bill had charge of the bowling lanes; mother Mary and sister Alabama turned out sandwiches and pies. As for Ellsworth, a $10,000 annual income allowed him to pursue his dream: to own and operate a 1,000-room hotel in New York. Ultimately, he fulfilled it, following the old vaudeville line that to get to New York City, you had to go by way of Buffalo.

Statler used to go fishing with friends in the St. Clair River at Star Island in Canada. In 1894, on his way home, he stopped in Buffalo where he observed the Ellicott Square office building under construction, billed as "the largest office building in the world". He learned that the owners were looking for an operator for a large restaurant on the main floor and basement for $8,500 per year rental. Statler struck a deal to lease the space provided he raised enough money to furnish a large restaurant. That summer, Statler also married Mary Manderbach, whom he had met in Akron eight years earlier and together they raised four adopted children. They moved to Buffalo, opening Statler's Restaurant on July 4, 1895 with fireworks and patriotic oratory.

Statler staked all on the annual convention of the Grand Army of the Republic that would bring thousands of Union Army veterans and their families to Buffalo. He widely advertised a menu offering "all you can eat for 25¢." The quarter bought bisque of oysters, olives, radishes, fried smelts with tartar sauce and potatoes Windsor, lamb sauté Bordelaise with green peas, roast young duck with apple sauce and mashed potatoes, Roman punch, salad with Russian dressing, cream layer cake, ice cream, coffee, tea or milk. What's more, you could eat as much as you liked.

In 1908, with the profits of the Statler Restaurant, he built the Buffalo Statler hotel with 300 guest rooms and 300 bathrooms (the first hotel to have a private bath in every room). Statler designed the "Statler plumbing shaft" which enabled bathrooms to be built back-to-back, providing two baths for a little more than the price of one. These shafts, besides carrying water and waste pipes, also contained heating pipes and electrical conduits. Statler advertised, "A Room and a Bath for a Dollar and a Half."

Statler's preoccupation with comfort and efficiency brought about the following innovations in his subsequent hotels: ice water circulating to every bathroom, a telephone in every room, a full-size closet with a light, a towel hook beside every bathroom mirror, a free morning newspaper, and a pin-cushion with needle and thread. In 1922, at the Pennsylvania Statler in New York City, Statler introduced the Servidor, a bulging panel in the guestroom door where the guest hung clothes for cleaning or pressing. The valet could pick up and return them from the corridor without entering the room. The Pennsylvania Statler also was the first hotel to offer complete medical services including an X-ray and surgical room, a night physician and a dentist.

Statler was also concerned about making certain that the staff focused on guest satisfaction. When he established his first hotel, he said "a hotel has just one thing to sell. That one thing is service. The hotel that sells poor service is a poor hotel. It is the object of the Hotel Statler to sell its guests the very best service in the world."

Statler's precepts eventually became the "Statler Service Code," a formulation for employees of the founder's ideals. The code aroused so much interest that over the years it was made available to guests as well as employees. Long before "empowerment" became a cliché, every Statler employee signed off on the following pledge:

  1. To treat our patrons and fellow employees in an interested, helpful, and gracious manner, as we would want to be treated if positions were reversed
  2. To judge fairly - to know both sides before taking action
  3. To learn and practice self-control
  4. To keep our properties, buildings and equipment in excellent condition at all times
  5. To know our job and to become skillful in its performance
  6. To acquire the habit of advance planning
  7. To do our duties promptly
  8. To satisfy all patrons or to take them to our superior

Because of the pressure he put on employees, Statler was one of the first hotel owners to be concerned with employee relations and benefits. He devised a profit-sharing plan that allowed maids and bellmen to retire with security and dignity.

Statler's widow, Alice Seidler, a capable executive, managed to keep the company solvent during the Depression years. She ran the Statler Hotel Company until 1954, when she sold it to Hilton Hotels for $111 million, merging Statler's 10,400 rooms with Hilton's 16,200. That was the greatest merger and largest private real estate deal in history. The well-financed Statler Foundation became a major benefactor of the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and many other hotel-related activities.

E.M. Statler wrote: "Life is service. The one who progresses is the one who gives his fellow men a little more - a little better service."

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About Stanley Turkel

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Stanley Turkel, CMHS is a New York-based hotel consultant specializing in hotel-related expert witness and franchising services. He was designated as the 2015 and 2014 Historian of the Year by Historic Hotels of America, an official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. To order his books, Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry; Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York; Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi; Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels West of the Mississippi; and Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt and Oscar of the Waldorf, go to stanleyturkel.com and click on "books."

Turkel can be reached at stanturkel@aol.com or (917) 628-8549.