Downtown hotel had long, illustrious history
Photo courtesy of Peter Miller
The upper stories of the earlier facade of Wilson’s Department Store will be restored.
Photo courtesy of Peter Miller
An old postcard shows the view down Main Street in Greenfield looking west. Wilson’s is on the right, and the current plan is to restore the facade to something similar to this state.
GREENFIELD — The American House harkens back to an era when tourists traveled to Greenfield by passenger train or by the scenic Mohawk Trail.
Like Main Street’s elegant Mansion House before it, and like the Weldon Hotel on High Street, the American House was a downtown hotel with a history.
The hotel got its start in 1816, when Eliel Gilbert decided to turn his home and saddler’s shop at Main and Davis streets into an inn, known as Gilbert’s Tavern. It became The American House in 1846, but it wasn’t until after being sold in 1867 to Sarah and David Simons that the building was razed and a new brick structure erected in its place, with its first floor rented to merchants, including The Boston Store clothing shop owned by a descendant of Scottish immigrants, John Wilson.
The upper two floors were filled with 100 guest rooms when the building was owned by Simons. Wilson expanded his retail store onto the second floor, adding a grocery department and offered customers free delivery by a team of horses kept in a livery behind the store.
A fire in 1902 ravaged the wooden sections of the hotel, and in their place, a new brick section was erected consisting of 73 rooms. The restored four-story building was sold to Frank Eels in 1903 and The American House became the Devens Hotel.
The Devens Hotel was resold several times over the years, and became incorporated into a four-building structure today that is Wilson’s Department Store.
In 1929, when the department store was bought by R. Stanley Reid and George Willis of North Adams, it was about one-tenth its present size. Reid, the grandfather of the current generation of the family that owns the store, bought the hotel building in 1944 — four years after the Devens Hotel had become Hotel Greenfield, operated by a national hotel chain.
In 1961, after liquor complaints from its bar and later flooding from the hotel into the store, Reid bought out the hotel’s lease for store expansion, using the vacant top-floor rooms for storage.
The September 1961 Recorder-Gazette article that reported the plans for Wilson’s expansion said, “Of the 30,000 square feet occupied by the hotel, second only to Wilson’s in space, 5,500 square feet are in the second floor, where the hotel, lobby, bar, barber shop, dining area, kitchen and lounge are located. The third, fourth and fifth floors have guest rooms.”
In that article, Wilson’s then-President Robert S. Reid Jr., is quoted as saying, “We feel Interstate Highway 91 will have a great impact on the area.”
Throughout this era of a hotel within the Wilson’s complex, though, according to Greenfield historian Peter Miller, “The Weldon was the place to stay,” referring to the 100-room High Street hotel built in 1905 that enjoyed such a notable reputation that it was the site of the New England Hotel Association’s 1934 convention.
The Weldon was described in the 1982 Greenfield history, “The Conservative Rebel,” as being “one of the most appealing (and expensive) hotels in the region, complete with wicker and fern-filled porches.”
“In its day, it was the place in New England to stay,” said Miller, adding that the location of the Main Street hotel had the advantage of being closest to Greenfield’s train station.
But after passenger trains stopped coming through Greenfield, and development of Interstate 91 and other highways gave motorists the opportunity to visit more out-of-the-way places in New England, the Weldon — now a senior apartment complex — fell into disuse and the Mansion House at Main and Federal streets was destroyed in a dramatic 1959 fire.
Now, with the promise of passenger trains returning to Greenfield after this year, the reintroduction of a hotel downtown is an echo of an earlier time.
You can reach Richie Davis at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269