By far the most crucial support for Cornell’s course in hotel administration came from its most influential detractor, Ellsworth Milton Statler.
Statler had come up the hard way, working from the time he was 13 to become the most powerful man in the business as head of the Hotels Statler Company. He professed to see no value in the idea of university training for hotelmen. Statler was far more concerned about the loss of revenue that the industry had experienced since the Eighteenth Amendment became law in January 1920. He wanted the American Hotel Association to unite behind the repeal of Prohibition.
Most alumni of the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration are familiar with the story of Statler’s dramatic turnaround during the second run of Hotel Ezra Cornell in 1927. The support he pledged would keep the program and school solvent and enable it to grow. It would also build Statler Hall. But not just yet.
Ellsworth Milton Statler: From Skeptic to Supporter
Hotel Ezra Cornell was born in the fall of 1925 when Jessie Boys, a professor of home economics, pitched the idea to some members of the Class of ’26 as they sat talking, as they often did, around the coffee urn in the food lab after class. Boys suggested to these self-styled coffee hounds that they put on a “hotel for a day”—a demonstration of all they had learned about hotel management at Cornell—for members of the industry in the region. The students set to work, and the first HEC opened to much acclaim on May 7, 1926.
Statler, whose company was based in Buffalo, New York, was invited to the first HEC. He declined the invitation—but nicely. “Mr. Statler did want you to be assured that he was working with other hotel men to provide better things for the Cornell hotel boys,” wrote his personal secretary, Alice Seidler, in sending his regrets. That year he contributed $4,200 through the American Hotel Association’s fundraising campaign to help the program.
Invited again the next year, Statler hesitated a long while before agreeing to make the trip. H.B. “Prof” Meek, the program’s head and much later the school’s first dean, later surmised that Statler had been uncomfortable with the idea of being surrounded by university types. But show up he did. He was accompanied throughout the day by headwaiter Victor Grohmann ’28, who took him to classes and on a tour of the campus.
Grohmann would later run the first and largest hotel advertising agency, Needham and Grohmann, which he founded with Bill Needham ’25. His public relations instincts were evidently already finely honed, as Statler, when asked to say a few words at the evening’s banquet, stood up and quite unexpectedly capitulated. “I’m converted. Meek can have any damn thing he wants!” is the most oft-repeated version of the few words he said.
Statler’s pledge meant nothing short of deliverance for the hotel program, which had struggled to keep going for five stressful and debt-ridden years.
One can only imagine the depth of Meek’s dismay when Statler died of pneumonia 11 months later without having given Cornell a buffalo nickel in fulfillment of his promise. Fortunately, Statler was not the only member of his household who underwent a conversion at HEC.
Bestowing a Fortune
Six days before Statler attended HEC, he married Alice Seidler, his secretary. She had worked for him for eight years and become a trusted friend and support, especially after the death of Statler’s wife in 1925. Like her boss, Alice Statler was initially opposed to the idea of college training for hotelmen. She did not accompany him to HEC.
In his will, Ellsworth Statler named his new wife his successor as chairman of Hotels Statler and one of three executors of his estate. Frank McKowne, the president of the Hotels Statler Company, was also an executor, along with bank trust officer Edward Letchworth.
Ellsworth Statler’s will also directed that 10,000 shares of company stock, valued at about $100,000, be used to establish the Statler Foundation. The foundation was to support “research work for the benefit of the hotel industry in the United States … to the advancement and improvement of which business I have devoted my life.” Bequests to relatives accounted for another $8 million. The remainder, an amount never disclosed, went to Alice Statler, age 45.
McKowne was committed to honoring Ellsworth Statler’s pledge to Meek, and he started to make good on it in 1928 by bringing a check for $12,000 to HEC. That gift and the ones that followed annually were made from the interest on the money held in trust for the four Statler children. In 1934, McKowne brought a check for only $6,000, and then the money stopped.
The fortune was in the foundation, and McKowne intended that for Meek’s hotel program. At HEC in 1934, McKowne announced that Cornell would receive all income from the foundation’s stock. But with the Depression trudging on, the tap would not begin to flow for five long, hard years.
Besides the Depression, two other hurdles stood between Meek and the money from the Statler Foundation, beginning with a two-year dispute between Cornell’s trustees and the government. The university prevailed in establishing that as a nonprofit educational corporation, it was entitled to the pretax value of the foundation’s stock.
That matter was resolved in 1932, but not before Alice Statler laid claim to the stock, which then was worth $335,000. McKowne and Letchworth denied her petition. Two years later, however, she and they emerged with an accord and a new relationship as the three trustees of the Statler Foundation, whose stock had grown in value to $2 million. Alice Statler never explained why she had initially opposed funding the foundation, but she now had a say in its affairs.
Honoring her Husband's Promise
Alice Statler finally made her first trip to campus in 1941—for HEC, of course. Eight years later, in her remarks during the cornerstone-laying ceremony for Statler Hall, she recalled her 1941 impression of the program as “a poor relative of the campus.” Once she had met the students and the faculty and seen the program and its difficult circumstances, she and her fellow trustees decided that “a building to house this school would be the very best way to carry out [her husband’s] wishes.” Alice Statler was converted, and her late husband could finally give Meek “any damn thing he wants.”
Frank McKowne and Alice Statler would see the company through the Depression and the war years and into the boom years beyond. In 1954, six years after McKowne’s death, Alice Statler sold the company to Conrad Hilton for $111 million. It had nearly doubled in size since her husband’s death. The historic deal, the largest of its kind to that time, was brokered by Joseph Binns ’28, Hilton’s vice president and the general manager of the Waldorf Astoria, where Alice Statler lived.
Alice Statler became a regular at HEC, her arrival serving as the event’s official opening for more than 20 years. She oversaw more than $10 million in giving to the School of Hotel Administration and became great friends with Meek. She died in her apartment at the Waldorf in 1969, three months to the day after Meek did.
Meek, by the way, died on the Alice S., his retirement gift from Alice Statler and the foundation, after returning from a sail on the ocean.