August 15, 1996
Construction of the new Elite Hotel & Restaurant on the north side of the Perry square was completed in March of 1936, less than five months after workmen began tearing down the old wooden two story building that preceded it. Considering the size of the project, the time frame was remarkably brief.
The business was owned and operated by Walt Kehres, an early day Perry entrepreneur. Mr. Kehres ran the business for many years and later a son, Paul, took over the management. Both are now deceased. The restaurant and hotel were closed some time ago and today Georgia Curtis operates a furniture and antique shop on the ground floor plus a museum on the second level. Clyde Speer, site attendant at the Cherokee Strip Museum, is now the owner. He has just announced plans for reopening the Elite Hotel after extensive cleaning and renovation projects have been completed.
Some 50 years ago, when the Elite's business and popularity may have been at their peak, frequent visitors to Perry, such as traveling salesmen, made it a point to stay at the Elite. They knew they could count on clean, comfortable quarters and an affable host (Mr. Kehres) at the registration desk. A stairway inside the restaurant led guests to the hotel upstairs. The restaurant was open 24 hours a day and the Elite was the city's late night bus station. Room rates were reasonable, the food was good, prices on the menu were not high, and popular music from the juke box in the restaurant was always subdued enough that the sounds did not disturb sleepers on the second floor. There was no elevator and each guest toted his or her own luggage up the stairs. The day of interstate highways and the accompanying abundance of motels had not yet arrived.
The Elite Restaurant occupied the east half of the ground floor level of Mr. Kehres' building. Two other businesses completed the ground floor occupancy. All three opened onto Delaware street. The hotel/restaurant doorway has been bricked over since Mrs. Curtis opened her furniture/antique store, but a close inspection discloses where it was located. Adjacent to the restaurant, in one of the two other business stalls, was Leo Stieferman's barber shop, a two-chair operation with a shoe shine stand. Its front door also has disappeared. Next to Leo's place in 1940, on the alley, was Jack's Auto Supply, managed by Harry Elwell.
Lillie Dunford very clearly remembers a February day in 1936 in the new Elite Restaurant. (The restaurant was ready for use a few weeks before the hotel.) On that particular day, Lillie was having a cup of coffee in a booth at the Elite with her beau, Dick Dunford. Dick proposed marriage to Lillie over the coffee cups and offered her an engagement ring. She said "yes," and meant it; they recently celebrated their 60th anniversary. The Elite has special meaning for them.
The formal reopening of the new Elite Hotel was heralded by The Perry Daily Journal on March 31, 1936, with a two-column headline on a story at the top of the front page: "New, Modern Elite Hotel In Perry Open to Public." The reporter wrote: "Perry's new hotel, the Elite, which will be operated by Walter Kehres on the second floor of his new hotel and cafe building on the north side of the square, was ready for business this week. Complete new furnishings have been placed in each of the 19 modern rooms which are now open for use. All are outside and are decorated in different color schemes and equipped with all the latest hotel room devices.
Although that story said there were 19 hotel rooms, Mrs. Curtis says she has 22 rooms decorated for the museum. Some of those may have been for storage originally, she says, and she has been told by at least one old-timer that one of the rooms was "reserved for dominoes and blackjack games" and was never intended for use as a hotel room. The newspaper story continued:
"The stairway which leads from the cafe to the second floor hallway and all rooms is carpeted with deep rugs which add greatly to the convenience of the hotel. A portion of the rooms are equipped with private baths.... A general bath equipped with showers is provided for both men and women. All rooms have large closets, lavatories and circulating ceiling fans. The rooms are furnished with new Simmons beds and springs, Beauty-Rest mattresses, duck-feather pillows, and all-new bed clothing. Venetian blinds are used on the windows. Special color schemes add to the attractiveness of the hotel accommodations."
Thus went the publicity as the new Elite opened for business. Knowing Clyde Speer's love of history, he surely will have the newly reconditioned Elite Hotel in equally good shape. Perhaps not with duck-feather pillows, but with all the other amenities, I'll bet.