The origins of hospitality on the present site of the Radisson Plaza Hotel date to August 1850 when construction of an imposing four-story brick structure began. Built by Frank Dennison and initially known simply as Dennison's brick block, the new building occupied one hundred feet of frontage along Main Street, today’s Michigan Avenue. The Kalamazoo Gazette described the architecture and facilities in grand terms, noting a large archway which defined the main entrance. From this entry, a broad hall extended through the building creating space for two stores. An elegant spiral staircase provided access to the upper floors where one would find a third floor concert hall and accommodations for about two hundred guests. The roofline was crowned with a cupola, which would help the new hotel dominate the downtown streetscape. The Kalamazoo Gazette wrote of the new hotel’s design, “The effect is imposing and carries us back to the feudal architecture of the 14th century.”
The new hotel was certainly one of the most impressive structures in the city. However, standards of hotels at the time were a far cry from what they are today. The modern hotel had only recently evolved from the traditional tavern, and hotel standards and amenities would be constantly changing and improving throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century. Privacy, even in the highest class hotels, was largely unheard of. Not only were guests expected to share rooms, but often they were expected to share beds. A hotel was not considered full until every available space in a bed was occupied. Hotels of the time were often male-only domains. Home to such vices as bars, billiards, and out of town strangers, they were not considered proper places for ladies.
Construction took longer than expected, and the hotel was not ready for business until April 1854. At that time it was known as the Cosmopolitan Hotel. It is impossible to say how well it was received by the traveling public, but the new Cosmopolitan went through a series of owners in a relatively brief period of time before undergoing an extensive renovation and expansion program as early as 1855. This work included covering the exterior brick with a stucco front to create the illusion of a granite façade. The spruced up building was set to reopen with a new name in honor of the late General Justus Burdick, whose home once occupied the site. Perhaps as a foreshadowing, this opening almost didn’t take place. Shortly before the scheduled grand reopening, a massive fire swept several adjacent businesses on the block. Although the hotel itself was spared, there was considerable smoke and water damage both to the hotel building and to its expensive new furnishings. As a result the opening was delayed.
Despite this setback, the rechristened Burdick Hotel prospered throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century. The building was continuously updated to keep up with the latest innovations and to insure the maximum comfort for its guests. These updates included the 1857 addition of horse stables on Water Street for the use of guests, the free parking for the nineteenth century. In 1860 the hotel began its long association with Henry F. Badger. An established hotelman from Chicago, Badger was brought in by the hotel’s operators to help manage the Burdick, and in 1865 he purchased the hotel from its builder, Frank Dennison. Badger remained the Burdick’s owner into the twentieth century. Through continuous updates and expansions he oversaw its rise as the leading hotel in Kalamazoo, surpassing its chief rivals, the Kalamazoo House and the American Hotel.
The Arcade Company
By the turn of the century, Kalamazoo had grown considerably; the hotel industry had changed as well. Hotels had evolved technologically, with improved plumbing, increasing privacy, among other things. They had also evolved in social standing. Hotels were becoming an accepted and vital element of a community’s social life. They had distanced themselves from the rowdy taverns of old and had become centers for events of all kinds.
In 1905 a group of businessmen and civic boosters lead by John Henry Burke recognized the need for Kalamazoo to have a first-class hotel that conformed to the latest standards. With this need in mind, they organized a campaign to raise funds to build such a facility. The campaign fell far short of the goal, so the plan died. However, John Burke was undeterred. Burke met with H. F. Badger to negotiate the purchase of the Burdick. Badger, looking to retire, was persuaded to agreeable terms for both the building and its fixtures. Burke and his three partners organized the Arcade Company which immediately took ownership of the hotel and made plans for an aggressive expansion and modernization to bring the Burdick into the twentieth century.
The updated Burdick Hotel debuted in 1907. From Main Street the structure appeared much as it had since its earliest days. However, not only had the interior been completely modernized, but the structure had been expanded north to Water Street. The broad hall of the original building had evolved into an elegant retail arcade which ran from the hotel’s entrance on Main to the new entrance on Water. The Burdick Arcade was set to become not only a distinguishing feature for the hotel itself, but a downtown Kalamazoo institution. Its 1907 incarnation was a testament to its builders. It featured walls lined with onyx marble, elaborate plaster ceilings, and skylights.
In addition to shops, the hotel’s new lobby, dining room, and bar were arranged along the arcade's length. These public spaces were similarly decorated with marble and ornate plaster. The second floor contained a restaurant and parlors situated around a grand rotunda and staircase. Upstairs the Burdick offered one hundred fifty rooms which were furnished in the most up-to-date fashion.
The Burdick Fire
As a result of this extensive rebuilding, the Burdick could rightfully boast of its renewed status as Kalamazoo’s leading hotel and as the social center of Kalamazoo. However, no sooner had a promising era of the hotel’s life begun than it all came to a sudden end. On the 8th and 9th of December 1909, Kalamazoo witnessed one of its most spectacular disasters. A fire broke out in the Star Bargain House, a retail business which stood adjacent to the hotel. The fire quickly spread beyond control and began to consume the hotel. Fire brigades from Battle Creek and Grand Rapids arrived to assist the Kalamazoo Fire Department, while hotel guests were forced out into the cold streets with nothing more than the pajamas they were wearing. The blaze lasted throughout the night and completely leveled the hotel and much of the block. By the morning only smoldering ruins remained. It was one of the largest and most destructive fires in the city’s history, long-remembered as Kalamazoo’s million dollar fire.
The New Burdick Hotel
Despite this setback, John Burke and the Arcade Company were determined to rebuild and announced their intention even as smoke rose over the rubble. The fire had provided a clean slate upon which to work. It became possible for the Arcade Company to purchase additional property, both along Main as well as Burdick Street. Now the hotel property resembled a giant cross with frontage on three major streets. In addition to this newly expanded, and unusually arranged, property, the builders would no longer be confined by the old structure. They could freely design a new facility to best meet the needs for the twentieth century. The services of Chicago architect Joseph C. Llewellyn were employed to design a new Burdick that fully met the most up-to-date standards in architectural taste and hospitality. Llewellyn had also designed Kalamazoo's first skyscraper, the Kalamazoo National Bank Building, which had been completed in 1907.
In part due to careful planning and fundraising, work on the new hotel did not begin in earnest until October 1910. But once construction got underway, it progressed rapidly with a target for a September 1911 opening. The most prominent feature of the new Burdick was its massive façade on Main Street. It formed a seven-story wall of red brick broken up with white terra cotta window trims and projecting cornice. It would become a familiar face to generations of Kalamazooans. The smaller facades on Burdick and Water Streets had similar architectural details but each had its own distinct look.
The interior revived the old Burdick’s retail arcade, providing space for twenty one shops. As with its predecessor, the new arcade stretched from Main to Water streets, with additional access to Burdick. Hotel facilities, such as the lobby, dining rooms, billiard room, and bar were located on the arcade’s west side. Retail shops lined the east side. Two large parlors and a ballroom were located on the second floor, and provided ample quarters for social events of all types and sizes. The décor was described as art nouveau, and featured elaborate plasterwork, marble, hand-painted wall designs, and mosaic floors. The Kalamazoo Gazette proclaimed that the architecture and facilities of the new Burdick placed it among the finest hotels in the Midwest, an equal in every respect but size to the Pontchartrain in Detroit, then recognized as Michigan’s finest hotel.
Guest rooms were spread throughout the upper floors in three wings facing Main, Burdick, and Water Streets. The guest rooms represented the last word in hotel offerings of the time. Each room had access to a bath. The best rooms had private baths while the remainder shared facilities with another room. Every room was equipped with a telephone and handsomely furnished with carpet, wallpaper, and artwork. It was a far cry from the Burdick’s early days, when strangers were expected to sleep dormitory-style in large rooms.
As the new Burdick rose over downtown Kalamazoo, John Burke got the idea to invite President William Howard Taft to Kalamazoo. Among the activities for the president that Burke had in mind was having him formally dedicate the new hotel as its first registered guest. It would prove an effective means of generating publicity. Taft agreed to a visit, and work hastened to get the building ready in time. While the hotel was not fully completed, it was well-enough prepared for a soft opening, including a lavish banquet in the ballroom in Taft’s honor. On the appointed day Taft arrived at the hotel after a busy schedule of ceremonies across town. The front of the Burdick had been cleaned up and draped in dozens of American flags. One of the most lavish banquets in the city’s history was enjoyed.
The new Burdick Hotel was officially completed and opened on the 20th of November with another lavish banquet that both celebrated the hotel and raised funds to build a new cottage at the Lake Farm Boys Home. The Kalamazoo Gazette proclaimed it to be “one of the biggest social affairs of the present season.” This was merely the beginning. In its heyday, the Burdick established itself as a social and economic center for Kalamazoo, hosting not only nightly guests but balls and banquets of all sizes.
For much of the 1930s and 1940s the Burdick Hotel was the home of Kalamazoo’s first radio station, WKZO. Started by John Fetzer in 1920, WKZO became the local CBS affiliate and gained popularity at such a pace that it continuously outgrew its previous homes. In 1931 Fetzer moved the station to the seventh floor of the Burdick, in a suite of elegantly appointed office and studio space. An additional office was placed in one of the ground floor storefronts on Main Street, to enable easier access for the public. The presence of WKZO brought additional attention and activity to the hotel. The station performed live broadcasts from the ballroom. Regular sidewalk broadcasts engaged the public directly in front of the hotel. WKZO moved to new studios on the hotel’s second floor in 1949 and remained a tenant until it finally outgrew the available space and built its own quarters, Broadcast House, in 1958.
Another notable tenant was the Harvester Club, which was located on the ground floor on the arcade. The Harvester Club was a private club established in 1951 in response to local liquor laws which limited the sale of liquor by the glass strictly to clubs. The club became one of the most prestigious in town and offered elegant quarters featuring a diamond-shaped bar. The Harvester Club remained in operation until the hotel’s closing.
Following the Second World War, the growth of automobile ownership and corresponding rise of suburban auto culture lead to a long period of decline for downtown hotels. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s travelers were making their journeys by car as opposed to trains. Their hospitality needs were being met by growing numbers of motels, conveniently located near the new interstates and offering their guests free parking.
As a result of these trends, older downtown hotels were losing the core of their business. Nightly occupancy rates and profits declined. In an effort to adapt to the changing economic climate, many older hotels began renting their rooms on a long-term, monthly basis, increasingly becoming apartment hotels with large numbers of permanent and semi-permanent residents in addition to the dwindling numbers of nightly transients. The Burdick was not exempt from these changes.
But this adaptation was not enough to keep the Burdick in the black. Throughout the 1960s the hotel operated on tenuous economic footing. The hotel first faced closure in 1962 when its furnishings were seized as payment for back taxes. The Burdick was able to recover but continued to limp along throughout the remainder of the 1960s. In the summer of 1970, the American National Bank and the First National Bank, who jointly held the mortgage on the property, filed a foreclosure action. This set in motion a chain of events from which the old hotel was unable able to recover. The banks took ownership of the Burdick in September 1971 and began shutting down the landmark after nearly one hundred twenty years of operation. Over thirty residents of the hotel, mostly senior citizens, had to be relocated, as did five retail establishments that called the Burdick home.
The fate of the Burdick property was not left in question for long. There was a recognized need for a major investment and facelift in the downtown area. Recent trends of urban renewal called for massive demolition and reconstruction projects. In the case of the Burdick Hotel, plans were drafted to replace the entire city block with a modern hotel, office, and retail complex named the Kalamazoo Center. This new facility would serve much of the same function to the community that the Burdick had. Work began in the fall of 1972, with demolition of the Burdick. The block was cleared by the end of 1973. The Kalamazoo Center opened in 1975. Today the Kalamazoo Center is known as the Radisson Plaza Hotel and continues the tradition of hospitality on the very site that the Burdick stood for 117 years.