Finding a room at the inn

Early downtown Stillwater with the Youst Hotel in the background on the right. Photo courtesy of the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar photo collections.

Story by Roger Moore

There was a time, not too long ago actually, when finding a hotel room in Stillwater required plenty of advanced planning. But in 2018, it seems, much like the frequency of convenience stores on every corner, there is an abundance of hotel rooms available.

Enter “hotels in Stillwater, OK” into a Google search and you get 29 choices. None of them, however, are within walking distance of downtown Stillwater. The closest, and majority of hotels, will be found somewhere along Hall of Fame Avenue between Main Street and Perkins Road. As the community has expanded many more hotels have been built on Highway 51 headed west toward Interstate 35. During Stillwater’s early years, some of the town’s grandest downtown buildings were a hub of activity, a place for travelers to rest and catch up on local gossip. There deals were made, card games were played, the best local meals were served, intrigue, rumor, and everything associated with downtowns across the growing westward expansion resided.

It is not hard to imagine the structure located at 1002 South Main Street as a hotel. The first floor of the three-story building now includes the recently expanded Granny’s Kitchen. Apartment living occupies the second and third floors. Folks fascinated by the roundabout traffic located at 10th and Main and possibly waiting for seating at Granny’s are hanging out in front of where the Hueston Hotel opened in the decade following the Oklahoma Land Run in 1889. Owner Hamilton Hueston sold the building to Frank Nichols in the early years of the twentieth century, whose Nichols Hotel was known as “The Heinz 57” because Heinz products were on every table in the restaurant. Elvin and Earl Rains bought the building following World War II and the site remained the Rains Hotel into the 1960s. A half block to the north, where Harrison Electric has called home since the 1960s, Stillwater’s first “elegant” movie house, the Alamo Theater, was located from 1908-1915. Stillwater citizens and visitors could have dinner at the hotel then a movie or perhaps roller skating, from 1954-60, at the Stillwater Roller Rink on the southeast corner. When cars entered the picture a quick fill up at the gas station on the northwest corner of 10th and Main was available before traveling on.

Rooms were also available at 9th and Lewis for a time. Louis Jardot, part owner of the Grand Opera House on 9th Avenue, opened the Payne Hotel on the southeast corner of 9th and Lewis in 1902. He sold the building to John Linden, who renamed the hotel the Linden Hotel, before selling it to W.C. Whittenberg, one of Stillwater’s first prominent physicians. The original Payne Hotel became a hospital in 1917; in 1920 when Whittenberg found financing for a more suitable hospital the location became the Rex Hotel and Apartments. The location now provides parking for the Salvation Army.

With the Hueston dominating the landscape at 10th and Main, a few blocks to the north at 721 South Main was the Youst Hotel, opened for business in 1894. The location experienced myriad changes throughout the twentieth century, becoming the Scott Hotel in the 1920s, then an extended stay by C.R. Anthony Department Store for three decades. TG&Y, a “five and dime” variety store, called the corner home and, call it what you will, Stillwater’s first “strip mall,” otherwise known as Otasco and the one-stop-shopping of the future moved in during the 1970s. The original structure changed dramatically with western apparel and insurance available at the corner of 8th and Main at the turn of the 21st century.

One of downtown’s iconic buildings, Stillwater National Bank, opened in 1967. It was built on the site of the Grand Hotel, built in 1926 and host to business travelers for four decades. Also built in 1926, dominating 7th and Main for decades, was the Going Hotel. Not on the corner, but across the street from what is now Zannotti’s Wine Bar and the Hoke Building, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Walter Going’s establishment had sixty rooms; half of them even had bathtubs, an amenity taken for granted in modern hotel requirements. The Going’s location now houses office space and a variety of shops.

Part of Henry Garland Bennett’s expansion of Oklahoma State University included the Student Union. The Atherton Hotel, part of that project, opened in 1950. It has hosted plenty of dignitaries, including Presidents Truman, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, plus Bill Nye the Science Guy, Vincent Prince, and Will Rogers Jr.

With the coming of the 1970s, available hotel rooms in downtown Stillwater disappeared. Motel 51 on Highway 51 across from Fairlawn Cemetery and Circle D Motel, on Boomer Road just passed the intersection of McElroy and Main, have been open for business since the 1970s. They were joined by the luxurious Holiday Inn, El Sol Motel, Executive Inn, both on Highway 51 headed west, along with Motel 6 as Stillwater continued to expand. The corner of McElroy and Perkins Road has been home to a number of hotels, currently the Wyndham Garden. Yearly, more hotels are added to the landscape.

Are they the same as the early Stillwater editions? Yes and no. The same in that all expected services – a watering hole, a restaurant, a hot bath – are still available, but no in that they are not centrally located near the downtown hub of the community. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century anything and everything a community member needed was often located within walking distance – or in much of the Midwest’s case, horse riding distance. The automobile and its ability to put people on the road for business and pleasure can be credited with the need for hotel and motel space on major thoroughfares. But Stillwater’s location, not on Interstate 40 or Route 66 and 20 miles east of Interstate 35 moving north and south, means it is not a spend the night spot during cross country or cross state travels.

Stillwater’s need for hotel rooms can be directly credited to Oklahoma State University athletic activities, namely college football Saturdays. A local bond issue passed making funds available for a new football stadium for Stillwater High School, thus bringing state championship games to town on December weekends. A new gymnasium was also constructed for Pioneer athletics, bringing state playoff basketball games to Stillwater every February.

Travelers 100 years ago never would have thought of the need to build hotels to accommodate traveling sports fans. Those same builders of Stillwater also could not fathom a Google search either. They simply showed up downtown and asked if any rooms were available at the many hotels, one with hot water for a bath.