Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: The Wendell was Pittsfield's grand hotel

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At the corner of South Street and West Street stood the grand six-story Wendell Hotel (or, seven stories, if you got a haircut in Dom's Wendell Barbershop on the West Street side). The hotel was one of upstreet's largest structures, with as many as 268 lodging rooms.

Although I never stayed in the hotel, as a kid I did get to visit the rooms, and I remember them as small, old and having steam-type radiators. Out-of-town salesmen would rent rooms to display the latest shoe and clothing styles for orders from local retail merchants — such as my Dad, who ran Jim's House of Shoes.

I tagged along on these visits. Of course, throughout the 1950s and '60s I also had frequent snacks in the hotel's restaurants, the Minute Chef and, later, the Cup and Saucer. Many of us took dance lessons at the Wendell and/or attended a dance, banquet, wedding or another event in the ballroom.

The Wendell was actually built on the site of a smaller inn over 120 years ago. Twenty-three-year-old Samuel Wells Bowerman, born in Pittsfield and a graduate of Williams College, built the original ornate hotel in 1898 for $125,000. The hotel was named in honor of Jacob Wendell, who, in 1737, was originally deeded what became the city of Pittsfield. In its early days, Pittsfield was known as Wendell Town. Ironically, Wendell never set foot in the town. (Jacob Wendell was also the grandfather of poet/physician Oliver Wendell Holmes.)

The Wendell Hotel went through several management and ownership changes in the 1900s. It had 110 rooms when it was built, and, over the years, was expanded several times. In 1924, a wing of 65 rooms was added along with five new storefronts, a ballroom and a cafeteria. A year later, a solarium was constructed facing South Street, and in 1929 a south wing of 105 rooms was built to match the original structure and add symmetry to the building.

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In 1944, the Wendell Hotel became the 18th member in the young Sheraton Hotel chain and was renamed the Wendell Sheraton and, in a year, just Sheraton. The Sherwood Hotel Corp. from New York bought the venerable hotel in 1954 and renamed it the Wendell Sherwood.

Throughout the baby boom years, we just called it the Wendell and recall it as the city's only hotel where major events, celebrations, political activities, conventions, meetings and receptions were held.

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But, as the hotel showed its age and out-of-town visitors looked for more amenities, it was time for the city to have more modern, centrally located lodging. The Berkshire Life Insurance Co. purchased the hotel in February 1965, and planned to raze the building and find a hotel chain to build on the property. With the Wendell closing in April 1965, most of the hotel's employees were able to find new jobs while most of the storefront businesses and professional offices were able to relocate. The hotel's contents were auctioned off in a two-day auction in May that drew 150 bidders. Many locals bought nostalgic pieces for their businesses or private collections.

During the summer of 1965, while on break from college, I was hired by my grandfather and uncle to work for their business, Lenhoff Brothers. The two men had bought a lot of the hotel's items at the auction, and my job was to sell them during the summer.

I ran a store at 767 Tyler St. peddling furniture, carpets, kitchenware, ski racks, office equipment and much more. Returning in the fall to college, I was given a pick of items to use in my apartment, many of which I still have.

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From June through October 1965, a Springfield firm razed the entire hotel, generating a lot of controversy over the dust resulting from the work. Pittsfield's Fire Department addressed the dust problem by spraying the rubble with thousands of gallons of foul-smelling water obtained from Silver Lake.

Berkshire Life spent over two years working to find a suitable organization to erect a new hotel. In December 1967, the company revealed that George Page, owner of a Hilton franchise in Eastern Massachusetts, proposed a 14-story Colonial Hilton for the property. It took a few years to get approvals, financing and design of a business plaza before construction began. The hotel opened in February of 1971 and has had quite a history of its own in the past 50 years.

I have had comfortable stays at this "newer" hotel on visits to the Berkshires, but I must admit I miss the charm of the older grand Wendell Hotel bordering Park Square, or should I say "Park Oval."

Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark, business or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at jesjmskali@aol.com.


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