Peter Dickson '69 explores the history of Mount Vernon's first brick hotel.
Story by Peter W. Dickson ’69
The Kenyon House, the first large-scale and brick hotel in Mount Vernon, represents a long-lost chapter in the early history of Kenyon College as well as the city. Usually, Kenyon and Mount Vernon are treated separately in historical accounts. However, this practice overlooks the strong ties between the two communities, especially between Bishop Philander Chase, who founded Kenyon, and the Episcopalians in Mount Vernon, such as Henry B. Curtis, who lent strong support to the College in its first years.
The Kenyon House was constructed in the 1830s in order to accommodate the increasing numbers of Episcopalians who visited the town and the College. This particular denomination was predominant in a region that was so heavily Anglo-Saxon that Lutherans were as rare as Catholics. For his part, Chase gave sermons as early as June 1825 in the original Knox County Court House, located roughly where today West High Street enters the Public Square in Mount Vernon.
We should emphasize that accurate knowledge of the original and mysterious Kenyon House in Mount Vernon slipped into the mist of time quickly. When George Franklin Smythe published Kenyon College: Its First Century in 1924, he erroneously associated this name with a slightly older and much smaller wood-frame hotel located on the College grounds, between Wiggin Street and Cromwell House, the president's residence. In an appendix entitled "The Old Hotel or Kenyon House," Smythe describes in considerable detail this wooden structure, which he dates to about 1828 or 1829, when there was a need to accommodate students awaiting the completion of Old Kenyon in the fall of 1829.
Not long thereafter, this two-story structure, which had only five bedrooms, became a lodge to accommodate visitors, or "outsiders," given that Chase described the Old Hotel as "The House for Strangers." It was the center of considerable activity, being adjacent to the original Gambier post office, which was essentially a coach house. A large barn with stables was nearby for the horses and coaches that brought the mail and visitors from Mount Vernon daily.
The Old Hotel was the College's nerve center, connecting it to the outside world. People gathered at the hotel on election night to watch the tabulation of votes and hear reports of national elections. A place for major social activities, the hotel hosted receptions for distinguished visitors, traveling musicians from other towns in the region, even visiting baseball teams. Students in Kenyon's dinner or eating clubs met there as well. The College's archives include a guest register for the years from 1898 to 1903.
The hotel was expanded twice, the second time with a brick addition in 1854, a response in part to the opening of the first rail line connecting Mount Vernon to Sandusky on Lake Erie three years earlier. At some point in the late 1860s or early 1870s, the Old Hotel began to carry the name Kenyon House. However, the building became a fairly dilapidated structure by World War I. After being converted to an ice-storage facility in 1917, it was torn down the following year.
Despite its deep roots in the College's history, this ninety-year-old hotel was not the original Kenyon House. It is virtually impossible to find references to the real Kenyon House in College records precisely because it was located in Mount Vernon rather than in Gambier.
This writer stumbled upon the story of the original Kenyon House while doing research into the early history of the Woodward Opera House, built in Mount Vernon in 1850-51 and currently being restored in recognition of its status as the nation's oldest authentic nineteenth-century theater still in existence. Old city business directories indicate that in 1859, the builder and owner of the theater, Ebenezer Woodward, was living in a suite of rooms in the Kenyon House.
But where was this mysterious Kenyon House located? The directory indicates that it was at the southwestern corner of Main Street and the Public Square. More precisely, it was a large brick building that occupied the current location of the First Knox National Bank.
Like today's bank, the Kenyon House faced the square. It stretched the entire block from the side on South Main Street to the corner alley, the same alley many alumni will remember as being next to the front entrance to Schine's Vernon Theater, which Kenyon students frequented to see movies from 1938 to 1975.
Who built the Kenyon House — and why?
The builder and owner of the Kenyon House was Timothy W. Rogers, a prominent member of same circle of local Episcopalians, centered around Henry Curtis, who gave strong support when Chase and the Ohio Diocese met in Mount Vernon to approve the purchase of 8,000 acres in September 1827 to build Kenyon College. Like most of these local enthusiasts, Rogers was also a member of the earliest literary societies formed in Mount Vernon to cultivate the arts, such as the Thespian Society and later the Mount Vernon Lyceum, founded in 1830 in the midst of all the construction activity in Gambier associated with Kenyon.
The earliest known real-estate record that mentions the Kenyon House cites Rogers (1808-46) as selling an interest in some adjacent land to a business partner named John Hogg on August 18, 1841. The title or deed transfer documents refer to the building as the "said tavern called Kenyon House."
More information can be found in N.N. Hill's History of Knox County, published in 1881. Hill describes the Kenyon House as the town's first brick hotel, in contrast to the three other taverns and boarding houses of the 1820s and 1830s. These were the Golden Swan Inn, the Green Tree Tavern, and the oldest, a log structure at the northeast corner of Gambier Street and South Main called the "War Office" because it was used as a place of refuge during the War of 1812.
Hill states that Kenyon House "became a very popular hotel and was well patronized for many years." He indicates that prior to its construction there were some wood-frame buildings on the lot, one of which Rogers used as a private residence.
Fortunately, elsewhere in his work Hill provides some additional, valuable information. He reproduces the text of a long letter written in 1871 by "a gentleman now a prominent merchant in Gambier." This unidentified Gambier merchant relates in exquisite detail what downtown Mount Vernon looked like in the spring or sum-mer of 1830. There is a passage describing the specific block where the Kenyon House stood, although it had not yet been erected at this point in time (1830).
What was on the site were four or five wood-frame structures. The two closest to South Main Street were the private residence and business establishment of a merchant named James B. Rogers. Then there were two or three other wood-frame buildings to the west, toward the corner alley that the Shine's Vernon Theater faced for decades.
Concerning these three wooden buildings, the unnamed Gambier merchant states: "In one of which T.W. Rodgers kept military goods, and in another D.D. Stevenson kept a shoe shop." Pending further genealogical research, it is a reasonable assumption that Timothy Rogers was related to James B. Rogers and that he bought him out in order to construct Kenyon House.
The Gambier merchant's letter makes clear that the Kenyon House was constructed after the completion of Old Kenyon in September 1829, but other pieces of evidence strongly suggest that the hotel was constructed not long after the letter describing what Mount Vernon looked like in 1830.
We know that St. Paul's Episcopal Church on East High Street and Rosse Hall (then known as, and intended by Chase to be, Rosse Chapel) were under construction simultaneously in the 1829-32 period.
The cornerstone for Rosse Chapel was laid on May 4, 1829, and the Mount Vernon Episcopalians (not surprisingly) were galvanized by Chase's grandiose plans for this new chapel, which in some early accounts was to serve not only Kenyon but also function as a "Cathedral for the Church in Ohio." As is well known, Chase was not able to complete Rosse Chapel much beyond the basement or lower level, which sufficed as a makeshift facility for several years until more funds were obtained after Chase's departure from the College in September 1831.
Meanwhile, the Mount Vernon Episcopalians plunged ahead with their own religious statement in stone, St. Paul's Church. With Chase presiding at the ceremony, the church cornerstone was laid on May 6, 1830, almost a year to the day after that laid for the would-be Rosse Chapel. Unlike the latter, St. Paul's was completed rapidly, opening in 1832. Just a few weeks prior to his departure, Chase appointed on August 17, 1831, the first rector of St. Paul's from the ranks of the Kenyon faculty. Rev. William Sparrow, professor of theology, went on to serve as rector until February 1834.
This close interconnection between Chase and the Mount Vernon Episcopalians strongly suggests that Rogers built the Kenyon House not long after 1830 in anticipation of an influx of more visitors to the county, especially Episcopalians who wished to visit the new college and Rosse Chapel in Gambier as well as St. Paul's, the new, impressive church on East High Street in Mount Vernon.
If Rogers started construction of the Kenyon House later in 1830, then it might have been open for business as early as late 1832 or early 1833. I hope further research will enable us to discover the actual construction date, which was definitely well before 1841.
Although information concerning the Kenyon House is very difficult to locate, we are fortunate that the Knox County Historical Society has an invitation card for an oyster dinner party, for bachelors only, at the Kenyon House in early 1859. For those visiting the College prior to the Civil War, a night spent at the Kenyon House would probably have provided a lasting memory.
What led to the demise of the Kenyon House?
The date of the demise of the Kenyon House was initially difficult to determine because Hill incorrectly states that it was torn down. The truth is that the building known as the Kenyon House was sold in November 1866 and the following year became the location for a large dry goods and clothing store until 1905, after which it was purchased by the First-Knox National Bank.
The name "Kenyon House" migrated to Gambier not long after the building was sold in 1866. The old College hotel was sold sometime in 1868, and it appears that the new proprietor adopted the Kenyon House name not long thereafter.
The demise of the Kenyon House in Mount Vernon is worth relating in some detail. The culprit (so to speak) was Adolf Wolff, a prominent merchant who, prior to the Civil War, operated a clothing store in the Woodward Opera House building, in the space currently occupied by the Colonial Men's Wear shop.
Wolff needed a larger building to accommodate his expanding business after the war ended in 1865. He decided to move to the Public Square, and on November 20, 1866, he purchased the venerable Kenyon House from Robert Kirk, who then owned the hotel. Since he required a large amount of space, Wolff extended the building westward to the alley, increasing the gallery of windows from ten to fifteen on the upper floors.
At the time of the sale, the ground floor side of the building, facing South Main Street, was known as the Kenyon House Clothing Store, under the operation of Max Leopold. Essentially, Wolff forced Leopold to open a new store elsewhere in Mount Vernon in the spring of 1867. In any event, the change brought an end to the Kenyon House after barely three decades of existence.
One also wonders to what extent Wolff was motivated to purchase the Kenyon House by a desire to evict his commercial rival and former landlord, Ebenezer Wood-ward, who was living there as a boarder. The Wolff-Woodward rivalry continued right up to the latter's death in 1883, including fierce competition to promote their opera houses, located on the upper floors of their respective brick buildings.
The Kenyon House building was the same brick building Kenyon students knew as the First-Knox National Bank from 1905, when it first occupied the premises, until 1955. In that year, the entire building was demolished to make way for the handsome bank that stands there today.
Thus, only three large brick buildings have occupied this block on the southwest side of the Public Square over the past one hundred seventy years: the Rogers's Kenyon House until 1867, Wolff's slightly expanded version of that same building until 1955, and the current First-Knox National Bank building to the present.
Our rediscovery of the long-lost Kenyon House, and our reconstruction of its historical context, fills a major gap in the early history of the College, particularly its close relationship with the Episcopalian community in Mount Vernon but also with the town's residents generally. The fact that the name of the most prominent brick building in the town bore the name of the college in Gambier served to underscore the close bonds between the two communities in the years prior to the Civil War.
Peter Dickson, a native of Mount Vernon, is an independent researcher and scholar living in Arlington, Virginia. He has been active in the continuing efforts to restore the Woodward Opera House. This article is copyrighted, with all rights reserved.