The elevator groaned and creaked as it slowly descended. Adding to the agonies of the ancient elevator was the shrill sound of metal screeching on metal.
“Jake, do you think this elevator will make it to the basement,” Vanessa whispered to me.
“Oh, I’m sure it will make it down,” I whispered back, “but I’m not so sure it’ll make it back up.” There was an uncomfortable look on the faces of the other couple.
Finally, the elevator came to a jerking stop six inches above the floor level and with a yank on the scissors gate, the elevator finally opened. The light from the elevator cast its illumination into the outer wise dark speakeasy.
As soon as I closed the steel elevator door we were in total darkness. I heard the metal on metal screeching resume and fade away as the machinery sent the car back up to room 607. After what seemed like an hour in the dark, but was only a few minutes, the elevator stopped again in the speakeasy. This time the car stopped even with the floor. Madeline and the other two couples stepped from the car.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Curtis, I should have told you where the light switch was,” Madeline said, apologetically. She flipped a hidden switch. The room was lit by a dozen or so unfrosted teardrop shaped hundred watt light bulbs suspended in the dust and cobweb covered fixtures.
“The speakeasy was a different matter,” Madeline resumed her talk. “Where the hotel was Art Deco; the speakeasy was pure Edwardian. You’ll notice the absence of stainless steel in the speakeasy,” Madeline continued, “and the only glass in the room were the mirrors behind the bars and the glasses and bottles holding the alcohol. The speakeasy looks just as it did the minute prohibition ended at the stroke of midnight, December Fifth, 1933. Everyone took the elevator up for the last time to the new bar upstairs where legal alcohol, real alcohol was being served again. Please feel free to walk around the speakeasy and try to imagine, if you can, this room filled with beautiful ladies in gorgeous dresses and gentlemen in their tuxedos dancing to the live jazz band,” Madeline said.
We rode the elevator down one story to the sixth floor and walked down the hall to room 607 and stepped inside. It looked liker any other hotel room, a bed, a table and chairs, and a bath off to the side. The only difference in the room was the oversized walk in closet.
“This room was the only entrance, using the special elevator, to the speakeasy down in the secret sub-basement. The elevator only stopped on two floors: the sub-basement and in this sixth floor room. The walk in closet had a secret access panel tucked in the back wall whose existence even the housekeeping staff was unaware. When the hotel was built, this special elevator, as well as the speakeasy, didn’t appear on any known plans.
“This room was never rented but always had a lived in look,” Madeline continued. “The bed was mussed up, used towels casually tossed on the bathroom floor. All of this use was carefully staged to give housekeeping the idea that the room was used. Housekeeping cleaned the room daily even pocketing the dollar tip left for them. They had no idea of the true reason for this room. Because the only known entrance to the sub-basement speakeasy was through this sixth floor room, the speakeasy below was never raided in the thirteen years of prohibition,” Madeline added.
The last stop on our tour was the hidden speakeasy built in an unknown, undocumented sub-basement below the basement. The only access to the old speakeasy was through an old and cramped elevator that probably hasn’t been a serviced since 1933. I think it had a two digit serial number.
The panel hiding the heavy steel door to the four passenger elevator has been removed and the elevator was plainly visible.
“We’ll have to go down to the speakeasy in two trips. I’ll squeeze in on the second trip. Mr. Curtis, will you take charge of the first trip, please?” Madeline asked.
I nodded in agreement and Vanessa and I followed one of the other couples into the elevator, slid the scissors gate closed and pushed the button with the arrow pointing down.
While the architecture of the rooms were unadorned, the rooms were furnished with modern Art Deco styled furniture. The beds, dressers and desks had stainless steel frames. The beds had feather pillows and down filled mattresses. The head and foot boards were upholstered with brilliant neon colored fabric of the same material as the dining room chairs. Each floor had its own color scheme even to the linens and towels,” Madeline said. “The Primrose Hotel was a grand palace said to be the equal of the best hotels in New York City, and it was right here in Mossville.”
“The bathrooms were the most modern money could buy in 1921. Each toilet tank hung on the wall above the commode and was boxed in a mahogany cabinet. The tank had a brass pull chain with a decorative porcelain pull hanging at the bottom of the chain. The sink was incorporated into a mahogany console. The bathtubs were new porcelain claw foot tubs also enclosed in mahogany cabinetry. The walls were white subway style ceramic tile set horizontally and the floor was an inch by an inch square black and white ceramic tile set in a checkerboard pattern.”
We crowded into the elevator and rode up to the seventh floor and went into room 701. It was one of two elegant penthouses suites on the seventh floor consisting of a living room with a fireplace, a large master bedroom. Off the bedroom was a large luxurious bathroom with a tub and a built in shower. Through the bathroom was the second smaller bedroom. Beige linen covered the walls in the living room and both bedrooms capped off with plaster crown molding where the walls met the ceiling.
“This is the suite that in the late twenties Patsy Barrow, the silent movie star climbed into a bathtub of hot water, opened her wrists with a straight razor and bled to death when she learned that she was being dropped from the studio roster because she failed her sound test. They said her voice sounded somewhere between chalk being scraped across a blackboard and a screeching hawk. The next day Chicago mobster Johnny Torrio stayed in this very same suite while his protege stayed in suite 702 across the hall. The protege’s name was Al Capone,” Madeline said with a smile.
“Placed around the room,” Madeline continued, “Were six fake palm trees with their bases encased in boxes of the same black marble. The trees are gone now but you can still see the marble boxes. Oh, this was a beautiful place,” Madeline sighed. She paused as she appeared to be lost in her memories.
“To the right, off the lobby was the Primrose Restaurant. Within weeks of the hotel’s opening, the restaurant was the best place in Mossville to enjoy an elegant dinner. Everybody who was anybody in Mossville dined here at least once a week, sometimes more often. The Art Deco styling continued into the restaurant with the modern stainless steel and glass tables. The chairs had matching stainless steel frames but were richly upholstered in brilliant colored fabrics. But the restaurant was only a single story tall giving it a more intimate feel. The black and white checkerboard floor continued into the restaurant. Also continued in the restaurant were the marble encased fake palm tree. As the fame of the restaurant grew and more people wanted to dine here the palm trees were removed in the mid twenties to make room for more tables.
“But what really made the restaurant popular was the food. The primrose Hotel owners stole Executive Chef Henri Mathieu away from a very famous restaurant in Paris, France. Mathieu roughly translates into “gift of God” and he thought his cuisine he was just that, a mathieu,” Madeline chuckled at her little word play, then continued. “Much later I found out that Mathieu was being paid the unheard of amount in those days of five hundred dollars a week. He wouldn’t take any input or suggestions or directions from anybody including Edwin Bruton, the hotel owner and his boss.
“Our tour will take us through this lobby, the restaurant, the new bar lounge opened after the repeal of Prohibition. We will also tour some of our more famous rooms. Rooms that gave overnight rest to movie stars, heads of state and heads of criminal enterprises; sometimes all at the same time.” Madeline said with a laugh.
“The fancy Art Deco architecture stopped on the first floor. The seven stories of rooms above were stylish and comfortable hotel rooms. The Primrose Hotel had one new and innovated modern design feature,” Madeline said. “Each room had its own bathroom tub with shower.
“My name is Madeline and I will be your tour guide this afternoon. My grandfather and then after he passed, my mother once owned the Primrose Hotel. I was practically raised in this hotel. The present owners asked me to come here on this special day, the last day the public will be able to see the inside of the Primrose Hotel to tell its story.
Preservationists failed in their legal efforts to prevent the demolition. Money, or rather the lack of money, was the problem. There were no private funds available to restore the Primrose Hotel and the town of Mossville didn’t have the money either so the Primrose Hotel is scheduled to be turned into a vacant lot starting next Monday. Oh, what a shame it will be.” She took the hankie from her sleeve and dabbed her eyes then returned it to her sleeve.
“My parents used to come here to the Primrose Hotel often when they were courting and continued coming here even after I was born. When I came here as a child with my parents they told me the hotel then looked very much like it did when it first opened.
“Opened in early 1920, the Primrose Hotel was said to be the first Art Deco style building constructed anywhere. The Primrose Hotel started the art deco building craze which included among others, the Chrysler Building in New York City. I’m told that Art Deco style took off during the roaring twenties when life was good and modernization was even better. The beauty and critical success of the Primrose Hotel was an early inspiration for the growth of the style. The exterior had the smooth flowing lines of a streamlined locomotive with stainless steel trim reflecting the gaudy colored neon lights by night and the sunshine by day. The lobby interior continued with the same stainless steel and neon theme and rose two stories. The front desk made of stainless steel, glass and colored neon lights around the edges matched the hotel itself.” Madeline paused to catch her breath and dab her forehead with her lace hankie.
“As you can see,” Madeline resumed, “The floor was crafted of imported black and white Italian marble set in a checkerboard pattern. When the Primrose Hotel first opened there were four sofas upholstered in black leather with matching the stainless steel and glass trim complementing the front desk. The arrangement of the sofas framed surrounding an area of floor which was large enough to actually play floor checkers. Guests could set on the sofas and watch the checker games. When I was a child there were big checkers piled in the center of the checkerboard. My mother once said I could play a game of checkers but I never did.” Madeline took the lace handkerchief from her sleeve again and touched it to her eyes
In addition to these open businesses and to the ghosts of the boarded up businesses around the square sat the Roxie Theatre, on the corner of South and West Street directly across the square from the Primrose Hotel. At the other end of the block of South Street at East Street was the Town hall and adjoining police station and next to it the library.
The old theatre was build during the heyday of the grand movie palaces and at the same time as the Primrose Hotel. I thought that movie theatres in those days theaters were named either Roxie or Bijou or in the case of some studio owned movie houses, after the studios itself. The marquee, however, listed a current movie that Vanessa and I talked about seeing just last week in Washington.
The theatre as well as all the buildings around the square were dingy and grimy and could use a good coat of paint but I doubted very seriously if they’d ever see new paint again in this lifetime. The town’s people walked slowly around the square as if life had no further interest in them. They looked defeated, like dead men walking.
We entered the Primrose Hotel lobby. Even with its age and rundown condition, I could see in my mind’s eye the magnificence that once was this hotel in its prime.
We joined the tour just as our tour guide started her presentation. The tour group consisted of four couples of which Vanessa and I were by far the youngest. The other three couples appeared to be in their sixties and maybe they were trying to relive their childhood memories or maybe even their courting days.
“Ladies and Gentlemen the Primrose Hotel is old, crumbling and will be coming down starting next Monday morning, just two days away.” Our tour guide was a woman somewhere in her mid seventies. Tucked in the sleeve of her powder blue shirtwaist dress with a white lace collar and cuffs was a dainty white lace handkerchief. Her blueish white hair was neatly styled and she wore gold frame glasses hanging on a gold chain around her neck. She walked slowly with the aid of a carved oak cane.
We drove into downtown Mossville and found the hotel. The town of Mossville, named after Phineas Moss, an Englishman who in the early 1800’s acquired three thousand acres of virgin Pennsylvania timberland and made his fortune in lumber. How Phineas actually acquired the acreage is still a deep, dark, well kept secret. The citizens of Mossville are proud that the the town square sits on the site of the original lumber camp and saw mill.
The Primrose Hotel stood prominently on the corner of North and West Streets facing the town square. The square had the required statue in the center of what I later found out the town’s people called a Doughboy, a WWI soldier with his soup bowl helmet on his head, his rifle at shoulder arms and standing guard on his tall gray-brown granite pedestal. Carved into the pedestal were the names of the town citizens who served in the war to end all wars with a special notation of the four citizens who made the ultimate sacrifice in that conflict.
We drove around the square taking in our surroundings. In addition to North Street, the square was bounded by streets apply named South, East and West. The Doughboy faced towards East Street and Europe beyond.
Mossville has seen its better day decades ago. The most of the stores around the square were boarded up with gray aged weathered plywood. Some of the sheets of plywood had been in the elements for so long that the plies were well in the process of delaminating and turned gray with age and weather. Gravity pulled the delaminated layers curling downward down over the plywood still in place.
Faded signs still told of the old ghosts stores. On West Street, faded signs for Martin’s Appliance Store, Thompson’s Furniture Store, an old Western Auto Store and many other signs that faded into unreadability. Not all the stores along the square were closed. A liquor store was the only occupied store on West Street. A small mom and pop convenience store, a hardware store and a video store on East Street were lit up and actually had customers. There were one or two other lit up stores around the square but the signs were unreadable. Lights blazed in several of the second and third floors apartments above some the closed stores and a silhouette of a short man passed in front of a second story window.