William M. Dewey: Mr. Edgewater Beach Hotel

Vol. XXIV No. 1 - SPRING 2013

By: LeRoy Blommaert

It is not unusual for one person to be so associated with a business that one cannot think of the business without thinking of the person. Several examples come readily to mind: Cyrus McCormick with the McCormick Reaper Company, George Pullman with the Pullman Car Company, Walt Disney with the Disney Company, and William Wrigley with the Wrigley Chewing Gum Company. In these cases, of course, the company bears the name of the person, so it would be difficult to overlook the person.

What is unusual is for a business that does not bear the name of a person to be so associated with the person that one could not think of the business without thinking of the person. Yet, during its glory days, that was often the case with the Edgewater Beach Hotel. For almost its entire life, it was managed by one person: William M. Dewey. And the word “managed” hardly does justice to his role. It was he who set the tone for exceptional service, indeed service where anything less than perfection would not be tolerated. Without him at the helm of the Edgewater Beach Hotel, it is doubtful the hotel would have achieved the national reputation it did and maintained for so long. And this is not just the judgment of history; it is what the other investors believed at the time. An advertisement for the sale of bonds for the new Edgewater Beach Apartments that appeared in the Chicago Tribune of October 13, 1927, contains the following sentence: “…it is the intention to place the management of the property under the direction of Mr. William M. Dewey who as Managing Director of the Edgewater Beach Hotel and the Edgewater Gulf Hotel has been largely responsible for their success.”

Perhaps it was because Dewey was not only the hired manager, but also a major investor himself, that led him to be so dedicated and inspired. But that is probably only part of the explanation. The other part was his personality. He was a perfectionist and demanded that, not only in himself, but in those who worked for him and, according to his grandson William Dewey III, in his children as well. He was a tough task master.

From the start, the hotel exemplified the power of branding. One element of that branding was the distinct logo, the origins of which remain unknown. The other was the color green. It was Dewey’s favorite color and it became the hotel’s favorite color as well. From the china used in the dinning rooms, to the distinctive room key fobs, to the stationery and brochures, the color was green. Letters were even typed on green typewriter ribbons, and his name was signed in green ink.

Under his management, each guest was treated as someone special. He instituted a magazine called “Ripples” that kept guests apprised of the activities of the hotel and of the comings and going of the other guests. It read like the society pages of the daily newspapers of the time. Guests were encouraged to make the Edgewater Beach Hotel their permanent home, and a number did, and those who didn’t were encouraged to make it their summer home, and a number did that too. (One woman became a permanent guest when the hotel opened in 1916 and didn’t leave until she was forced to when the hotel closed suddenly in December 1967.)

An example of his attention to detail and shrewd marketing was the letter that was sent under his signature to Mr. & Mrs. R. H. Keogh in 1938. It read in part: ”Our records show that you were our guests during your honeymoon one year ago. In the event you are planning a dinner, or any celebration of your wedding anniversary, we wish to remind you that the Edgewater Beach Hotel would be a most appropriate and delightful place in which to hold it. It would give us great pleasure to be of service to you again and we assure you that any order you might place with us would receive our best attention.” A similar letter was sent the following year. And the letters were so important to the recipients that they kept them for many years.

In addition to his being a perfectionist with an eye for detail, and having a shrewd sense of marketing, he was also somewhat of a showman, and had a knack for bringing top-notch entertainment to the hotel.

William M. Dewey held every officer position in the corporation: Secretary, Treasurer, Vice-President, and later President. He also was Managing Director of the Edgewater Gulf Hotel and the Edgewater Beach Apartments. For a period, he was Managing Director of all three properties at the same time.

William Manzer Dewey was born in Chicago on March 31, 1880, to James S. Dewey and Maggie L. Corby Corbett. At the time, the family lived at 183 S. Green (currently 322). He apparently was their only child.

In April 1898, at age 18, he enlisted with the Illinois 1st infantry regiment as a musician; he was mustered out in November of the same year. His World War I draft registration card indicates that he was of moderate height and build and had brown eyes and hair.

He was married twice. His first wife, Sitta E. Eisfeldt, to whom he was married on June 25, 1902, died October 8, 1917, leaving two sons, William M., Jr. and John J. Sitta was the daughter of former Chicago Republican Alderman William Eisfeldt. They lived in Park Ridge from at least 1906 to 1915. In 1913 he was elected city collector of that suburb.

He married Elizabeth Victoria Ervin in 1918. She provided him with two daughters and two sons. For a time they lived in Winnetka. In 1939 they separated, and he maintained his residence at the hotel. (The 1940 census shows him living at the hotel alone.) The children would visit him on weekends.

In 1900, when he was 20 years old, the census gave his occupation as “insurance clerk.” Before he became manager of the hotel, he was in the wholesale jewelry business as a salesman (1910 census and obituary) and then later, for at least two years, he was Secretary of the Edgewater Coal Company, then located at 5627 Broadway, on the east side of Broadway between Bryn Mawr and Hollywood. (This was the coal company that John Lewis Cochran founded and later sold to William Quinlan, a grandfather of the late Marie Morrissette, who was for many years the Treasurer of the Edgewater Historical Society.) From that position as an officer in the coal company, he went on to become manager of the Edgewater Beach Hotel. As far as we know, he had no experience in the hotel business, and it is somewhat of a mystery how he became its manager. One possible – indeed plausible – explanation stems from the fact that one of the hotel investors, John T. Connery, who lived at 5228 N. Sheridan Road, was also in the coal business. He was president of the Miami Coal Company. This company had its own mine and might have supplied the Edgewater Coal Company with some of its coal. The number of Chicago coal companies was not that numerous, and it is very probable that the officers of these companies had professional contacts with each other. Perhaps John Connery, in his business dealings with the Edgewater Coal Company, became impressed with Mr. Dewey’s skills and dedication and offered him the position. We will probably never know for sure, but this seems a likely explanation. Of course, that leaves unanswered how he went from jewelry to coal and became an officer of the Edgewater Coal Company. [Editor’s note: Since publication we have learned from William Dewey III that John J. Corbett, Connery’s partner, was his uncle (his mother’s younger brother.)  This is an even more probable explanation.]

Another mystery is how he became one of the four investors in the hotel. Presumably, at the time he became manager, he was not a wealthy man. Initially there were four investors: John T. Connery and John J. Corbett, who were in real estate together, and the hotel’s architects, Benjamin Marshall and Charles E. Fox. John Corbett died suddenly in June 1919, just three years after the hotel opened. Presumably William Dewey bought all or a part of Corbett’s interest from the Corbett’s estate for, when the hotel was later sold, the investors were William Dewey and the estates of Connery, Marshall and Fox. We don’t know when the purchase occurred, but it presumably was before April 24, 1926, because a Chicago Tribune article of this date lists him as both Vice-President and Manager. In a July 26, 1925 Chicago Tribune article, he was also identified as one of the investors in the Edgewater Gulf Hotel near Biloxi Mississippi, along with Benjamin Marshall. The Edgewater Gulf Hotel opened in January 1927.

The same 1926 Chicago Tribune article cited above lists him as a director of the Sheridan Trust and Savings Bank (later the Uptown National Bank and now the Broadview Bank) as well as Vice-President of the Bryn Mawr Beach Building Corporation. This was the separate corporation formed to build the Edgewater Beach Apartments but it was closely linked to the Edgewater Beach Hotel. Later in the 1930s the original investors had to sell the Apartments because they could no longer make timely payments to the bond holders due to the economic depression which suppressed the amount of rents that could be charged. Ironically, William Dewey later was one of a group of investors who bought the building at auction and converted it into the cooperative form of ownership. That was in September 1949. He was its first president but resigned and relocated to Florida for a time.

When William Dewey and the estates of the other three investors sold the hotel to the Boston Foundation in 1949, he was asked to stay on as manager, which he did until sometime in 1952, when he retired.

William Dewey died May 14, 1954 at age 74 in Chicago. Services were held at the chapel located at 5501 N. Ashland (no longer standing). He is buried with his first wife Sitta in Rosehill Cemetery. Also buried with him in the Eisfeldt family plot are his two sons from his first marriage, one of whom pre-deceased him by two years. Ironically, his wife Elizabeth granted him the divorce he sought just a few days before he died.

Sources: Chicago City Directories; Census data, Cook County Recorder of Deeds records, Chicago Tribune, Rosehill Cemetery records, Sister Ronnie Dewey, William Dewey III.