One day in the late 1920s, hoteliers Severt W. Thurston and Frank Dupar met by chance in a coffee shop in Yakima, Washington. Unbeknownst to one another, each had gone to Yakima to make separate hotel deals. But by the time they parted company that day, the two had decided to go into business together. In 1930 they joined with the Schmidt Brothers, who had hotels in Olympia, Seattle, and Bellingham, to form Western Hotels Inc., the foundation of what would become the Westin hotel chain.
That first year they had 17 properties, including the Roosevelt and Waldorf hotels in Seattle, the Marcus Whitman in Walla Walla, and the Leopold in Bellingham. The business quickly grew to include some of the great landmarks of the West, including the Multnomah Hotel in Portland, the Olympic Hotel in Seattle, the Davenport in Spokane, and the Sir Francis Drake in San Francisco.
J. William Keithan, a long-time senior executive with Westin Hotels and Resorts, was also the Seattle-based company’s volunteer historian. He collected and organized materials covering the company’s history from the 1930s to the 1990s and gave them to Washington State University’s archives for safekeeping. (Staff photo)
Based in Seattle from 1930 until 1998, Western Inc./Westin Hotels & Resorts was run by people who had long careers in the Pacific Northwest hotel business. Some, like Edward E. Carlson, started at the bottom. From a job as a bellhop at the Benjamin Franklin in Seattle, Carlson rose to president of the company, and later became chairman of the state of Washington’s World’s Fair Commission. Harry Mullikin ’51, who studied hotel administration at Washington State College, broke into the business as an elevator operator at the Cascadian Hotel in Wenatchee and worked up to Westin president in 1973 after Carlson retired.
The papers and photographs of these individuals, as well as many other Westin treasures, now reside in Washington State University’s archives. The materials came to WSU through the efforts of J. William Keithan, who started working for the company at Von’s Café in Seattle, and retired as a senior vice president. A historian by nature, Keithan recognized the value of the papers and memorabilia and made special efforts, even after retiring, to maintain and protect them. He even stored them in his basement for a time. Some things he found tucked away in the corporate offices, others he rescued from a loading dock.
Keys, tags, and badges from hotels owned by the Westin chain (Photos Robert Hubner)
A treat among the materials is the night log for the Multnomah from 1950 to 1953. In a few brief sentences, the manager captures some interesting scenes of Portland city life. “It was a real quiet night. You wouldn’t know the grocers (attending a convention) were here,” he wrote one evening. “Took two fellows to their rooms, very drunk,” he wrote a few days later. And then there’s an account of a guest who sprained her ankle on a small step, and another of a couple who were fighting and had to be moved to a room with two beds.
A view into Seattle history can be found in the scrapbooks of Christine Foreman, who worked in the Olympic Hotel’s grill from 1937 until 1972. Foreman attended WSC during the Depression, but dropped out because she couldn’t attend school while working. Through her job at the Olympic Grill, she became a Seattle institution. For 25 years, men of influence in the city would meet at the grill for lunch and sit in Foreman’s section. They included the local head of the U.S. Department of Immigration, attorneys, newspaper columnists, FBI office leaders, TV station managers, museum directors, and the head of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Though the group was called “The Table,” it was also known as “Christine’s Den.” “Chris the waitress is the catalyst who holds the unlikely dining group together,” noted a 1964 Seattle Times article.
The Westin Hotels collection in WSU’s archives holds some rare and beautiful pieces including, from left to right, a silver vessel and egg cup from the Davenport Hotel, a plate from the Multnomah Hotel, a 1930s cigarette holder and ashtray from the Olympic Hotel, and an oyster shell-shaped condiment tray from the Multnomah. (Photo Robert Hubner)
Other precious pieces of the Westin collection include recipes from the well-known Trader Vics’ restaurant which was housed at the Seattle Westin from 1949 to 1991, as well as coffee pots, coasters, Seattle World’s Fair memorabilia, a key tag from the Shangra-La in Hong Kong, flatware, even chamber pots from the Multnomah and a bath mat from the Arizona Biltmore.
Chris Marker ’66 was an officer at Westin’s corporate office in Seattle. His contributions to the collection include brochures, vintage post cards, and a menu from a dinner given in E.E. Carlson’s honor in 1983.
All this might be lost if it weren’t for Keithan, says Charles Comstock ’52, who finished his Westin career as an officer of Western Service and Supply, a branch of the company that did purchasing and interior design for all the hotels. “Hardly anybody else had any interest in this material,” he says. “But Bill is very much interested in posterity.”
At its peak, Westin Hotels had 237 hotels around the world. The brand turned 75 in 2005, and today as a subsidiary of Starwood Hotels and Resorts has more than 120 properties.
Wanting to find a permanent and useful place for the collection, Keithan turned to WSU in 1995. “When you have a bunch of junk you think is relevant, you get desperate for some place to maintain this material,” said Keithan, who believed WSU would be a good home, since the hotel chain had so many connections with the University, particularly through employing so many of its graduates.
WSU was more than happy to accept the materials, said archivist Laila Miletic-Vejzovic. “The collection holds so much of the history of the Northwest.”