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Local historian checks into the story of city’s rich hotel history

As the final installment of ARCH Inc.’s 2023 Fun and Free Lecture series, Karen Richards, a regular on the panel, will be discussing “Historic Downtown Hotels” this Saturday at the Cinema Center’s Spectator Lounge.

Through stories and historic images, Richards, the former long-time Allen County prosecutor, is ready to show what life was like during the heyday of hotels in downtown Fort Wayne, including the story of unearthing the remnants of the Ross Hotel, a nearly forgotten venue that, as she describes it, “hadn't been touched except for decay since 1959.”

The final days of the Ross Hotel, at Main Street and Pearl Street, downtown Fort Wayne
Karen Richards
The final days of the Ross Hotel, at Main Street and Pearl Street, downtown Fort Wayne

Here WBOI’s Julia Meek discusses the motivation for this study with Karen and what it has revealed, as well as its importance to the city’s rich history and historic preservation goals.

Event Information: ARCH, Inc.’s Fun & Free Lecture Series:
“Historic Fort Wayne Hotels,” by Karen Richards
Cinema Center’s Spectator Lounge, Fort Wayne
Saturday, May 20, 2023
1:00 p.m.
Admission is free

Find more information at theARCH, Inc. website
Below is a transcript of our conversation:

Julia Meek: Karen Richards, welcome.

Karen Richards: Hello.

Julia Meek: Now it is Historic Preservation month and you are set to share another talk. This time. It's historic hotels you're exploring. Before we "check in" there would you tell us where your passion for local history all began?

Karen Richards: My passion for history really started when I was little. My mother was a history person and I had some fabulous teachers. And then I got a degree in history at Northwestern. So I've been interested in history my whole life.

Julia Meek: Nurture and nature it sounds like?

Karen Richards: Yes.

Julia Meek: And good for you for bringing it forward. So once that drive, well, grabbed early on and kept you right there, where did it lead? How did you proceed to refine it, as well as embrace it as you got older?

Karen Richards: When I moved to Fort Wayne, I was very interested in local history when I finally had a little time to become interested in something other than work.

And I got involved not only with ARCH, the historic preservation organization, but also the History Center.

Julia Meek: It was already a natural thing from the sound of it, for you to embrace the area you lived in. And you're originally from Chicago, or Chicago area?

Karen Richards: Yeah, so I didn't really know much about Fort Wayne history, so it was all new to me. Everything's new.

Julia Meek: And a good way to learn your new city then, too?

Karen Richards: It is and that's, I think, what gives me curiosity about what things used to be.

Julia Meek: Now okay, food, clothing and shelter being the really essentials for survival, what is it about Fort Wayne's hotel history, which you're focusing on that makes it extra extra noteworthy?

Karen Richards: Hotels originally grew up where transportation hubs were. And the thing I found interesting about the hotels is at various points in Fort Wayne's history, it was mostly men that decided that they wanted to make the city shine and the city be something spectacular by building these fabulous hotels.

So some of the hotels were really amazing. And then some others were very basic and just met the needs of people that were either traveling through, traveling sales men or short term workers here in the city.

Julia Meek: Okay, a lot of that goes along with us being a transportation city, and that includes the three rivers that we live with, and the time's another important factor.

You mentioned the span that we go through in the temporary living establishments. With that span, what does it tell us about our city's past, just being I guess, the full range of a working growing...?

Karen Richards: Yeah I think what that tells us is this was a transportation hub. Fort Wayne exists because it's a transportation hub. It began with the Wabash and Erie Canal, which is roughly the period the late 1830s to the early 1840s.

And then from there, we went on to be a railroad transportation hub.

Julia Meek: So it embraces generational as well as occupational changes, development.

Karen Richards: It does, it does. And with those transportation hubs came all the people that made money because of that. And they then had the money to pour into these really wonderful hotels that then serviced the transportation hubs.

Julia Meek: Very well established. Now, how did this particular local history topic among the many interesting topics in our area, grab and hold your interest?

Karen Richards: I was always fascinated in what the Grand Hotels looked like. But I was also fascinated when the demolition order was issued on the Ross Hotel, because that was a very plain and simple stag hotel.

Julia Meek: And where was that located?

Karen Richards: It's located where they're building The Pearl now, which is the corner of Pearl Street and Main Street.

Julia Meek: Right down in the oldest part of town...

Karen Richards: Right.

Julia Meek: ...geographically and demographically. So walking by it called your name? (chuckles)

Karen Richards: You know, walking by it, you never really--I don't think anyone knew what it was. And I was fascinated in that block because there was a Peerless Cleaners there.

And when I started to use the Peerless it became clear that there were false fronts on what were some incredibly old and fascinating buildings.

And I got the opportunity to go through the Ross before it was demolished. And it was like walking into a time capsule.

Julia Meek: Mmm mmm. Just so how did that grab you? What kind of a feeling?

Karen Richards: it was like I've walked into something that nobody had been in for 60-70 years.

Julia Meek: So what was there? And as you went through it, what was the biggest surprise along this investigative journey?

Karen Richards: There wasn't any heat, there wasn't any electricity. But the simplicity of the hotel in comparison to a grand hotel like the Van Orman.

This was a stag hotel that was built for man who didn't have a lot of money and who were willing to accept lesser service than somebody that would be in a Grand Hotel. And nothing existed on this hotel on the first floor.

There would have been a café or a bar, a billiard room, or a tavern or something as the storefronts on the first floor. It was just rooms with a bathroom down the hall, and the bathrooms were still there.

And it was something that hadn't been touched except for decay. Nobody had used that hotel since 1959.

Julia Meek: Did it still have stories to tell you?

Karen Richards: It felt like it. Yeah, it, it felt like you were discovering how a certain part of Fort Wayne lived. And we don't usually report on people and how they live if they don't have a lot of money.

History is made by and about people with money. This hotel was about people who didn't have any money,

Julia Meek: And yet left their feel and their business and spirit.

Karen Richards: And yet left a mark. And you could see how these people lived and it was incredibly simply.

Julia Meek: Now speaking of investigative journeys, Karen, you've had a full and satisfying career as Allen County's prosecuting attorney, how does that directly drive your passion, as well as add to your skill set for this kind of investigative historical process?

Karen Richards: I've always been interested in how things used to be, but I think being a prosecutor taught me that, and I guess this may just be my personality, I have the ability of asking anybody anything, as long as it's not completely off base.

I also know a lot of people. So it gives me access to different people's stories. And it gives me that inquisitive nature where I have to look and look and dig and dig until I find an answer or discover I can't find an answer.

Julia Meek: That actually spurs you on?

Karen Richards: Yes.

Julia Meek: (chuckles) Instead of detours you back. We get it. And now let's talk about the overarching interests here. No uh, well, maybe a little bit “pun intended” there, how they all contribute to the deeper purpose of storytelling. What's your take?

Karen Richards: I think talking about history is telling people stories, of telling how things came to be. And I think that's probably one of the many things we do wrong with teaching history to children is we don't make it interesting.

History is fascinating. And if you find a good way to tell the story about any event, it becomes much more interesting to people. I think that's one of the reasons that when you talk to kids in grade school and above they hate history, because we don't make it interesting.

Julia Meek: In your career. It might have been too interesting at times (chuckles) some of the things that were going on through that courtroom. Are you able to broaden that, your perspective, perhaps and integrate it into the social histories and timeframes that it was meant to go in?

Karen Richards: I think so. Yeah. And that's, again, part of the reason that we should be interested in history because people have always been correct when they say if you don't know how you got someplace, you don't know where you are, and you're going to repeat past mistakes.

And I think there's a lot of things that I can see from some of the topics I've investigated that I find to be very timely in modern day.

Julia Meek: And quite relevant?

Karen Richards: Yes.

Julia Meek: As long as you have been immersed in that fine art you're talking about you have unearthed and shared many a story for this series and beyond.

What are some of your favorite? And why are they your favorites?

Karen Richards: I like all of them. I think my favorite was probably the very first one I did, which was "Sin in the Summit City," which was an investigation of vice and prostitution in early Fort Wayne, because that crime led to the development of our police force.

And then another was probably the one I did on the migration from Alabama, because I was fascinated by the fact that so many African Americans that live in Fort Wayne trace their history back to Alabama, and I was trying to figure out why that is and how it happened.

And it gave me the ability to do interviews of people that I know whose families came from Alabama, to use those in the lecture as examples of how this happened. And I think when you do history, too, you need to try really hard to include every one as best that you can. And this was great because it gave me the ability to talk about history of folks that we don't always talk about their history.

Julia Meek: That's great, giving voice to, to those, yes.

Karen Richards: Absolutely.

Julia Meek: And, no spoilers of course, can you tell us what topics, tales, other local curiosities that maybe have caught your attention and that you're going to pursue or might already be pursuing for future?

Karen Richards: You know, I...ARCH just given me free rein to pick anything within reason for a topic. So it just depends on what piques my interest.

I'm really interested in how entertainment happened in downtown Fort Wayne, because all we have left is the Embassy. But what people don't seem to understand is Fort Wayne was full of vaudeville houses and cinemas and other entertainment venues.

So I'm interested in that. And then people have always interested me as well. So I think I'm always open to new subjects, but I will do another lecture next year and I will need to come up with whatever that is fairly soon.

Julia Meek: We hope we can count on that. And now, I am curious, especially from your perspective through these years. Are there plenty more stories hiding behind those storefronts and facades left to unearth? Are we in any danger of running out of stories to tell?

Karen Richards: I don't think we're ever going to run out of stories. What worries me about Fort Wayne is that we are like a lot of other places.

We don't choose to preserve some amazing buildings. The Van Orman I think, and I never knew the Van Orman, but that was a perfect example of something that if we just would have mothballed it for a few years, it could have turned into something fabulous.

So yeah, Fort Wayne is full of amazing stories and amazing people, you just need to look and have curiosity.

Julia Meek: So we can count on you continuing to find them and bringing them in for ?

Karen Richards: I enjoy it. So as long as ARCH has their Fun and Free Lecture series, as long as people support the organization, we will continue to do the lectures.

And I will continue to do one every year because I really do enjoy them.

Julia Meek: And long live ARCH and all of you folks that do support it, and really all of our community for embracing it.

And last question, Karen, we are all partial to this place we call home. From all of your combined perspectives from the passion to profession and beyond, what do you think makes Fort Wayne THE place to be past, present and future?

Karen Richards: I think our history is very unique. There was a lot of wealth in Fort Wayne. There was a lot and still is, there's a lot of interesting industry.

We built fabulous buildings, we did interesting things, and we continue to innovate without for the most part, I think, losing track of who we started out to be. And the people in Fort Wayne.

I think the Midwest has a very welcoming feel that I think makes this a positive place to live as well.

Julia Meek: Karen Richards is a retired Allen County prosecutor and current Fort Wayne historian. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Karen. Have a great lecture and happy hunting.

Karen Richards: (chuckles) Thank you.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.