John H. Taft came to Cedar Rapids in 1899 from Sidney, Ohio, and would build a downtown building that evolved from a manufacturer of clothing to a luxurious hotel before it fell to a wrecking ball almost 75 years later.
Taft came to the city after buying a dry goods business, at First Avenue and Third Street SE, from A.R. Clark and George H. Wiltsie.
One of the first things Taft did was hire four women to start making plain women’s skirts in the basement of the store. The skirts were well-designed and sold well.
Business boomed. In 1904, Taft incorporated the Perfection Manufacturing Co. and hired Loomis Bros. to build a three-story, fireproof building on the 60-by-140-foot lot at Second Avenue and Fourth Street SE.
In the beginning, the factory was on the third floor, with 90 employees, most of them women. Ten salesmen covered a territory of more than a dozen states.
The company added finer skirts, women’s ready-to-wear, tailor-made suits, women’s raincoats and silk and cotton petticoats to the production lines.
In five years, the company employed 175 people, plus 14 salesmen, with sales of more than $1.5 million. It expanded to two floors in the building.
The first workers had been unskilled women trained to operate machines. As the business grew, so did the demand for expert designers and artists who were brought in from New York or Chicago. Machine operators came from London along with two seamstresses from Russia in 1909.
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Sunlight illuminated the factory, compliments of the building’s many windows. Workers were assigned their own lockers. The factory’s cafe-style dining room adjoined a kitchen, and coffee was provided by the company.
Early on in his time in Cedar Rapids, Taft had married Eva Ailes, the daughter of the mayor in Sidney, Ohio, and they made their home at 840 Fifth Ave. SE. He would become president of the Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce, the board of education and the YMCA.
In 1914, though, he decided to move his company, with the majority of his employees, to Freeport, Ill. He sold his home on Fifth Avenue to Thomas J. Brady Jr., who remodeled it into the Brady Mortuary.
In January 1915, he sold the Perfection building to a group of Grand Rapids, Mich., businessmen for between $80,000 and $90,000. The investors set about remodeling the building into a 100-room hotel with steam heat, electric lights, hot and cold water, telephones and sprinklers in each room.
The building was renamed the Lincoln Hotel — because it was on the Lincoln Highway — but renovations stopped for a short time in April when the investors ran out of money. Two floors had been remodeled, and Fred D. McConkle and C.J. Guttenfelder proceeded to lease the hotel and open its doors Aug. 8.
“New furnishings throughout have been purchased and installed, while the rooms are provided with the finest of Circassian mahogany furniture, as well as in the lobbies,” the Cedar Rapids Republican reported. “Each room is also equipped with a telephone, and every modern convenience known has been provided with a liberal hand, having nothing missing that will add to the pleasure and comfort of travelers.”
The plan was to make the Lincoln one of the most popular stops on the famed highway. A large electric sign was installed in view of both Cedar Rapids railroad stations — the Union Station and the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul passenger depot — to attract customers.
After the hotel opened, it was learned the sale of the building had fallen through, and Taft and the other members of the Perfection Building Co. still owned the property.
In 1924, Beulah Paar, as president of the Lincoln Hotel Co., and her husband, Harry F. Paar, its treasurer-manager, agreed to lease the hotel from Perfection. The two divorced in 1927, with Beulah getting the Lincoln Hotel and Harry getting their stock in the Cedar Rapids Broadcasting Corp.
In 1934, during the Depression, they were in court over Beulah’s delinquent payments.
In 1940, Ray Wortmann bought the hotel from Taft, who was still the principal stockholder, and renamed it the Hotel Taft.
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In April 1941, Taft, then 78, died of a heart attack in the North Western railway station in Evanston as he returned from a business trip. Coincidentally, a few minutes later, his son, John Ailes Taft, arrived at the same station.
In 1946, Roscoe Amish became the hotel’s manager and later bought it, selling it to Richard Rinderknecht in January 1975. An auction followed, selling off the building’s fixtures and furniture
Two years later, Harold Becker, president of Acme Investment Co., bought the empty hotel on July 1, 1977, and set about razing it to build a parking lot for Guaranty Bank, also owned by Acme.
Demolition began at the start of November 1977 and continued until after Christmas.
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