Inn the beginning

By Russ Hatter Published:

Theres a birthday all of us here at the museum will be celebrating this week. On April 19, 153 years ago this Wednesday, the cornerstone was laid for the Capital Hotel. The Capital City Museum on Ann Street is located in a remnant of the hotel building that survived a devastating fire in 1917.

We have engaged Charlie Swartz at Magees Bakery to make an anniversary cake and we hope youll drop by Wednesday between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to help us celebrate.

Hotels had been a mainstay for Frankfort since we became the official capital of Kentucky in late 1792. Members of the General Assembly would hold their sessions at what is now the Old Capitol on Broadway and naturally needed a place to stay for the duration. Roads and methods of travel were not conducive to returning home each day after a legislative session; therefore the birth of many palatial and sophisticated overnight establishments such as the Mansion House and Weisiger Inn.

For years various legislators, including Henry Clay, wanted to move the state capital to either Lexington or Louisville. Frankfort, realizing the life of the town depended on state government even then, catered to the lawmakers by holding assembly balls and parties, which won their vote to keep the capital here.

In the 1850s the city of Frankfort realized they needed to invest in a bigger and better lodging house to continue winning their vote. Thus was born the Capital Hotel.

The hotel was built through a corporation created by city government under the leadership of Frankfort mayor Philip Swigert and a committee that consisted of financial wizard John Harris Hanna, distillery and banking executive Col. E. H. Taylor, Jacob Swigert (the mayors brother), publisher and state printer Albert G. Hodges, and prominent attorney, state office holder, and father of a future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, James Harlan. They hired architect Isaiah Rogers and his assistant Henry Whitestone.

The master mason for the hostelry was John Haly who would become Frankforts premier builder over the next 40 years. Haly built the old Farmers Bank building, Good Shepherd Church, the Henry Clay and Daniel Boone monuments, courthouses at Lawrenceburg and Lancaster, the Kentucky Military Institute (later the Stewart Home), the old Frankfort fire house still standing at 307 West Main, the annex on the Old Capitol grounds, the dam at Cedar Cove Park and the now demolished Capitol Theatre then known as the Opera House.

The Capital Hotel was constructed on Main between Olive and Ann Streets, the principal part dating from 1853 with a large wing added in 1855. The wing is all that remains and houses todays Capital City Museum and offices.

The main block of the hotel had a colossal portico of six Corinthian columns with broad steps up to the portico. The temple-like front of the main part of the hotel echoed Gideon Shryocks nearby Old Capitol. The hotel walls were not of large uniform blocks of dressed marble as in the Old Capitol but of roughly squared blocks of limestone of varying sizes fitted together much like the present First Federal Bank building.

In back of the first range of rooms the center pavilion rose to three stories and was surmounted by a 16-sided cupola or dome. This dome is the signature for the Capital City Museum as reflected by the sign on the railroad trackside of the present building. The outside wall was stone, 14 inches thick, with an air chamber, and then a brick wall about 13 inches thick. The entire house, basement and all, had about 135 rooms. In 1855 they added 72 more rooms.

The cost for the original building was between $70,000 and $100,000. In the beginning it accommodated 200 to 250 guests. The hotel was heated by steam at first, utilizing grates in all parlors and rooms. Gas lighting arrived in 1877.

The Capital Hotel opened Dec. 27, 1853 just in time to impress the General Assembly. Over the years the hotel passed through the hands of many owners and managers including: James R. Watson, J. R. Aiken, David Merriwether, John T. Gray, and James Saffell. Still others involved John N. Crutcher, A. G. Cammack, Campbell Steele, F. B. McLean, Alfred Harris, and the Harris heirs, Dr. Thomas L. Taylor and Nicholas Casey. Jerome Weitzel bought it in 1882.

Nettie Glenn tells us one of the many luxuries enjoyed by patrons was sipping drinks from chilled glasses provided by the ice room in the cellar built by John Haly. Food staples were purchased from local groceries, including one owned by Orlando Brown, and fresh fruits, meats and vegetables, were delivered to the kitchen by farmers. Originally candlelight or oil lamps lighted the guest rooms. Later the hotel was one of the first city-owned buildings to install new gas lamps.

Guest-room comforts varied according to taste and pocketbook. All contained fireplaces and warm hearth rugs, china bowl, pitcher and washstand, or dresser, and chamber pots. Foot tubs were available on request.

Hotel servants were, for the most part, city-owned slaves, or those whose service was hired from slave owners. The hotel provided snug well-stocked stables and liveried grooms and well trained stable boys to tend exhausted animals. Amusements included billiards, card games, and shooting craps.

When they designed the building they included a fine 40 by 70 ballroom to house the Assembly Ball Club gatherings. The ballroom was beautifully frescoed and supplied with chandeliers. These balls were designed to entertain the legislators and were held here annually until the building was destroyed by fire on April 5, 1917.

With all the extravagance that went into the Capital Hotel it was no wonder it went bankrupt. The city of Frankfort approved a leasing agreement, but this only created new problems and was never a satisfactory solution. When the hotel became something of a white elephant, the city attempted to sell it. Then it went into private ownership.

After the 1917 fire the ruins lay dormant until the New Capital Hotel Company was formed in 1921. The present building opened in November of 1923 as a more modern hotel. It was completed at a cost of $450,000 and had over 100 rooms as well as a huge lobby, ballroom and roof garden. The building closed as a hotel May 15, 1962 housing the State National Bank in 1964. The building was purchased by the Whitaker Trust of Lexington in 1985.

Please drop by and enjoy our celebration of the Old Capital Hotels cornerstone-laying this Wednesday from 11 until at the Capital City Museum.

Sources for research on this article: the Farmers Bank 1971 Second Century of Progress with Frankfort, Carl Kramers Capital on the Kentucky, Clay Lancasters Antebellum Architecture of Kentucky, Rexford Newcombs Architecture in Old Kentucky, Nettie Glenns Early Frankfort Kentucky 1786-1861, Jerome Weitzels 1886 article for the Frankfort Centennial, and Gerald Griffins 1951 article in the Courier-Journal.

As you begin your spring cleaning dont forget to watch for things that the museum could use. We are always looking for photographs, mementos, city and church directories, Kentucky Historical Society Registers, Filson Club Quarterlies, or other local historical items. Please call me at 803-1808 or contact me by e-mail at The Capital City Museum, 325 Ann St., is handicap accessible and open free of charge Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.


Last weeks column ran a photo of the Home Vulcanizing Company at 135 West Main but instead the accompanying caption with the photo was for a service station located on Lewis Street between Main and Broadway. The last donors name should have been Carolyn not Doris Waldner.

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