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The Night They Opened the Phillips House

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on March 13, 1932


By Howard Burba


     Back in a period we now lightly refer to as “the good old days” a town was measured by its ability to shelter and entertain the traveler.  It was the day of the American-plan hotel, a type of institution now extinct save in the smaller towns and rural villages of the country.  If you found a town boasting an American-plan hotel, you had cause for rejoicing since it meant both food and lodging under the same roof, and in a vast majority of cases such liquid refreshments as you felt your physical well-being demanded.

     It is a long step from that American-plan hotel of  “the good old days” to the massive, towering European-plan hostelries of the present when you must be content with a room no larger than an old-time livery stable box stall, when dinner comes at an hour you formerly reserved for supper and you are forced to depend on a wily bell-hop for a “slug” of liquor that resembles in both taste and appearance a modest sample of furniture polish.

     It’s a long step back to that night in 1852 when Dayton graduated from the small-town to the metropolitan type of hotel.  Yet it is an event worth keeping track of, for it marked a new era in the city’s history.  Hotels have come and gone within the space encompassed by those 80 years.  But never has there been anything in the way of a hotel opening that could compare with the opening of the Phillips House on the night of Oct. 14, 1852.

     For a half-century the historic old Newcom Tavern, Reid’s Inn, Swazey House and Voorhees House had catered to the comfort and entertainment of the traveling public.   Good to the last drop, as hotels went in pioneer days, they yet failed to keep pace with a town that had big things in mind, a town that constantly felt growing pains and a longing to become a city.  The population had passed the 13,000 mark.  Dayton had become the stopping place of the fast-growing army of “drummers” that came out along about this time to glorify the nation’s rapidly expanding industrial life.  Celebrities, too, had found it pretty difficult to travel into the Middle West without touching Dayton, and canal boat traffic was making it a popular shopping point for towns and villages along that early and yet highly important water course.

     So whispers of a new hotel began to be heard about the streets as early as 1849.  They grew more distinct since the California gold rush brought an increased number of over-night guests, pockets bulging with good American money as they hurried from eastern states to the far west with a view to exchanging it for the yellow metal on which its worth and value was based.  When 1850 looked in on Dayton it was to find that rumors concerning a new hotel had crystallized into tangible plans.  A group of enterprising citizens, forward –looking fellows capable of seeing far beyond canal-boat transportation, asserted their willingness to back such an enterprise with their cash.  Two of them, a Mr. Leonard and a Mr. Porter, even went so far as to pool their resources and sign a contract to take over and operate it.

     Work was started on the Phillips House early in 1850, yet it was not until it was completed and furnished that it was christened.  No one had any idea as ground was broken at the southwest corner of Third and Main just what name the new hotel was going to bear.  They were satisfied to know that the plans called for the finest edifice of its kind between Pittsburgh and Chicago, with the possible exception of the Burnet House in Cincinnati.

     Building construction was still in its infancy. Steam shovels and unit steel and concrete mixers were undreamed of. Everything from making the brick to tarring the roof was done by hand, and what would now mean a task occupying some three or four months required almost two years in “the good old days.”  And there wasn’t a moment of any favorable working day when those engaged in erecting the hotel were idle.

     For a time it appeared that the new hotel was going to be finished in time for opening on the Fourth of July, 1852.  Dayton had arranged an unusual celebration for that holiday.  A convention of every volunteer fire department in western and southern Ohio had been planned, and it was felt that it would be a most appropriate time to dedicate the hotel that had already served to give the town new fame throughout the entire Middle West.

     But Messrs. Leonard and Porter were unable to complete the furnishing of the establishment, so the gigantic celebration--and such it was since there were more than a score of volunteer fire departments and several thousand enthusiastic visitors on hand--was lacking in this interesting feature.  But the hotel management made a counter-announcement that served to allay the disappointment occasioned by their delay in getting the hotel ready.  They announced that after much thought and careful consideration they had decided to christen it “Phillips House” in honor of H. G. Phillips, one of the oldest and wealthiest citizens of the community. He had been enthusiastic in promoting its erection and his money had also gone far toward making it the magnificent edifice it proved to be when the finishing touches were placed upon it.

On Oct. 12, 1852, there appeared a paid announcement signed by Messrs. Leonard and Porter. It was the

first official announcement of the opening of the Phillips House.  And here is how it read:



  Thursday Evening, Oct. 14, 1852.  Tickets $5.  Each Ticket Will Admit One Gentleman and Two Ladies.

Executive Committee—J. D. Phillips, J. G. Lowe, J. C. Pierce, Adam Spiece, Fielding Lowery, D. E. Mead, Daniel Beckel, Samuel Craighead, Dr. E. Smith, Charles Harries, E. A. Parrott, J. L. Weston.


     Following that brief announcement came a list of the “managers” selected for the opening.  It was a veritable “Who’s Who” in Dayton for the year 1852, and believing you will be interested in knowing exactly who were directing the fate of the flourishing little city in those days, the complete list is here set down, in the order of publication in a daily paper of Oct. 12, 1852:

     Valentine Winters, H. G. Phillips, Alex Grimes, J. W. VanCleve, Dr. Z. Pierce, Judge R. J. Hall, A. DeGraff, John Howard, Richard Green, P. P. Lowe, W. J. McKinney, J. W. Harries, H. V. Perrine, E. W. Davies, H. L. Brown, R. W. Steele, Joseph Barnett, Peter Odlin, T. J. S. Smith, Frederick Gebhart, Alexander Swaynie, James M. Daniel. Dr. W. Pease, B. F. Shoup. T. A. Phillips, J. B. Chapman, D. B. John, Dr. J. Davis, N. B. Darst, Charles Ells, Simon Gebhart, R. P. Brown, D. A. Haynes, Maj. L. Giddings.

     J. C. Crane, Joseph Clegg, J. L. Miller, S. B. Brown, William Harries, W. F. Comly, H. M. Brown, John Rench, Samuel Doyle, Peter Voorhees, H. K. Steele, R. N. Comly, Col. I. N. Partridge, Judge Morris, James R. Young, James Turpin, Jackson Landon, Col. J. Patterson, R. R. Dickey, J. F. Dodds, Col. J. Greer, Joseph Dusang, H. Huesman, D. W. Iddings, J. W. Dietrich, G. W. Clason, Robert Chambers, B. Ayres, G. W. Houk, C. G. Grimes, William Eaker, Thomas H. McGhee, R. D. Harshman, Gilbert Kennedy, M. J. Parrott, Francis Collins, S. C. Emery, Harvey Conover, Webster Pease, S. Schaeffer, J. C. VanAusdal, Smith Davidson, R. J. King, Dr. Lonstedt, J. F. Harrison, F. M. Jennings, Grove Stutsman, W. B. Conover, Jonathan Harshman, D. H. Bruen.

     F. Carnes, Henry Fowler, Jacob Bunstine, Alex. Gebhart, J. V. Perrine, Christian Herchelrode, D. G. Fitch, A. H. Munn, J. O. Conklin, W. H. Piper, J. M. Smith, C. L. Vallandigham, C. B. Swain, Jonathan Kenney, David Clark, Warren Estabrook, R. Westerman, A. L. Stout. M. B. Walker, Dr. J. Clements, T. L. Smith, W. W. Thompson, Edward Weatherall, Charles Eaker, Jacob Gebhart, B. Dixon, Daniel Eichelberger, Charles Hermann, Samuel Shoup, Jacob Jamison, James Perrine, Jacob Pierce, Dr. J. Walters, Christian Forrer, Horace Pease, S. C. Decker, F. Holiday, Isaac Haas, John Kennedy, I. H. Kiersted, George Owen.

     The gala night arrived and downtown streets were massed with people.  Not only was the entire population of Dayton present to join in the festivities, but they came from miles around.  There had never been anything akin to this in Dayton before.  You couldn’t have persuaded anyone in Dayton that night that there ever again would be anything like it.  The main entrance to the hotel, on Third st. was closed at 7:30 o’clock.  After that hour no one was admitted, except through the “ladies’ entrance” on Main st., and then only by ticket.  These had been eagerly snatched up at what was than a fancy price—five dollars.

     The afternoon paper had assisted materially in bringing such a throng to the center of town, for it had carried this announcement to the homes of its subscribers:

      “The opening of the Phillips House this evening promises to be the most brilliant which has ever been witnessed in Dayton.  Messrs. Leonard & Porter have made their preparations on a grand scale and a style commensurate with the occasion.  A cotillion band composed of 15 pieces has been engaged in Cincinnati.

     “Nothing will be omitted which will give eclat to the occasion and make the entertainment one which will do honor to the event which it is intended to commemorate.”

     Then came the opening, and one of double meaning.  It was the opening of the finest hotel in this part of the country, it was the opening of a new era in Dayton, as subsequent events served to prove.

     But for all of this, something went wrong with those gentlemen who then served the public as news disseminators.  Whether one or both of the Comly brothers, editors of the morning paper of that day were so overcome by the brilliance of the occasion, the dazzling beauty of the female participants or the potency of that which occasioned frequent visits to a part of the hotel in which a genial force of white-aproned attendants were more than busy, is only a guess.  But for some reason or other the morning paper of the day following the celebration bore not one word of the opening.  It was not until the second day following the affair that we find this brief, yet interesting account, and even then it was marked “Contributed:”

     “The fete at the Phillips House was the most elegant and brilliant which has ever been witnessed in this city.  It was in every respect worthy of the event which it was intended to commemorate.  All that the most refined taste could bring into requisition lent its aid to give attraction to the scene and bring enjoyment to those who participated in the enjoyment of the fete.

     “The cotillion band of Monsieur Ernest was present, and the spacious dining room of the house, which was devoted to the dance and the waltz, presented a most enlivening appearance as the gay company threaded the many measures of the dance and displayed the elegance and grace which lends attraction to such a scene.

     “The supper arrangements exhibited a perfect arrangement with all that was required for such an occasion.  No expense was spared to make this part of the entertainment a fitting accompaniment to the other preparations.

     “The tables were loaded with the choicest viands and delicacies.  The confectionery was especially remarkable for its great variety and tasteful arrangement.  

     “Messrs. Leonard & Porter have shown themselves to be masters of their business and to possess all the qualities for making the Phillips House one of the best hotels in the west, and so of attracting to our city those who find pleasure in the comforts as well as in the luxuries which such establishments offer.”

     The editor of The Empire was a bit more enterprising.  He presented his writeup of the event in the first edition of his paper that followed it.  But he, too, was somewhat miserly with his space.  Apologies are made for both of the daily papers of that date, however.  Each possessed but four pages.  Three pages and four columns in each were given over to advertising.  That left only four columns for politics and news and since politics quite often filled the entire four columns it is not hard to understand what happened to the news.  But here is how the Empire scribe viewed it:

     “The opening soiree at the Phillips House last evening was a splendid affair.  There were from 400 to 500 ladies and gentlemen present, including a large number from Cincinnati and neighboring towns.  The assembly was one of the most pleasant and brilliant that has ever been witnessed, and would have been creditable to any place. The ladies were elegantly and richly dressed, and all looked very beautiful.  The gentlemen were polite, attentive and mirthful.  Good cheer and good humor reigned throughout the evening. The dancing was kept up until a late hour, or rather an early hour in the morning, and old and young participated in the festivities of the occasion with a hearty good will until the hour of separation.

     “The entertainment was served in a style of elegance and a degree of profusion that reflected the highest credit on the management’s good taste and liberality.  Their part was well and handsomely done.”

     So much for the opening of Phillips House as our local press saw it.  But sometimes the praise of the stranger surpasses our own, as it most certainly did on this occasion. That it was an occasion far surpassing anything Dayton had witnessed up to that moment, and that it was of sufficient importance to attract widespread attention is indicated in this writeup taken from the files of the old Cincinnati Atlas of Oct. 19, 1852:

     “Having the essential documents, viz. an invitation and a ticket, we stowed ourselves into a car on Thursday afternoon and sped on the way to Dayton to attend the opening of the Phillips House.  Arriving there we found all the hotels full to overflowing, but by dint of preserverance and tact we succeeded in obtaining quarters at the Vorhees House.  A large number of Cincinnatians, both ladies and gentlemen, were compelled to seek lodgings at private residences which, thanks to the hospitality of the Daytonians, they obtained.

     “The Phillips House is a large brick structure on the corner of Main and Third sts., erected expressly for a hotel of the first class, with every improvement and every necessary arrangement that would conduce to the comfort and convenience of guests and, setting aside the main entrance, which is badly arranged, being on the first floor running back some distance up a circuitous stairway, it is unsurpassed in the west in point of finish, elegance and extent.  It is situated opposite the far-famed Montgomery co. courthouse, an edifice not surpassed in architectural beauty in the entire state.  It is built upon an extensive scale and will comfortably accommodate 450 persons.  The chambers and parlors are delightful and highly spoke of by the ladies, who are the better judges of the matter.

     “The ball was a recherche affair.  The ladies of Dayton, renowed for their beauty as well as exquisite taste, vied with our belles in elegance and all that adorns and adds grace and ease to the ballroom--attraction.  The gentlemen, dressed with much judgment were polite, courteous and affable.  The whole affair was characterized by everything that was delightful and agreeable, and passed off admirably to the satisfaction of all.

     “Too much praise cannot be given the proprietors for the splendid manner in which the supper was served up, and also their assiduous attention to the company.

     “The Phillips House will undoubtedly be the headquarters of travelers in Dayton and the vicinity, and if it does not succeed under its present management far beyond the expectations of the most sanguine friends, then set us down as no prophet.”

     The Phillips House has passed on.  So has the gentleman who penned those words.   But for seventy five years, three-quarters of a century, the Phillips House proved his prophecy.  It was the haven of the traveler who halted within Dayton’s gates.  It lifted Dayton out of the small town class and brought about her entry among those places marked by metropolitan ways and civic achievement.