“The Best and Most Magnificent Hotel in Indiana, one of the finest in the United States, and the Best In Any City of 40,000 Inhabitants in the World.“
Early 1900s postcard.
James Oliver, one of America’s most influential inventors and industrialists was born on August 28, 1823, to George Oliver, a shepherd, and Elizabeth Irving, his wife, in the small village of Newcastleton, Scotland.
At this time, James continued to experiment with ways to produce a better plow and in 1857 he obtained his first patent from the U.S. Government entitled “Improvement in Chilling Plow Shares.” It covered James’ new way to process a plow point, or share, to an extremely hard surface. This first improvement made way for the many more patents that were to follow as the Oliver Plow became the most popular plow in the world.
Fort Wayne Weekly Journal-Gazette – March 15, 1900
In 1864 the company sold approximately 1,000 plows. With the Civil War in progress prices continued to rise as demands for production increased. The company also made 70 iron columns to hold up the Golden Dome structure in the University of Notre Dame’s Main Building. The Oliver company was expanding and growing and by mid-1865 the staff was increased to plant capacity. At this time, J.D. Oliver, James’ son, was getting in on the company’s ground floor.
In the late 1880s, Oliver plows were being shipped all over the world, and businessmen from every corner of the globe were coming to South Bend to negotiate deals. Finding the hotels in South Bend at the time insufficient for the level of visitor coming to town, the Olivers decided to build an opulent and grand hotel.
Plans were set in motion in the early 1890s, but the Olivers had difficulty purchasing the land in downtown needed to build such a palace.After years of finagling, an entire city block was purchased at the corner of Main and Washington streets.
The architectural firm of Rutan, Shepley and Coolidge began construction on the six-story palace to be known as the Oliver Hotel began in the summer of 1898. Originally slated to open Thanksgiving, 1898, the grand opening didn’t not occur until December 20, 1899. Over 4,000 invitations were sent for the gala. The attendees were a mixture of area businessmen, politics and social elites such as the Studebakers and Olivers.
The town was so impressed with the hotel and all of the philanthropic work that James Oliver had provided South Bend that, in June 1900, he was presented with “The Oliver Loving Cup” by a citizens group. J.M. Studebaker presented the 18-carat gold cup. Measuring 14 inches, the cup, purchased from Tiffany and Company in New York, was engraved with portraits of the Oliver family, the hotel, the original factory on the West Race, and the new factory that had been erected on the southwest edge of the city.
The Oliver Hotel ca. 1912
The hotel was more opulent than anyone could have imaged for turn of the century South Bend.The six story hotel cost a total of $600,000 to build and was constructed with a steel skeleton, hollow tile arches, and partitions which made it fireproof.
The first two floors were public, with lobby and rotunda designed in an Italian Renaissance style embellished in gold with allegorical figures painted to represent the four seasons, the fine arts, the elements, and the performing arts.
South Bend Tribune archives
The images of 16 females representing the seasons, the arts, earth, water, fire, and air were painted at the top of the rotunda, and this lavish decor extended to all other areas of the hotel.
South Bend Tribune archives
Due to the “dry movement” in the late 1890s and early 1900s, the Oliver Hotel was built without a bar or cocktail lounge. The hotel, however, would have many amenities over the years.
A doting and well-trained wait staff.
These men were all waiters at the Oliver Hotel in South Bend in the early 1920s. The beautiful piece of artwork in the background was made of cloth. This photo was published in “South Bend Remembered, Vol. II,” available at the customer service counter of the South Bend Tribune.
There was a bakery.
Courtesy of South Bend Center for History
A fleet of Western Union deliverymen to tend to any of your shipping and shopping needs.
The Western Union deliverymen lined up on bicycles in front of Oliver Hotel near Main and Washington Streets in 1932.
The Oliver corporation ran the hotel from its inception until disaster struck in the 1920s.Farm prices fell drastically and farmers were no longer pay the debts they owed, let alone buy new farming implements.
In 1923, Oliver Chilled Plow Works was at a crossroads.The company would merge with other farm tool manufacturers, a tractor manufacturer and company that made threshing machines in order to survive. The hotel was becoming a financial burden. Somewhere around 1927 the Oliver would be sold to a Philadelphia born, Chicago made hotelier named Andrew C. Weisburg.
The Oliver, ca. 1920s
Weisburg is a fascinating man. Originally born in Pennsylvania, He was a real estate mogul with hotels in Chicago, South Bend and Los Angeles and chairman of the state of Indiana’s boxing commission throughout the 1920s and 1930s. He also managed legendary fighter Jack Dempsey.
Arka Shanks, proprietor of the hotel died of a cerebral hemorrhage on January 13, 1936 in his apartment in the hotel. Weisburg, now busier than ever with boxing, needed someone to run the hotel.
In 1938, management of the Oliver would be handed over to the Pick Hotel corporation, a.k.a. Albert Pick Hotels.
(I had originally written a long section here about the Pick corporation but I think I will save it as I plan on doing a post about about the man Albert Pick and all of the Albert Pick hotels and motels.)
After a few years of management, The Oliver Hotel was sold to the Pick Hotel corporation on October 20, 1942.
Albert Pick owned more than a dozen aging hotels in this era and would spend money bringing the old palaces in to the middle of the 20th century. After World War II and throughout the early 1950s.
The Oliver would continue to be the place to stay in town or to get a bite. The Ford Hopkins drugstore in the hotel provided great service and a quality meal at a reasonable price.
This photo show the old soda fountain and snack bar of the Ford Hopkins Drug Store, which was located in the Oliver Hotel. The lady in the white uniform is Cristine Brewington (Lea), the manager of the snack bar. This photo was taken 1949. Photo by Mary (Mangum) Mayes
The hotel also provided a quality shave and haircut.
This photo was taken in the basement of the Pick-Oliver Hotel. The barbershop was popular among area residents as well as people staying in the hotel. Otis the shoeshine man is standing in the front of the shop. He shined shoes and also cleaned up the shop for the barbers. In the 1st chair is Dr. O’Malley with his barber and the owner of the shop, Wendel “Smitty” Smith. The next barber is Claude “Mose” Campbell, Smith’s brother-in-law and the last chair is barber Jerry Brown.
In 1957, the hotel was re-named the Pick-Oliver to better reflect the ownership’s naming policy. (By that point, all of their hotels would be named Pick-(hotel)). The Pick Corporation would continue to run the Pick-Oliver but changes were coming and these changes would lead to the demise of the opulent hotel.
The Indianapolis Star – December 14, 1966
After the closure of South Bend’s Studebaker automobile manufacturing plant on December 9, 1963, South Bend struggled. Thousands were out of work and patrons, many visiting the Studebaker plant, were not staying in the hotel.
Downtown South Bend was no longer a destination and the hotel was over sixty years old by this point and starting to resemble an old, stuffy relic. The hotel was out of place in the new automobile-friendly age of motels and motor inns.
By 1965, the hotel was in need of some serious repairs and the Pick-corporation was looking to unload the old place. However, costs of renovating the marble and gold-laced hotel was cost prohibitive.
In the age of urban renewal it was much easier to find a buyer that could “do something” modern with the old place. The Pick corporation would sell the land to a pair of developers from Tulsa, Oklahoma named Kelley and Marshall. The developers had no plans to renovate the once-proud palace.
In late 1966 it was announced that a new skyscraper was coming to downtown South Bend. The $5.5 million, twenty-three story tower would be used for office space, the American Bank and a new Albert Pick Motor Inn. The site chosen for the new building was the site of the Pick-Oliver. The old dame, it was decided, had outlived its usefulness.
The 67-year old hotel would be razed and the new, modern edifice would be built on the Oliver’s ashes. Very little was done to save the hotel. In the age of urban renewal, an old opulent hotel with no parking was deemed obsolete and in the way of progress. The old hotel was torn down in the summer of 1967.
Local citizens watch the demolition of the Oliver Hotel. South Bend Tribune archives
In 1969, a brutalist tower that would alternately be called the American Bank building and the Albert Pick Motor Inn opened.
The Albert Pick Motor Inn shortly after its opening.
The building still stands. The Albert Pick corporation would fizzle shortly after opening and the motor inn would become a Holiday Inn. By the late 2000s, it had gone through multiple motel and bank chains. Nothing about the building feels special. It’s ugly and once I found out it was the site of the Oliver I grew to hate it more.
Plans are in the works to remodel the building and turn the old building into luxury apartments.
Special thanks to the South Bend Tribune, Center for History and the University of Notre Dame for the fabulous pictures – the postcards and matchbooks are from my collection – and for the helping me to try piece the story of the Oliver Hotel together.