Sunday, October 7, 2012

The University House/Hotel, 1915-71, by John Lofland with a Comment by Rich Rifkin (78)

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Below, Rich Rifkin comments on this post.

Many if not most innovations in Davis life have been the handiwork of brash newcomers rather than old-timers. Bowers Addition and Acres were, for example, the inspiration of recent arrival C. W. Bowers.

So, also, the landmark University House, formerly at Second and B Streets, was the creature of a Dr. Edwin Liebfreed. Unlike Bowers, though, Liebfreed did not even yet live in Davis the day in early 1915 when he was visiting here and he decided the town needed a three-story hotel.

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His rapidly reached conclusion was not, though, without seemingly solid foundation. The State Farm, then almost a decade old, was growing. The causeway was nearing completion. The subway and state highway were on the horizon and the route was going to come along B Street. It made perfect sense.

It opened in September 1915, complete with two ground floor suites, one housing the landlady and the other Dr. Liebfreed himself. By World War I the business had been taken over by Elmine and Louise Schmeiser (Davis natives and sisters of Theodore), but strong anti-German sentiments and the refusal of businessmen to direct trade to them meant they did not do well.
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The sisters sold it in the mid-1920s and it was operated by a series of owners until it became a fraternity house in the mid-1960s. Slowly, it became of victim of what is now called “demolition by neglect” and was torn down in 1971 to make way for a Sambo’s restaurant (itself an event and story of note).

1921, Looking East
1954, Looking East
1967, Looking Northwest
Comment by Rich Rifkin

Hi John,

I know you have written in the past that there was strong anti-German sentiment in Davis during World War 1. I am in complete agreement with you on that. The widespread participation in for the Liberty League and various comments in late 1917 and early 1918 support that point of view. Wm. Scott reported that there were calls to tar and feather “Huns” who didn’t sufficiently prove their loyalty to America. German-Americans here and elsewhere were continually harassed.

However, I doubt that the reason the Schmeisers did not succeed in the hotel business had much to do with that prejudice. First off, the anti-German feelings seemed to be hot for only a few months, half a year at most. Not only was the U.S. late to join WW1, but the spirit for the Liberty League in Davis seemed to fade away a few months after the draft began and was gone by November, 1918.

Also, the United States suffered a severe recession in 1920. In the wake of that, businesses all over the place were failing. That recession is what toppled the haberdashery owned by Harry Truman, forcing him to go into politics instead.

I would imagine that business calamity had a lot more to do with the Schmeiser's hotel failure in the early '20s than a short-term spat of anti-German feeling in the early part of 1918. It's also possible, and not unlikely, that the Schmeisers were not capable hoteliers; that they mismanaged their business and did not know how to keep their guests happy.

Again, I am not discounting the fact that for a short time there was some anti-German feeling here. I am sure it had some ill-effect on the University Hotel. But solid businesses can overcome that--look at all the Jews in business at the same time who suffered much more social prejudice for a much longer period of time--as long as they are well run and the general economy which keeps them afloat does not collapse.


Remark by John Lofland

Hello Rich,
As we know, it is difficult if not impossible firmly to assess causal factors in unique historical circumstances. For this reason, I should have qualified my sentence to read something like: “. . . meant, according to reports at the time, that they did not do well.”

As well, you might more clearly acknowledge that asserting that additional variables were likely operative in particular cases is not itself a form of evidence. Evidence, instead, must take the form of showing that the additional variables actually operated in the particular case.

Your suggestions regarding a recession and administrative competence are interesting and, I think, might have played a role. But, we do not know if either of these things were importantly operative in the case at hand or not.

Cheers, John