When Kathleen DeGrave joined the board of the Stilwell Heritage and Educational Foundation, Laura Carlson took her to out dinner and told her all the stories of the historic hotel and the dramatic battle to save it.

When Kathleen DeGrave joined the board of the Stilwell Heritage and Educational Foundation, Laura Carlson took her to out dinner and told her all the stories of the historic hotel and the dramatic battle to save it.

“I said that somebody should put those stories in a book,” said DeGrave. “Somehow I wound up doing it.”
Of course, since the Pittsburg State University creative writing professor was already the author of two books, she was a logical one to take on the project.

“The Hotel Stilwell: A Tale of Mortar, Money and Memories” is now completed and available for purchase. Signings are scheduled from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Nov. 20 at the Stilwell and 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Dec. 12 at the Pittsburg Public Library.

“The concept of the book is that the Stilwell built Pittsburg,” DeGrave said. “The two grew up together.”

She said that the first chapter of the book covers the years from the building of the Stilwell in 1890 until 1975. Her researches were greatly assisted by all the newspaper articles that had been compiled by the late Gene DeGruson, director of Special Collections at Axe Library, Pittsburg State University, and a noted local historian.

In its prime, the Stilwell served as host to numerous visiting dignitaries and players on the national stage. Clarence Darrow held a press conference at the hotel on Aug. 25, 1925, to answer questions about the recently concluded Scopes “Monkey Trial.”

However, the last documented celebrity to stay there, back in the 1930s, was the gangster Pretty Boy Floyd.

“The hotel that had started in 1890 with the elite had come down to the infamous,” DeGrave commented.

The book is filled with photos, and DeGrave’s daughter, Cambria DeLee, served as graphic designer. She has a degree in illustration from the University of Kansas, and plans on returning to school to study graphic design.

“My mother is going to help me go back to school, so I decided I’d help her with the book,” DeLee said.  “I’ve learned a lot on this book, and having a big project under my belt will be good for my portfolio.”

“Cambria was never satisfied,” her mother said. “She’d be lying on the floor taking photos of borders or designs to use in the book.”

Those decorative elements from the Stilwell are used throughout the book. One photo, placed at the start of each chapter, is of a plaster filigree design that was originally from the ladies rose room at the Stilwell.

“That item is now over the ladies restroom in Otto’s,” Carlson said. “I put up there myself.”

Even torn envelopes and bills from the old Stilwell are reproduced, because all are part of the Stilwell story.

The story took a sad turn, and Stilwell was closed for years, inhabited only by pigeons and, sometimes, the homeless.

“The second chapter is how they brought it back to life,” DeGrave said.

“There were some doubters and croakers in 1890 when Arthur Stilwell built the hotel, and there were doubters and croakers in 1992,” Carlson said.

Building permits for renovation of the Stilwell into 44 apartments were issued on May 22, 1996. The renovation project cost $3.5 million, but the grand old lady of Pittsburg was saved.

“At the back of the book is a section called ‘Wheeling and Dealing,’ which tells you how to go about trying to save something,” DeGrave said. “There’s also an appendix with Charles Cagle’s biography of Arthur Stilwell.”

The handsome book, suitable for placing on coffee tables, will sell for $50. All proceeds will go to the Stilwell Foundation.

“The Timmons  Foundation gave us a small grant which helped us with this, but $50 really doesn’t really cover what it cost to print the book,” Carlson said. “We feel, however, that the book is a good investment.  We saved the hotel for the community, and we want the community to enjoy it.”

The book is already gathering praise, including from Joseph Grady Smoot, noted historian and retired college administrator who has served as an advisor to the Stilwell  Foundation.

“Laura Carlson will live in history as the leader of the restoration effort,” Smoot wrote, “and Kathleen DeGrave will be remembered as the one who gave the story life.”