From a 13-year-old bellhop at Wheeling, WV’s McLure House to a business giant and multimillionaire—Ellsworth Milton Statler, virtually without benefit of formal education, climbed to the pinnacle of the hotel business.
In 1950 he was proclaimed by his industry as the person who had contributed most to the science of inn-keeping and was hailed as “the hotel man of the half-century.”
E.M. Statler was born on October 26, 1863 near Gettysburg, PA into the family of a poor pastor, William Jackson Statler. Six years later, the Statler family moved to Bridgeport, OH, across the river from Wheeling, WV.
At age nine, Ellsworth went to work lugging buckets of coal in the local LaBelle Glass Factory. “When he started he got 25 cents a turn at his job, two turns a day,” noted the NY Times in a 1922 profile of Statler’s career. “This meant 50 cents daily for the family budget. When he left, EM Statler, aged 12, was making the wages of 45 cents a turn, two turns, 90 cents.
“He did not leave his job in the glass factory for one offering richer monetary rewards. He left it in the casual fashion of youth when he heard that the McClure House in Wheeling wanted a bell boy.”
The hotel business fascinated Statler. By 15, he was head bellboy, then clerk. By the time he was 16, he could handle the hotel books. “While he was night clerk, he got an inkling of the profits made by hotel keepers,” said the NY Times. “The brother of the owner was bookkeeper. He taught the young clerk the rudiments of credits and debits. As Mr. Statler puts it, this was caused more by a desire to shove some of the work onto his shoulders than to help him, but the knowledge he gained was not confined to bookkeeping.” At 19 he was the untitled manager.
Enterprising and innovative, Statler leased the McLure billiard room and made it a profitable venture. He set up a railroad ticket booth, which was the first transportation department in a U. S. Hotel. He bought out a company that had been operating the Musee Bowling Lanes. He also opened a lunchroom, “The Pie House,” in the Musee building, and his mother and sister were soon baking there.
“About 15 years after he had quit the [glass factory job], he was making between $4,000 and $5,000 a year. That was a considerable income then,” according to the Times article. “He became a man of the world. The thing that he had missed most as a child was play. He decided he would make up for those lost hours, and began making annual trips to Canada for fishing.”
On the way home from these fishing expeditions, Statler often stopped in Buffalo, NY. Heading back to Wheeling from an 1895 getaway, the 32-year-old entrepreneur discovered Buffalo’s block-long Ellicott Square Building, not yet complete. Upon inquiring, he learned that the large basement space was unleased, and Statler determined to occupy it for a restaurant. As an outsider, he faced numerous obstacles in Buffalo, but finding investors was not among them. He invested $10,000 of his own savings, borrowed $11,000 from a kitchenware manufacturer, $17,000 from a restaurant equipment manufacturer, and a year’s lease funds of $8,500 from George House, a credit store manager. He got married and took his new wife with him to Buffalo to begin his venture as a restaurant operator.
Statler’s dream was to have his own hotel and in 1907, that dream became a reality. He opened the Buffalo Statler and offered “a room and a bath for a dollar and a half.”
Statler’s Buffalo hotel was the first middle-class hotel to have a bath in every room rather than the large public baths common at that time. His architect tried to dissuade him, arguing that it would be impossible to recapture the investment required to provide this convenience at the rates that Statler planned to charge. Statler then explained that the baths would be constructed back to back, with common plumbing shafts. These plumbing shafts would also carry electrical conduit and hot water for the heating system.
The Statler plumbing shaft soon became a standard feature in building construction. “The new commercial hotels,” observed the June 1909 issue of trade magazine The Hotel Monthly, “are now mostly planned for rooms with private bath.” Travelers could now live as well as at home if not better. Statler’s hotel offered conveniences to the average American that at the time were only found in luxury hotels, setting a new standard for his competition.
He became the first to put telephones and radios in every guest room, along with full-length mirrors, built-in closets and a special faucet for ice water. Other hotelmen referred to him as Statler the Startler and invented a new verb, to Statlerize.
Eventually, Statler opened hotels in Boston, Cleveland, Detroit and New York. Emphasizing that “the guest is always right,” he demanded top performance from employees, but was also caring about their needs. Statler understood that by taking good care of his employees and fostering a sense of pride in where they worked, his employees would be more sensitive to customer needs. As part of his internal marketing program, he developed an employee publication called the Statler Salesman in which he promoted a Statler Code of service to guests. He also developed a profit-sharing plan for all employees, a radical policy at the time. His program of job and retirement security was unique to that era.
Following his death in 1928, Pittsburgh and Washington hotels were added to the empire. After 1950, Los Angeles, Hartford and Dallas Statlers were built.
On Oct. 27, 1954, the chain was purchased by Conrad Hilton for $111,000,000. For its time, this multi-million dollar acquisition was both the priciest transaction in the history of the hotel industry, and the largest real estate buy to date.
Statler’s own formal schooling ended with the second grade, but he valued education. The terms of his will established the Statler Foundation, whose major beneficiary is the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.
In 1984, Ellsworth Statler was inducted into the Wheeling Hall of Fame.
“A Bell Boy’s Rise: EM Statler, Owner of Big Hotels, Began Work at Nine Years,” NY Times, June 4, 1922
Statler, America’s extraordinary hotelman, by Floyd Miller, 1968, Statler Foundation