Our Rich History
The Chase Park Plaza is the subject of the book Meet Me in the Lobby, which highlights the significant events at the hotel from the 1920’s to present day. Enjoy a few excerpts below and for the full story you can purchase the book in our gift shop.
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The 1920's and 30's
In 1930, Sam arranged for a $3.07 million loan from Central States Life Insurance Company that allowed him to complete the structure in September: 320 suites ranging from efficiency to duplex studio apartments, a 300—car garage, and a range of shops. "I supervised every step of the designing and building of the Park Plaza," said Sam Koplar in a later Post—Dispatch story. "I would walk through the rooms at night with a torch and examine the plastering. If I found rough places in closet corners, I would hack at them with a hatchet so they would be done over." Everything about the new building, from its fire—proof steel framing to its refrigeration on every floor, was state of the art.
Even when he was ill, Sam kept watch over the workers and their construction techniques. "Once, Sam was in Jewish Hospital, and he had a pair of binoculars with him that he used to keep an eye on the workers," said his grandson, Ted Koplar. "One of them was shocked when he got a call on the telephone: it was Sam, calling from his hospital bed, and asking him what the hell he was doing with his work on the building."
Telephone operator Gertrude Newell was there at the beginning to tend the Park Plaza switchboard, and at least one other longtime employee came to Sam during the construction. Alberto Aranda Villalobos, for decades a fixture at the Chase Park Plaza, where he was known simply as "Alberto," was a young Spanish immigrant in 1929, looking for work, when he happened to walk past the Park Plaza's construction site. "He just tapped some man on the shoulder it was Mr. Sam, though he didn't know it then -- and said he was young and strong and could do manual labor," said Barbara Hemphill, secretary to Harold and later to Ted Koplar. "Sam Koplar hired him on the spot to become a night watchman, and Alberto once told me, 'I've been loyal to him ever since."
Years of Struggle
Amid the difficult Depression years that followed, Sam struggled to keep hold of his glorious new hotel. Meanwhile, the Chase Hotel was also in trouble: defaulting on its first mortgage and running through a string of owners — seven in the nine years after it opened. In 1930, it was advertising single rooms for $3 and up, with doubles at $5 to start; luncheons were $1, with dinners at $1.50 to $2. "Delightful, home—like rooms, superbly appointed, appeal instantly to discerning people of refinement and good taste," one ad said.
By 1931, the Chase was in foreclosure, with William R. Orthwein of St. Louis and S.W. Straus & Co. of Chicago named as trustees for its $2.7 million in bonds. Soon Central States, still the first mortgage holder, took over operating control of the Park Plaza under a voluntary agreement with Sam Koplar, the second mortgage holder, who stayed on as manager at a salary of $10,000 a year.
Some of his other properties also were in jeopardy. In 1932, foreclosure suits were filed in federal court against the Congress Hotel and the Senate, Embassy, and Branscome Apartments; the Koplar Company held title to the first three, while Sam and Jeannette Koplar themselves held title to the Branscome. The properties, said Koplar then, "are all earning enough to cover interest payments, but not enough to retire bonds as they mature." So Koplar filed a refinancing plan designed to protect the interests of the bondholders while preserving his equity. In 1935, the properties were again in danger of foreclosing — and this time an attorney representing Central States, Frank Y. Gladney, declared ominously that "the insurance company would oppose [Sam Koplar's] plans, as they might adversely affect its interests if there should be a foreclosure of the Park Plaza mortgage." Another mortgage holder also objected to one piece of the plan: Sam's proposed $6,930 per year salary as manager of the Congress and Senate.
The financial upheaval during this period brought one prize into Koplar control. In 1933, the St. Louis Theatre was sold at foreclosure, since the Orpheum Theatre Company — a subsidiary of Radio—Keith—Orpheum (RKO) Corporation, which had leased and later bought the theater — was now in receivership. Among the holders of the second, $710,000 mortgage were Harry, Sam, and Nat Koplar; Harry promptly announced that the theater, closed since January, would open in the fall as a first—run movie house. Over the years, Harry had become increasingly involved in the theater business, even filing a contentious suit against Warner Brothers as a minority shareholder in the vast Skouras Brothers Enterprises.
For Sam, the other shoe finally dropped in 1935, when Central States applied to foreclose on the Park Plaza. For the time being at least, a federal judge denied the petition — but Central States decided it could no longer afford Sam's salary as manager, and in August 1935 he was out of a job. Harry B. Caldwell, formerly in charge of the accounting department, stepped in as acting manager. Norman Probstein recalled that his father, Dr. Jacob Probstein, worried about Sam's state of mind when he had to leave his beloved hotel. "On the day Sam had to move out, my father got up real early to go down to see if he was all right, because he had to be pacing all night long. He waited, waited, waited, waited, and Sam kept sleeping — and he slept until about 9 or 9:30 in the morning, and then he just walked out of the building. He was a very stoic guy."
Soon Sam went back to work, and right next door. Former St. Louis Mayor Henry W. Kiel, receiver for the Chase Hotel, hired Sam as its manager, offering him a salary of $12,000 per year. By the following summer, public friction had arisen between the Chase and the Park Plaza, whose residents filed a complaint about "loud music and noise" coming from the Chase's rooftop garden in the wee hours of the morning. Caldwell and a group of angry residents, including Judge Thomas Hennings, vice president of the Mercantile—Commerce Bank and Trust Company, charged that Sam Koplar had moved the bandstand, formerly in the center of the roof, to the north side, almost directly under Park Plaza windows. Newspaper accounts implied he had done so out of spite. However, Sam defused the situation, replying that he would omit loud soloists late in the evening and have his engineers cut down on the number of loudspeakers.
During 1936, that old reorganization plan for the Congress, Senate, and Embassy buildings was still churning its way through the courts. In October, Sam himself appeared in federal court to testify that he would guarantee new mortgage bonds to be issued to the holders of the now—defaulted bonds. When questioned, though, he had to admit that he was completely, totally broke. Exactly how much personal wealth did he have? "Six suits of clothes and a 1930 LaSalle automobile," he replied. Judge Charles B. Davis was dumbfounded. "How can this court approve a plan which calls for bonds to be guaranteed by a man who testified that all he owns is six suits of clothes and an ancient automobile?" he asked.
The case ended in February 1937 — with bad news for Koplar, the principal stockholder, who had proposed a plan that would allow him to retain control. In the court's version of the reorganization, control of the three properties went to the bondholders, and Sam's job as manager also disappeared. Even worse news was coming. In 1937, Sam finally lost the Park Plaza through foreclosure to Central States for $2.5 million. Much later, he remembered putting his arm around his wife's shoulder and saying, "Don't feel bad. Who knows? In 10 years we might have it all back again."
In early December 1940, a glittering crowd of 450 St. Louisans arrived at the Chase Hotel for the grand opening of a 10th-floor venue: the Starlight Roof and adjacent Zodiac Cocktail Lounge. The old open-air roof garden and dance terrace were gone, and in their place was this “up-to-the-minute cocktail lounge,” said the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “enclosed in walls of glass one-quarter of an inch thick through which the guests looked out on the sweep of Forest Park and the intersecting chains of lights along Lindell Boulevard and Kingshighway.”
The new Zodiac Lounge was lavishly designed and decorated, with a stunning circular bar made of glass, 62 feet in circumference. The 12 signs of the Zodiac had been sandblasted into its surface, and in the center a silver figure of a girl – sculpted by Carl Mose, a Washington University professor – pointed to the sky. “At the flick of a switch,” said the newspaper account, “the dome above the silver figure slides back, revealing, at times, the star-studded sky.” Any walls not made of glass were decorated with murals drawn by Eric Mose, brother of Carl, whose work had already won acclaim at the New York World’s Fair. This room, said one columnist, “gives our town a real topnotch class spot…with costly decorations and equipment that baffle description.”
Sam Koplar, still the General Manager of the Chase Hotel, which he would acquire six years later, had spared no expense for this black-tie affair, ordering a six-course dinner for the guests and booking the Orrin Tucker Orchestra with singer Bonnie Baker and the dance team of Gower and Jeannie. Among the specially invited guests – summoned to the occasion by a silver-and-blue-velvet invitation, with a girl riding a dolphin on its cover – were many of the St. Louis elite: toastmaster Thomas M. Dysart, president of the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce; U.S. Circuit Court Judge George H. Moore and his wife; Mayor and Mrs. Bernard Dickmann; Mr. and Mrs. Leo Durocher; C.C. Johnson Spink; and Henry Kiel, former St. Louis mayor and vice president of the company that owned the Chase.
This magical evening had special significance for Sam and Jeannette Koplar: it represented the first major design and building effort of their son, Harold Koplar, who had begun his business career only months before as manager of the Forest Park Hotel.
1950 to 1961
By the 1950’s, the Chase had a national reputation for its "razzle—dazzle" attractions, as one newspaper called them, and in particular the Chase Club was widely known as one of the leading night clubs in America. "In those days," said performer Marty Bronson, "every prominent entertainer had to play the Palmer House in Chicago; the Empire Room at the Waldorf or the Copacabana in New York; the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles; and the Fairmont or the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco. If you wanted to be successful, you also had to have the Chase Club in your résumé."
St. Louisans were drawn to this steady line—up of leading performers. "The Chase Club was the only place in town you could go on Saturday night. I used to work seven days a week, but Saturday evening was my night out and invariably I went to the Chase — it didn't matter what star was there, if you wanted entertainment, that was the place to go," said St. Louis businessman Johnny Londoff.
What made the Chase Club such a sought—after venue? "The dance floor was just the right size, so was the bandstand — it was not cramped — and the acoustics were great," said band leader Buddy Moreno. Most of all, Hack Ulrich had become the heart and soul of the place: finding customers just the right seats, getting to know every star around. "I used to come in around 2:00 in the afternoon," Ulrich said, "and start lining up the reservations, getting all the tables out there, with some busboys helping me."
One afternoon, he was setting up as usual when two older teens walked in and marveled at the elegance of the room. Hack invited them back to catch the second show, featuring Sophie Tucker and the Tommy Dorsey band. "One of them said: 'I don't know if we'll get here in time. I'm Elvis Presley.' He was appearing somewhere else in town, but he did come back later and had that gold lame suit on." Another time a young soldier in uniform walked in. "What a beautiful place," he said. "Man, do I want to play this place some time".
1970 to 1985
It is a busy time of day for the doorman of the Chase Park Plaza, a genial man costumed in a pink hunting coat and black peaked riding cap, and looking very much like a master of the foxhounds, " said a St. Louis Globe-Democrat Magazine article in March 1971. "Bags are clustered about him. Bellmen dart to and fro. Behind and about [him] the Chase Park Plaza edifice leaps to 28 setback stories at its greatest height and within it are 1,700 separate rooms, many of them combined into suites of plush opulence. All things considered, it is the largest hotel west of the Mississippi. [It is also] one of less than a dozen of the big independent hotels left in America and one of only a few family-owned hostelries that exist today. Some feel that with changing times and new conditions confronting it, the independent house is facing a losing fight for survival. The Chase Park Plaza gives no evidence of this."
The article went on to tally the staggering numbers associated with such a place: 150,000 guests per year, staying an average of 2.5 days; 100,000 square feet of convention, restaurant, and banquet space for the 200 conventions hosted annually; 1,100 employees, including 40 department heads; 16 tons of bed linen laundered every year; six kitchens with some 30 cooks; and 12 switchboard operators making an average of 100 wake-up calls each morning.
At the helm was Harold Koplar, who sat at a paper-strewn English partner's desk that his father, Sam, had bought years earlier; he was surrounded by the antiques and statuary — $1.5 million worth by now, according to this article — that he had acquired on his own travels.
Nearby was the office of his son and heir apparent, Robert Koplar, who lived at the hotel. In an echo of Harold's own experience with Sam, Bob would become president in 1974, while his father would move up to chairman. In still another echo, unmentioned in the article, Harold and Bob would spar over expenditures just as Harold had with his father, only this time the roles were reversed: Harold loved to embark on buying sprees and building ventures, while Bob tried to rein him in.
The tone of this story was overwhelmingly positive — and in fact, many good things were happening at the hotel.