Commanding a panoramic view above the Lake Michigan shoreline at the bend of the St. Joseph River, the elegant Whitcomb Hotel was once renowned as the "Saratoga of the Midwest," blending elegance and luxury with healthful activity in pursuit of the good life for all its guests.
Some things never change! The therapeutic sulfur spring baths that attracted U.S. presidents and celebrities among thousands of other prominent guests from across the country are gone now. Capped years ago, they're part of this southwest Michigan community's colorful past, but the timeless beauty and tradition of the Whitcomb live on.
The Whitcomb and the city of St. Joseph share a history teeming with tales of Native Americans, famous explorers, heroic ship captains, traders, trappers and other colorful wayfarers seeking shelter in this friendly harbor community. Captivated by the beauty of the region, pioneers eager to start new lives for themselves put down roots and stayed.
In 1831 one such trailblazer, August Newell, chose a scenic spot on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan and built a crude log lodging house waggishly dubbed the Mansion House. It eventually became a popular stopover on the Chicago to Detroit stagecoach line and undoubtedly contributed to the settlement's incorporation into a bona fide town - Newberryport - in 1834.
Little is written about the Mansion House until the year of its demise in 1866. New owner Charles Krieger, barkeeper/manager of the National House Saloon on the corner of present day Ship and State Streets, recognized the goldmine in its location and razed it to build a truly grand establishment. In its place, the St. Charles Hotel quickly became known as the most beautiful and opulent hostelry in western Michigan.
The St. Charles flourished for years, in large part by providing lodging for passengers of the Detroit and Cleveland Steamship Line disembarking in Newberryport. In fact, owing to the success of the partnership, the St. Charles took a new name in honor of an agent of the steamship company and became the Hotel Whitcomb in 1891. Coincidentally, 1891 was the same year Newberryport itself took a new name and became the city of St. Joseph.
Then in 1905 the Hotel Whitcomb struck a real goldmine, in mineral water piped into baths from a nearby underground sulfur spring. The latest in health fads, mineral baths were touted by none other than Dr. John Harvey Kellogg at the renowned Battle Creek Sanatorium. Soon the Hotel Whitcomb began attracting a more health-conscious clientele, among them President Theodore Roosevelt, rumored to have visited the Hotel Whitcomb in 1907.
In 1927, the post Civil War-era structure was torn down to make way for the present building designed by innovative Chicago architects Pond, Pond, Martin and Lloyd. They were all highly respected by their peers. Martin, for example, was an extremely skilled structural engineer able to solve technical problems associated with large industrial buildings and modern materials. Their firm was among the first to use reinforced concrete in their structures, including the Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalogue House on Michigan Avenue in Chicago and a number of buildings on the University of Michigan campus.
Prominent southwest Michigan area merchants, no doubt buoyed by the robust economy and unaware of dark days yet to come, raised $1 million for the new hotel during a whirlwind six-week fundraising effort. Had the project been put off, quality features that set the Whitcomb apart as the "crown jewel of Midwest hotels," such as imported crystal chandeliers, most likely would have fallen victim to Depression-era belt tightening.
Worse yet, the Whitcomb might not have been built at all!
As it was, when the hotel opened its doors to an elite and admiring crowd on May 3, 1928 the "roaring twenties" were still roaring, and Americans, many of them rich, albeit only on paper, were enjoying unprecedented prosperity. Driving their shiny new Packards, Cadillacs and other luxury vehicles they flocked to beach resorts to see and be seen.
Not surprisingly, the Whitcomb became a gathering place for an A-list of celebrities, among them Joe DiMaggio, Eleanor Roosevelt and Metropolitan Opera sensation Marian Anderson.
The quasi-Mediterranean style resort boasted 225 rooms, an 800-seat dining area, an elegant sunken garden for lounging and dancing and a 60-tub bathhouse. Renowned as the "Saratoga of the Midwest," it was elegant in every detail.
Unfortunately, a combination of factors, including the Depression, WWII and the end of steamship passenger service in the latter part of the 1940s, caused the hotel to hit a downward spiral from which it never fully recovered.
The competition from modern "motor hotels," or motels, in the late 1950s proved the proverbial "last straw." Beset by hard times, the Whitcomb closed its doors as a hotel for good in November, 1966 - 135 years after August Newell began welcoming the first guests through the front doors of its frontier-era predecessor.
The Whitcomb was purchased in 1969 by Michigan Baptist Homes and reopened after extensive renovations as a retirement residence on March 15, 1973. Since then the Whitcomb Senior Living Community has set the standard for charm, comfort, security and good times for active seniors.
Whitcomb Holdings LLC acquired the Whitcomb in August of 2006, and has dedicated it's resources, staff and vision toward making the Whitcomb the most-desired location for seniors in Southwest Michigan to reside.