The Keystone Hotel: Look up, look back

Monday, November 12, 2007

The next time you drive by McCook's Keystone Hotel, look up and look back.

You need to look up because -- other than grain elevators -- the Keystone is McCook's tallest structure, reaching six stories into the sky in the midst of the downtown business district. And you need to look back because in earlier years the Keystone was the social and cultural center of McCook and Southwest Nebraska.

It took three years to build -- from 1919 until 1922 -- but the massive effort was worth it, creating a building which lived up to its carefully selected name: "Keystone."

Community builders of the time thought a lot about what to call the grand hotel, which featured efficient rooms and an elegant ballroom, kitchen and mezzanine. They finally settled on "Keystone" because the name symbolized the important community role envisioned for the $300,000 project.

The dictionary definition of keystone is, "The wedge-shaped piece at the summit of an arch, regarded as holding the other pieces in place." That was an excellent illustration of what the McCook boosters wanted, namely "a place which would serve as the centerpiece for social and commercial life in the McCook area."

And -- in the first few years -- the hotel did exactly that.

Mike Harmon of McCook, who served as a sales representative for Harmon's Grain Products in his younger years, heard the Keystone talked about by traveling men when he stayed in Chicago. "They called it the 'Little Stevens,'" Mike said. The nickname was a reference to the fact that the Keystone looked much like the Stevens Hotel in Chicago, which in the early 1920s was the largest hotel in the world. "I felt the same way," Mike said. "When I walked into the Stevens Hotel, it reminded me a lot of walking into the south door of the Keystone."

The similarity in appearance was coincidental. Although the Stevens in Chicago and the Keystone in McCook were built in the late 'teens and early twenties, they had different architects.

Archer and Gloyd were not only the architects for the Keystone, they were also the engineers and builders. Quickly after opening, the Keystone became the center for social activities, attracting large banquets and famous guests, including Dr. W.J. Mayo of the Mayo Clinic and J.H. Kahler, a hotel tycoon. They both traveled to McCook in Packard touring cars.

Now, there's talk of restoring the Keystone, with a 50 percent grant from the government raising hopes for a $3.2 million renovation project.

The estimate shows how much costs have increased in the past 85 years -- with the cost of remodeling today 10 times larger than the original building cost. But that's inflation. We live in a new generation and we must face today's realities ... just as McCookites did more than eight decades ago.

It's eye-opening to reflect upon the style chosen for the Keystone building in 1919. The goal was to create an architectural "renaissance," which stands for "a great revival of activities and ... (the uplift of) the human spirit."

The Keystone inspired a renewal of McCook's spirit and activities in 1922. With community-wide effort and support, the Keystone project can do the same things in 2007.

Sometimes, it's hard for us poor old customers to keep up with the changes taking place in the business world. And -- according to my barber -- you don't have to travel far to see the differences.

"Have you ever noticed the differences in policies at Mac's and McDonald's?" Butch Curl asked.

"What do you mean, Butch?," I enquired.

"Just this. Last week, I happened to be at Mac's Drive-In and noticed a sign that said 'No Credit Cards.' I didn't think much about it until the next day when I tried the drive-through at McDonald's and spotted a sign that said, 'No Checks.'"

The difference in the policies is ironic, but understandable.

One of the firms, McDonald's, is part of the largest fast food franchise in the world, making credit card transactions the most efficient way to do business. The other, Mac's Drive-In, is home-grown, having been established a half century ago by the McCarty family. In Mac's case, checks are a more reliable way of doing business than messing with credit cards.

It's good to know, though, which firm does what. That way you're not caught off guard when you leave your checkbook or credit cards at home when you want a hamburger.

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